The Decaf Challenge

A handful of green coffee beans on the left and a handful of decaffeinated green beans on the right, showing the difference in colour, with the decaffeinated beans a dark shade of grey.Today’s Saturday Supplement is something of a hobby horse of mine: the search for great decaf coffee. Generally speaking, I believe that the state of decaf in the speciality coffee industry is pretty healthy. For example, I was in Cardiff on Monday, where I had two excellent decaf flat whites, one in Artigiano Espresso (roasted by Origin) and the other in The Plan (roasted by James Gourmet Coffee).

So, it’s not that there isn’t great decaf out there, being roasted by some top-quality roasters. Instead, the issue’s one of perception, with the decaf drinker often being made to feel like a second-class citizen. It’s a rare day when I don’t see a tweet along the lines of “death before decaf”. Frankly, I find it insulting to all decaf drinkers out there, not to mention the great roasters who are going to considerable lengths to produce amazing-tasting (caffeinated) coffee, extracting the maximum flavour from the beans, only to have their products reduced to a mechanism for delivering caffeine. Why? I just don’t get it.

To counter this, I launched the Coffee Spot Decaf Challenge at this year’s London Coffee Festival, the aim being to highlight the great decaf coffee out there.

You can see what I found after the gallery.

  • To decaf or not? It certainly takes more than just caffeine out of the beans: decaf green beans (on the right) are grey! [Picture taken at North Star Micro Roasters]
  • Decaf roasting away at Clifton Coffee Roasters...
  • ... where I got a bag of this amazing Brazillian decaf.
  • Amazing decaf espresso from Small Batch back in the summer of 2013. A real turning point.
  • And the coffee itself, another Brazilian.
To decaf or not? It certainly takes more than just caffeine out of the beans: decaf green beans (on the right) are grey! [Picture taken at North Star Micro Roasters]1 Decaf roasting away at Clifton Coffee Roasters...2 ... where I got a bag of this amazing Brazillian decaf.3 Amazing decaf espresso from Small Batch back in the summer of 2013. A real turning point.4 And the coffee itself, another Brazilian.5
Photo Carousel by WOWSlider.com v4.6

For me, coffee is so much more than just caffeine. It’s the ritual, the taste, the social activity that goes with drinking coffee. Caffeine actually comes quite a long way down the list. I enjoy drinking coffee in the evening, but, as the years have gone by, I’ve found that if I drink caffeinated coffee past six o’clock in the evening, I don’t get to sleep at night. So, instead of giving up entirely, I drink decaf.

Similarly, if I’m visiting numerous coffee shops in a single day, I find that if I have a caffeinated coffee at all of them, I’ll actually make myself feel sick through consuming too much caffeine too quickly. So, to counter this, I have the occasional decaf.

To go one step further, I have friends who, for various medical reasons, can’t drink caffeine. If you believe the decaf haters, they should give up coffee entirely, because, without caffeine, there is no point. Which, frankly, is bollocks.

John Giuliano puts it particularly well in his excellent blog, Brewing Coffee Manually. He tackled the issue of decaf back in May in a post, which I urge you to read, saying:

“If someone would like to have a coffee sans the caffeine, they must like something else about the coffee (smell, taste, etc). Hence they should receive a cup of coffee as close to on par with a great caffeinated coffee as possible.”

In the post, John discusses some of the technical issues with the decaffeination process and the challenges facing roasters. John’s broad conclusion, which I share, is that bean-for-bean, a great decaffeinated coffee is never going to taste quite as good as its caffeinated counterpart. The chemical process of decaffeination, no matter how good it is, always removes something other than just the caffeine.

However, that’s no reason not to try to roast great decaffeinated coffee. What surprises me, and brings me back to my point about the perception of decaf, is how little fuss roasters make of their decaf. For example, I am regularly offered samples of coffee by all sorts of speciality roasters, from well-known, established names to start-ups who have just begun roasting. Without exception, they all want me to try their latest espresso blends or single-origins. Not one has, unprompted, offered me their decaf, despite the fact that some of them roast amazing decafs. There seems to be an assumption that I won’t want to drink decaf when, in reality, about one third of my home consumption (by weight of beans) is decaf.

There’s also (sometimes) an issue with getting decaf in speciality coffee shops. As far as I’m concerned, there are only two reasons not to serve decaf. One is that your shop is so small, you really can’t find the space for a second grinder for the decaf. The other is that there isn’t the demand. This second one is quite important: coffee shops are, at the end of the day, businesses, and they need to make a profit. Investing in another grinder only to serve two or three cups of decaf a day makes no sense. However, demand is a chicken-and-egg situation: if your customers know you don’t offer decaf, they’re not going to ask for it…

All of which led me to the decaf challenge. What follows is a quick run-down of some of the great decaf coffee I’ve had since I’ve started the Coffee Spot, followed by some special offers to get you drinking more decaf.

  • One of my regular sources of decaf: the Roasting Party, at Beany Green, and it's Sumatran.
  • My other regular source: Volcano's Peruvian decaf blend at The Dry Goods Store.
  • Ancoat's range, with the amazing El Triangulo Guatemalan decaf front and centre.
  • The first of three Brazilian decafs, this one from mail-order specialists, Pact.
  • Next up, Glasgow's Papercup Coffee Company, with a Brazilian Santa Maria...
  • ... and finally, the same bean, different roast, from new boy on the block, Rinaldo's.
One of my regular sources of decaf: the Roasting Party, at Beany Green, and it's Sumatran.1 My other regular source: Volcano's Peruvian decaf blend at The Dry Goods Store.2 Ancoat's range, with the amazing El Triangulo Guatemalan decaf front and centre.3 The first of three Brazilian decafs, this one from mail-order specialists, Pact.4 Next up, Glasgow's Papercup Coffee Company, with a Brazilian Santa Maria...5 ... and finally, the same bean, different roast, from new boy on the block, Rinaldo's.6
Photo Carousel by WOWSlider.com v4.6

As John Giuliano points out in his excellent article, many people’s experience of decaf is of poor quality beans which have then been poorly roasted. That was too often my experience as well. A major step on my journey to appreciating just how great decaf could be came at Small Batch in Brighton back in 2013, when I tried a single-origin decaf as espresso. It was a real revelation: a complex, tasty espresso, a million miles away from the stereo-typical decaf. Before that I’d not considered a straight espresso shot worth drinking, but this turned my preconceptions on their head.

The next step came at the end of that year, at Bristol’s Clifton Coffee Company where I came away with a bag of some Brazilian green beans, decaffeinated using the methyl chloride method (as opposed to the more common water or CO2 methods). I’d had the same decaf, this time roasted by Extract Coffee Roasters, as a flat white early on that day at the Boston Tea Party, and had been very impressed with it. Trying these beans at home really opened my eyes to just how great decaf coffee could be and set me on a mission to find excellent decaf beans to drink at home.

These days, I tend to get my decaf beans from a couple of sources. The first is Volcano Coffee Works’ Peruvian Fullsteam blend, which I buy from the lovely Yasmeen at The Dry Goods Store. The other is the seasonal decaf from my good friends at The Roasting Party, which I buy from my local (to the office) branch of Beany Green at Paddington. I also tried a good few decafs at the London Coffee Festival, the highlight of which as from Union Hand-roasted.

However, after a little prompting, I’ve also managed to get various roasters around the country to send me samples of their decaf beans as part of the decaf challenge. In alphabetical order, I’d like to thank the following:

Ancoats: I first came across Manchester’s Ancoats in the middle of 2014, when the owner, Jamie, gave me samples of all his coffee to take home with me. While I enjoyed them all, the highlight was the El Triangulo decaf from Guatemala. A real cracker with bold flavours, the beans stood up well to the decaffeinating process. Since then, I’ve nagged Jamie for a bag whenever I’ve met up with him.

Pact: Pact is a mail-order roaster who sent me a bag of its latest decaf (Brazilian Planalto) after the London Coffee Festival. This was another outstanding decaf, with rich, bold flavours. If I wasn’t able to walk down to Beany Green/The Dry Goods Store and get my beans whenever I need them, I’d be taking out a subscription, pronto!

Papercup Coffee Company: a late entry to the decaf challenge, I got a bag of Papercup’s single-origin Santa Lucia Brazilian decaf through the post in the middle of this week. I’m currently enjoying it most evenings: it’s a rich, bold coffee, which, I feel, is better suited to my cafetiere than my Aeropress.

Rinaldo’s Speciality Coffee & Fine Tea: Rinaldo’s is a recent start-up in Cumbria, which funded the purchase of its Giesen roaster on Kickstarter. Rin (the man behind Rinaldo’s) was keen for me to sample his coffee, so I got him to send me some decaf, which I’ve just finished. Using the same single-origin Santa Lucia Brazilian bean as Papercup, this is quite a different coffee. With a lighter roast, it’s more subtle and went very well through my Aeropress.


Offers

To celebrate the decaf challenge and to get you all drinking more decaf, the above four roasters have very kindly made these exclusive offers for readers of the Coffee Spot.

Rinaldo’s Speciality Coffee & Fine Tea: Rin’s offering readers a 10% discount on your first order of decaf (use the code COFFEESPOT1). He’s also running a special competition. Post a picture of the decaf coffee on social media and tag it with Rinaldo’s username (Rinscoffee). Rin will pick the most imaginative image for use on his website and Instagram (Rinstagram?) and the winner will get a free Hario Ceramic Dripper and papers or an Aeropress.

Papercup Coffee Company: Papercup is offering a 10% discount on all orders placed up to and including next weekend (4th October) using the code BRIANS10 (although be aware that the decaf isn’t up on the webshop just yet; I got a special sample roast!).

Pact: visit www.pactcoffee.com, click “Get Started” and use the code “coffeespot”. During the sign up process, select to receive the decaf option and you will get a bag for £1 (usual price is £6.95 for a 250g bag; prices include p&p). As an added bonus, the first 20 people to sign up will receive a free lovely Pact mug as well. Please note that this offer is for new customers only and Pact require a UK address and £1 credit card payment. You can put your account on hold or cancel at any time.

Ancoats: Jamie has rather embarrassingly sold out of his current decaf (an India Seethargundu Estate). Surely that’s a sign of how good it is! His next stock of decaf green beans, a Nicaragua Finca La Cascada, is on its way, but isn’t roasted and on the website yet, so watch this space! I, for one, can’t wait to try it since one of the things I admire about Jamie is his willingness to try more unusual decafs.


If you liked this post, please let me know by clicking the “Like” button. If you have a WordPress account and you don’t mind everyone knowing that you liked this post, you can use the “Like this” button right at the bottom instead.

Don’t forget that you can share this post with your friends using the buttons below.

10 thoughts on “The Decaf Challenge

  1. Coffee isn’t merely a caffeine delivery system. If one could grow caffeine free beans it would be amazing. The problem is that all the coffees you listed taste radically different before and after decaffeination and to me they are ruined.

    • Hi Mike,

      I’ll start by saying that at the end of the day, taste is always a matter of personal perception. However, I am genuinely puzzled by the use of the word “ruined”. I will also caveat my statement by saying that I’ve not tasted any of the decaffeinated coffees that I’ve tried before they were decaffeinated, so I have no way of making a direct comparison. All that said, they tasted pretty damn good to me and certainly not markedly inferior to any similar caffeinated coffee I’ve had. So what makes you say that they have been ruined? I’m genuinely curious.

      Thanks,
      Brian.

  2. Brian,
    Thanks for the kind words. I love the idea of the “Coffee Spot Decaf Challenge.” This fall I will try and seek out some decaf coffee in my area to recommend and add to my post. Your list is inspiring.

    There are definitely some great decaf coffee’s out there. Sometimes you just need to know where to look.

    Thanks again,
    John

  3. Pingback: Kioskafé | Brian's Coffee Spot

  4. Pingback: Ancoats Coffee Update | Brian's Coffee Spot

  5. Pingback: Ancoats Coffee Co, Royal Mills | Brian's Coffee Spot

  6. Pingback: London Coffee Festival 2015: The Coffee | Brian's Coffee Spot

  7. Pingback: Caffeine Magazine | Brian's Coffee Spot

  8. Pingback: Caffè Culture 2016: Meet the Roasters | Brian's Coffee Spot

  9. Pingback: London Coffee Festival 2017: Preview | Brian's Coffee Spot

Please let me know what you think