Decaffeinated coffee has a terrible reputation. There are no two ways about it. Regular coffee drinkers typically consider decaf to be chalky, less robust or generally just worse than its caffeinated peer.
It's about time someone taste-tested it. We roped in two Sydney-based coffee experts (Corie Sutherland of Darlinghurst's Edition Coffee Roasters and Sean McManus from Surry Hills' Neighbourhood) and two regular coffee drinkers with generally good palates (ABC journalist and occasional fine food judge Simon Marnie, and sommelier, latte drinker and Moya's Juniper Lounge owner Charles Casben) to blind taste test four different coffees.
With help from Coffee Kaizen and Mecca's Sam Sgambellone, our coffee tasters completed two rounds of tasting, one of espresso and the other with milk. Without knowing which was which, they tasted a Brazilian Cup of Excellence, a strongly roasted commercial blend and two different Mecca roasts, one decaffeinated and one not.
Surprisingly, none of the tasters picked the decaf coffee in both rounds. Of the four tasters, only Marnie picked the decaf in the espresso round. Even more surprising were the scores. Of all the eight coffees tasted, the decaf scored the highest with an average of 3.6/6. Both Sutherland and McManus thought the decaf was overwhelmingly "minerally".
"I thought it was quite nice, very sweet," said McManus. "It had this really nice smooth body that just sits there for a very long time. This is definitely my favourite out of all four."
Casben described it as elegant and rich without being too big. Only Marnie gave it a bad score, saying, "I felt a bit ripped off with this one. I was really put off by the balance."
A crucial difference here is that Marnie, unlike the other tasters, prefers the flavours of dark roasted coffee, which was more present in the other cups. What the scores from the three other tasters prove is that decaffeinated coffee at least has the potential to be good. Whether it can be as good as its caffeinated counterpart is more complicated to judge.
For those in the business of producing quality coffee there are two main ways to go about decaffeination: the Swiss water bath (SWB) and the ethyl acetate (EA) wash.
SWB entails decaffeination through osmosis in a water bath, a process sometimes criticised for its effect on taste. Soaking the beans extracts not just the caffeine but also much of the flavour and aroma. To get around this, each batch of beans is soaked in what's called caffeine-free green coffee extract, essentially water that contains all the flavour and aroma compounds of coffee. A final batch of SWB beans carries not their original flavour but a mixture of the flavours of those beans and the beans used to create the green coffee extract.
The EA process sees the beans washed in volatile chemicals. Sounds nasty? It's a bit of a moot point, because any trace of the chemical is extinguished, if not in the initial decaffeination process, then in the roasting of the beans.
David Kastle, vice president of the US-based Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Company, says his company uses the SWB process because it's more natural and has less impact on the taste. "I find that EA processing always leaves a flavour on the decaf, sometimes winey, sometimes banana or cherry."
We asked Mark Howard of Caravela Coffee, a company that uses EA, about the effect of that process on the flavour of the beans. "It smells different," he said. "It gives coffee an extra pump of fruitiness." Is that a negative or a positive? It depends on your taste.
Process aside, the fact is that decaffeinated coffee is rarely produced from premium quality beans. "The general consensus is to take stuff at a lower grade," says Howard. "The problem is there isn't enough market." Add together the expense of decaffeination and the premium cost of high-quality beans and you end up with an expensive product that relatively few people want to buy.
Decaf coffee, then, has the potential to be very good, but most of what's actually produced isn't as good as the top tier of caffeinated speciality coffee - hence its reputation as substandard.
And surely its lack of stimulant effect doesn't help? McManus disagrees, saying the true coffee connoisseur just wants a tasty brew. "The way I look at it, I'm not a drug dealer. I'm not in the caffeine business, I'm in the coffee business. I don't give a f--k if it's caffeinated or not. All I care about is that it's delicious."