Decaffeinated Coffee: Is it the end of Death before Decaf?

Decaffeinated Coffee: Is it the end of Death before Decaf?

Decaffeinated coffee has been much maligned by connoisseurs as well as consumers for being an inferior product. So strong has been the feeling against it that the term “Death before Decaf” has become commonplace.

But the increase in speciality, the premiumisation of the coffee sector and consumer demands for better quality products are starting to change the perception of decaffeinated coffee.

Allegra World Coffee Portal research reveals that around 7% of consumers say they normally drink decaffeinated coffee when visiting a coffee shop. While the percentages may be small these consumers have the same demands as caffeinated consumers – they want a quality product.

The figures seem to be lower than the US market, which is seeing a revolution in decaffeinated coffee. According to the National Coffee Association's National Consumer Drinking Trends Report 2018 speciality decaf sales increased by 5.16% in cafes, against flat growth for regular coffee.

While the UK market does not seem to be demonstrating this level of growth could it only be a matter of time?

There is no doubt that decaffeinated coffee has suffered from a negative perception. This has been due to the lack of taste caused by the processes used to decaffeinate as well as the quality of the coffee beans.

As with the mainstream coffee market it is the small roasters and operators that are upping their game in terms of the quality of decaffeinated coffee and the cleaner processes used.

One company that is fighting against the use of chemicals in the process is Swiss Water, which uses only water and coffee when decaffeinating its coffee. The company uses small batches of the finest coffees it can source then uses water, temperature, and time, to selectively remove caffeine, while leaving the flavour and the character of the coffee untouched.

Emmanuel Dias at Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Company says he has witnessed increasing interest in the clean decaffeination processes. He says much of this has been driven by the younger generation who are more health conscious.

“A lot of them are mixed drinkers – drinking caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee,” he says.

“They are ready to pay for a good decaf because they are looking for a good coffee and they want to control their coffee intake.”

He says that one of the major challenges is to overcome the stigma that consumer simply don’t want to drink decaffeinated coffee because they have previously had a bad experience.

“80% of the production of decaffeinated coffee in the world is made out of chemicals. Methylene Chloride is a chemical that is slowly being banned from paint stripper so how can we accept to have that in our coffee? This is continuing to give a bad image to decaf,” he says.

The range of new processes such as Swiss Water, using only water and the Co2 method, which uses carbon dioxide to extract the caffeine, are helping to fight this perception. They are gentler on the coffee and help to maintain the taste.

However, Dias also makes the point that decaffeinating bad coffee beans is not going to help the taste of the product or the perception.

“We can’t drink coffee all the time unless we drink some decaf and we need to have a product that is as good as the caffeinated,” he says.

But he believes there are some positive changes taking place in the market place with the micro roasters improving quality but also learning more about decaffeinated products by following courses such as the Specialty Coffee Association sensory modules, which explain the process.

“It is about awareness,” he argues. “It is rarely mentioned and explained.”

Holly Bowman, founder at North Star Coffee Roasters, says it is important to offer a decaffeinated option for consumers, as there is a market for it.

However, she believes the market is not witnessing an increase in popularity in the decaf offering but an increasing awareness. 

“What is definitely growing is the understanding of how it is decaffeinated. It is possible to do it in a way that is very respectful of the coffee as a product to start with,” she says.

“It is possible to maintain the coffee quality to some extent even though it is decaffeinated. It is no longer a thing that people who choose to drink caffeine free coffee have to suffer.”

She puts much of this down to the speciality market and the fact that more businesses are turning to different methods to hold onto the coffee flavour.

“It has always been the case that commercial based companies have used the Methylene Chloride process which is why decaf has a bad reputation,” she says.

“But with the rise of specialist focused roasteries and coffee shops it wouldn’t be in keeping with that part of the industry if we were to go down that route.”

Its own roastery uses the Co2 route as it is one of the only certified organic processes. 

While only 7% of consumers are drinking decaf while out in the coffee shop sector the rise of the younger healthier consumer could be about to change this trend. No longer will “Death before Decaf” be a joke on the decaffeinated coffee sector.

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