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Decaf Coffee: Draining the Jolt, Not the Flavor
There are plenty of decaf brews that satisfy cravings for coffee and a good night's sleep. Learn how beans lose their buzz in Groupon's study of decaffeination.
Die-hard coffee snobs might instinctively turn up their nose at decaf coffee, dismissing it as a bland corruption of a rich, complex beverage. A century ago, they were probably right. The original decaffeination process, invented in 1900, used a chemical solvent called methylene chloride to physically draw caffeine out of regular beans—taking with it much of their original flavor. To make matters worse, the first step involved soaking or steaming the unroasted beans until they were essentially prebrewed in order to bring the caffeine to the surface.
This basic process is still in use today, but manufacturers have taken steps to minimize flavor loss by using higher-quality beans. Some replace methylene chloride with ethyl acetate, a chemical naturally found in apples and bananas. (This method is sometimes marketed as "natural decaffeination," even if the ethyl acetate has been synthesized in a lab.)
A competing method of decaffeination, the Swiss Water Process, erases chemicals and foreign wars from the equation entirely. Instead, coffee beans are soaked in a carefully controlled, coffee-extract-infused bath designed to seal in flavoring compounds but drive out caffeine—which is then trapped by a carbon filter designed to catch caffeine molecules only.
The best method of decaffeination might depend on the bean, but no process leaves coffee entirely caffeine-free. A 2006 study reported by Science Daily found that some 16-ounce servings of national decaf brands contained as much as 13.9 milligrams of caffeine—still a small fraction of the average 170 milligrams found in the same serving of regular brew or cola-factory runoff.