Simply put, decaf coffee is coffee that has had up to 99% of the caffeine removed from the bean before roasting. Typically, 2-5% caffeine remains in the bean. Decaf coffee is crafted by a number of processes, with Swiss Water Process (SWP) and Mountain Water Process (MWP) being the most common.

  • Swiss Water Process beans are handled at a decaf plant in Vancouver, Canada, using water from the Canadian coastal mountains.
  • Mountain Water Process beans are decaffeinated in Mexico using glacier water from the highest mountains in Mexico.

Both SWP and MWP use heavy amounts of water to separate the caffeine from the bean, a process developed in Switzerland in the 1930’s. Here’s how it works:

Once at a decaf facility, the beans are removed from their bags and steamed to add moisture to the bean. The beans are then immersed in large tanks of water. Water acts as a solvent, removing caffeine from the bean. However, water also removes oils, sugars and other basic compounds from the coffee, muting its potential in the finished cup. After the caffeine is removed, the remaining oils, sugars and compounds are reintroduced into the beans, helping restore most of their earlier potential.

There are also 3 different chemical methods of extracting coffee including the Methyl Chloride, Ethyl Acetate and CO2 processes.

MC (Methyl Chloride): Beans are either rinsed in MC then washed in hot water, or else soaked in water then removed before MC is added to separate the floating caffeine. As with the SWP or MWP processes above, the oils, sugars and compounds in the water are restored to the bean afterward.

Some folks worry about the chemical aspect of this process. However, the USDA allows up to 10 PPM (parts per million) on a coffee bean. Generally, the PPM in the MC process is often below 1 PPM with the highest levels coming in at 3 PPM. Keep in mind that NONE of the residual MC survives a roast as it burns off at 170 degrees. As roast temperatures always exceed 400 degrees (some getting close to 500), zero PPM remains on the beans.

MC is known in Europe as the KVW Method, European Method or Euro Prep.

EA (Ethyl Acetate): Ethyl Acetate is a naturally occurring chemical found in fruits. The process is essentially the same as with MC. It’s often called “Natural” because of its connection to fruit, but like MC any residual EA burns off early in the roast process.

Carbon Dioxide: There are a number of CO2 decaf processes. The most common process uses steamed coffee beans submerged in compressed carbon dioxide (which behaves in part like a gas and a liquid). The CO2, after binding with the caffeine, is removed through charcoal filtering. However, the flavor components that are simultaneously extracted during the SWP and MWP processes (only to be reintroduced later) remain intact during this method.

Esselon Decaf Coffee: Mexico (MWP), Sumatra (MC), Colombia (MC)

The Origins of Decaf

Caffeine was discovered in 1820, but it wasn’t until 1903 that a process for removing caffeine from the bean (discovered quite by accident) was developed. Led by Ludwig Roselius in Breman, Germany, using Benzene to remove the caffeine, a team of researchers founded the Kaffee Hag Corporation, making the first commercial decaffeinated coffee shortly thereafter.

Decaf coffee first came to the United States in 1909-1910, marketed under the name “Dekafa” or “Dekofa” by the Kaffee Hag’s American agent in charge of selling the brand. Interestingly, the same coffee was marketed in France as “Sanka,” short for “sans caffeine.”

In 1912 Roselius came to America and began manufacturing America’s first decaf coffee in New Brunswick, NJ. During WWI, Roselius’ company and trademark was taken from him via the Alien Property Custodian. After the war Roelius returned to the US and in 1927 entered into an arrangement with General Foods Corp to sell decaffeinated coffee under the name “Sanka”. Roselius sold Sanka to General Foods Corp in 1932 and the brand soon took off.

Interestingly, decaf brew pots in coffeeshops and restaurants throughout America have an orange band. The orange color is derived from the original Sanka tin, its distinctive color universally recognized as representing decaf.