Decaf coffee is increasingly popular as people reduce their caffeine intake. But is it any good?
In a coffee-obsessed nation like Australia, asking for decaf can lead to strange looks — much like asking for a water at the pub.
"When I ran a cafe years ago, I would have pooh-poohed people who wanted decaf," says Sam Demelis, a coffee expert and barista trainer from Melbourne.
But things are changing. Decaf coffee is becoming more popular and many cafes are stocking specialist blends.
But what is decaf coffee? And how much caffeine is really in a cup?
How is decaf coffee made?
Removing caffeine from coffee beans isn't a simple task and there are a number of different methods.
The direct method involves steaming green coffee beans then repeatedly rinsing them with a chemical solvent to extract the caffeine.
"The raw coffee, or the cherry, is either soaked or sprayed with the solvent, the solvent attaches itself and binds itself to the caffeine then removes it from the cherry," says Peter Wolff, the co-owner of a speciality roasting business in Brisbane.
After the caffeine is extracted, the beans are steamed again to remove the solvent.
The most common solvents are methylene chloride and ethyl acetate — chemicals that are used in paint strippers, adhesives, and other industrial applications.
While these chemicals may sound concerning, they are permitted for use under Australian food standards.
Another approach involves soaking beans in hot water and then mixing the water with a solvent to remove the caffeine. This is known as the indirect method.
If you're looking for a chemical-free decaf experience, you can opt for Swiss water-processed coffee, which involves extracting caffeine from green beans using only water and charcoal. There are no chemical solvents used.
All these processes require expensive equipment. As a result, nearly all decaffeinating is done by specialist companies in Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Canada, Mr Wolff says.
It's why decaf is more expensive. Mr Wolff says Swiss water-processed beans typically cost twice as much as the regular stuff.
Does decaf coffee taste different?
When you remove caffeine from coffee, you also remove some of the bitterness.
"It does taste slightly different," Mr Demelis explains.
"It's a smoother drink and easier on the palate but you're not going to get the kick that you normally get from a coffee with caffeine."
There are plenty of variables that affect a cup's taste — just like regular coffee.
Decaf made with cheaper robusta beans will have a different flavour profile to coffee made from higher-grade arabica beans, for example.
Another factor is the process used. Coffee decaffeinated with chemical solvents will often have a distinctive flavour that Mr Wolff describes as "medicinal" or "tinny".
"On the flip side, when we move to the non-solvent styles, we tend to get the coffees that show origin characteristics," he says.
Does decaf still contain caffeine?
Yes, your cup of decaf still contains caffeine.
The average decaf coffee contains between two and six milligrams per 250-millilitre serve. An espresso coffee, such as a latte, has 105–100mg per 250mL serve.
Put another way, the average cup of decaf contains about 96 per cent less caffeine than regular coffee.
In case you're wondering, research suggests that caffeine is safe in doses of up to 400mg per day. However, pregnant women are advised to limit their intake to 200mg as caffeine affects heart rate and blood pressure.
Does decaf coffee need to be stored or prepared differently?
Decaf coffee can be treated just like regular coffee. Store your beans in a cool, dry place out of the sun.
For best results, grind your beans fresh. Mr Wolff says this is even more important with decaf beans than regular coffee.
"Decaf coffee does oxidise quicker because it's a lot softer and it's gone through that intervention," he says.
"It doesn't have as long a shelf life; you want to be drinking it within a couple of weeks."
Does decaf have the other health benefits of coffee?
Research has linked coffee consumption with all sorts of health benefits, including reduced risk of cancer and even longer life.
Interestingly, these benefits aren't likely coming from the caffeine, but rather the other compounds in coffee.
The good news? You'll still likely get all the benefits with a cup of decaf — and you might sleep better, too.