Should specialty coffee roasters offer decaf?

Aidan Gant
February 24, 2022
decaf coffee

Traditionally, decaffeinated coffee has carried a stigma in the world of specialty.

This may stem from earlier decaffeination processes, which were thought to affect the coffee’s inherent characteristics. What’s more, many of these methods used various acids and chemical solvents to extract the caffeine, which were believed to pose a risk to health.

However, technological advancements have seen safer, more organic methods come into use. As a result, many consumers and even roasters believe the “death before decaf” attitude is outdated. 

Considering the decaf coffee market is estimated to be worth $21.45 billion by 2025, now may be the perfect time to add it to your menu. 

To find out whether decaf is a good option for your roastery, I spoke with three-time South Africa Barista Champion, Ishan Natalie.

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decaf coffee filter

What is decaf coffee?

Decaf coffee has most of its caffeine removed at the green bean stage. The process can produce different flavour profiles depending on the method used. 

The controversy around decaf lies in how significantly the decaffeination process affects the coffee’s quality. 

“I feel the process of decaffeination can damage the natural and complex flavour characteristics of coffee,” says Ishan, who is also a Starbucks South Africa consultant.

On the other hand, baristas such as Nicole Battefeld-Montgomery believe the right decaf coffee can be just as good as its caffeinated cousin.

“Decaf coffees are reaching new heights,” says Nicole, who is the 2018 German Barista Champion. “Companies are investing in better green beans to get a result with fruity and bright flavour profiles that are just as amazing as normal coffees.”

Specifically, she references Canadian Barista Champion Cole Torode, who showcased top quality decaffeinated Geisha at the 2020 National Barista Championship. 

Modern decaffeination processes fall into three broad categories. First, there are those that use solvents such as methylene chloride to remove the caffeine.

Second, there are various water decaffeination processes that rely on solubility and osmosis to remove the caffeine. 

Third, the carbon dioxide method uses supercritical carbon dioxide to blast out unwanted caffeine.

Each of these processes involves soaking and steaming the green coffee beans before further processing and rinsing. 

While some of the above processes are more natural than others, none of them are believed to contain any harmful chemical traces or residues.

Why is decaf becoming increasingly popular?

To fit into a healthy lifestyle, at least 62% of coffee drinkers believe it is important to limit caffeine intake, according to decaffeination company Swiss Water. 

Indeed, reports from the National Coffee Association of America suggest decaf coffee drinkers make up around 15% of the market

“Lately, I have witnessed customers opt for weaker espresso-based drinks to keep their caffeine intake low,” Ishan explains. “I’ve also noticed there’s a cut-off time for caffeine consumption, which is generally between 12pm and 2pm onwards.”

Technological advancements and emerging consumer trends mean it may be worth including decaf coffee options on your menu.

Guy Wilmot, owner of Decadent Decaf says the stigma of decaf coffee comes from the 1970s, when it was synonymous with cheap coffee stripped of flavour and caffeine. 

For Guy and many other specialty roasters, decaf coffee has since come a long way. Important to realise is, as with any other quality roasted coffee, you get back what you put in. 

With the development of delicate decaffeination processes such as the Swiss Water process, fewer of the coffee’s flavour compounds are damaged or stripped away. 

By soaking the green beans in pure water, Swiss Water removes the caffeine from the solution through carbon filtration

High-quality green decaf coffee is readily available, but the costs of processing can make it more expensive than regular green coffee. 

That being said, recent market research suggests consumers are willing to pay that little bit extra. According to a recent Swiss Water survey, 61% of decaf coffee drinkers want better quality – and they are happy to pay more for it.

recyclable coffee bags

Why should coffee businesses consider decaf?

While many specialty coffee professionals are split over the potential for quality decaf, there is clearly a growing market for it

Plenty of roasters around the world now offer specialty grade decaf coffee, which means the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) recognises it.

The SCA defines specialty coffee as any green coffee graded with a cupping score above 80. This grade is based on several aspects of coffee quality and is assessed by licensed Q-graders and cup tasters

Despite a lingering stigma in some corners of the market, Ishan believes perceptions of decaf coffee among today’s consumers are mostly positive.

“Decaf coffee sells itself and doesn’t need to be promoted,” he says. In other words, those who like decaf don’t need to be told to buy it – because they already do.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is it’s not just the older generations who are turning to decaf. Research shows 18 to 24-year-olds drink more decaf coffee than any other age group. Therefore, it is important not to alienate emerging sections of your customer base.

Offering decaf can be a great way to diversify your income stream and ensure you stay inclusive and competitive as a business.

Decaf coffee is now winning stars at the Great Taste Awards – the world’s largest food and drink accreditation scheme. Additionally, they now have their own category at the prestigious North American Golden Bean Awards.

It’s clear that the popularity of higher quality decaf coffee is rising. As such, roasters should consider adding it to their menus to keep up with consumer expectations.

Furthermore, to help consumers understand and enjoy decaf’s unique flavour profile, it must be properly packaged and preserved. Sustainable packaging options such as kraft or rice paper with a PLA lining will help ensure your coffee tastes great right until the last sip. 

At MTPak Coffee, we have years of experience providing sustainable packaging for specialty coffee roasters. Our range of recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable options include kraft paper, rice paper, PLA, and LDPE bags.

For more information on sustainable coffee bags, contact the team today.

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Aidan Gant
Aidan Gant

Aidan spent his early career working in cafes alongside coffee roasters and in other hospitality positions. He owned a vegan tapas restaurant, specialty coffee bar, and live jazz venue, which he operated with his partner before closing during the Covid-19 pandemic. Since 2020, he has made his living writing about coffee and the environment, and is currently a researcher and doctoral student in Creative Writing.

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