Updated: Sep 26, 2022
“Death Before Decaf” – the illustrious phrase that has been floating around the coffee industry for years, the notion that an individual would rather die than allow a drop of decaffeinated coffee to touch their lips. Dramatic, perhaps? Perhaps, but frequent and punchy enough to become a meme or an A-board scribble outside a coffee shop. Everywhere you turn, rejections of decaf dominate the narrative.
But why does everybody hate it, and how can we mend the poor beverage’s reputation?
Decaf coffee used to be bad (and dangerous)
Even if you don’t drink coffee, there’s a good chance that, due to the stigma surrounding it, you think decaf is pretty rubbish. And once upon a time, it was – some of the earliest decaffeination processes featured some rather questionable substances.
In the early 1900s Ludwig Roselius, a German merchant whose decaffeinated coffee was one of the first to become commercially available, used benzene (often used in paint strippers - yes, paint strippers - at the time) to remove the caffeine content from his beans. Fortunately, benzene is no longer used in the industry (because, ahem, it’s a carcinogen), though much safer solvents are still widely used in decaffeination processes.
As well as leaving behind residue of these chemicals (though they were very low and considered insignificant), for many years these processes significantly altered the taste of the coffee. Some bittered it, while others depleted it of flavour all together, hence why people were adverse to switching over. If you talk to anyone who tried decaf in the 1950s and 60s, they won’t be impressed; though many coffee brands invested heavily in advertising for this new and innovative product, only a small percentage of consumers actually committed to it. Furthermore, a lot of the decaf that was readily available was either low quality, or made from old discarded coffee offered by the fizzy drinks companies who extracted the caffeine and sold the beans to roasteries. In short, decaf was pretty grim.
Popularity increased in the 80s
Though popular brands such as Nescafe began buying into the concept of decaf, the demand was relatively low up until the 1980s. As people became more conscious of caffeine’s side effects, decaf became an alternative for pregnant women and individuals who suffered with anxiety or heart problems. Sanka, founded by our friend and carcinogen lover Ludwig Roselius in 1914, was one of the most recognised brands of instant decaf coffee and was sold around the world as a ‘healthy’ alternative to caffeine.
In 1984, decaffeinated coffee accounted for about 25% of coffee consumed in the US. But it was also around this time that scientists began testing the chemicals used to decaffeinate coffee and found cancer-causing properties within them. With fear lurking in the wings and caffeine consumption on the rise once again, decaf slowly began fading away and became the butt of most coffee-related jokes (even Folgers jumped on the bandwagon in their 1996 decaf ad.)
In 1988, the Swiss Water process was commercially introduced for the first time. Developed in Switzerland in 1933, the chemical-free method has the beans soak in a green bean coffee extract before being processed through activated charcoal to remove the caffeine. This method was not only safer, but also prevented the taste from being altered too much resulting in a much cleaner, tastier decaf.
Decaf in the now
Despite a dramatic increase in the consumption of caffeine-free drinks - herbal teas in particular - a sense of stigma still surrounds decaf coffee. Since the third wave coffee movement, coffee quality (whether caffeinated or not) has considerably increased, yet many roasters choose not to invest in decaf, believing there simply isn’t an audience for it. A quick Google Trends search, however, suggests otherwise; in the past five years there's been a slow but steady increase of internet queries featuring decaf coffee. It seems that more and more people are realising the benefits of decaf; not only does it reduce anxiety associated with caffeine overload, but it also helps with IBS symptoms (and bowel-related illness have sadly increased significantly over the last ten years). One of the main reasons we take so much care selecting and roasting our decaf (aside from the fact that we actually really like the stuff), is because of me. Yep, I'm going to give myself a little bit of credit here; I have an autoimmune disease called ulcerative colitis, which prevents me from eating or drinking anything that's too acidic or irritating to the stomach. As someone who loves the taste of coffee, I didn't want to miss out on it just because my body couldn't handle the caffeine. When Nat and Louis were coming up with the concepts for the roastery, having good decaf was one of their top priorities (partly because they love me, but partly because they wanted our decaf drinkers to be offered just as much attention as their caffeinated counterparts). Inclusion is a big part of who we are as a business, and we certainly weren't going to discriminate against people who want to show their body (or their belly) a little extra love. And so, our delicious decaf was born!
Let’s change the narrative
As coffee roasters, it’s up to us to change the way people view decaffeinated coffee and fix its damaged reputation. Bean quality, accessibility and methods of decaffeination have improved considerably since decaf’s inception, so there’s no reason why it should taste awful anymore. If you’re someone who’s never tried decaf coffee before, I urge you to take a chance; you may be surprised at how much you enjoy it. Many people can’t tell the difference! Check out this old nugget on our Instagram featuring our lovely old employee Misha, who was tasked with figuring out which coffee was decaf. Hint: she couldn’t.