Why has decaf coffee become so popular?

Aidan Gant
June 10, 2022
Why has decaf coffee become so popular?

In the past, decaf coffee has carried a stigma in specialty coffee circles.

The “death against decaf” mentality may stem from earlier decaffeination processes, which were thought to affect the coffee’s inherent characteristics. 

However, increasing disposable incomes and changing consumer trends in developing markets are expected to increase the demand for decaf coffee.

Additionally, a growing percentage of the younger generation is choosing to limit their caffeine intake, further boosting the growth of the global decaf coffee market. 

Notably, raw decaf coffee accounted for over 60% of the global revenue in 2019. This is largely attributed to its low price compared to its roasted counterparts.

This growing demand has seen several roasteries and cafés add decaf options to their menus. Furthermore, the popularity of these establishments among Millennials, as a part of lifestyle trends for socialising and working in these spots, is expected to boost the business-to-business sales of decaffeinated beverages.

Read on to find out more about the rising popularity of decaf coffee and the benefits of offering it. 

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Close up bird eye view of decaf coffee being bloomed in a white V60 on a coffee scale.

What is decaf coffee?

The earliest method of decaffeinating coffee was discovered almost by accident at the turn of the 20th century: a shipment of green coffee beans was flooded with seawater prior to being roasted. 

This incident was particularly appealing to German coffee merchant Ludwig Roselius. He believed his father had died as a result of caffeine poisoning. As a result, he used the incident to develop the first decaf coffee.

Originally, the process of making decaf coffee saw the beans boiled in salt water and then flushed with benzene to remove the caffeine. However, recent research has proven this to be heavily carcinogenic.

Recent technological advancements have seen safer, more organic methods come into use. They can be split broadly into two groups: solvent-based and non-solvent based processes. 

The solvent-based method is how the bulk of commodity-grade coffee is decaffeinated. Solvents such as methylene chloride or ethyl acetate are applied to green beans in order to remove up to 97% of their caffeine. 

Alternatively, specialty coffee, or any coffee which is marketed as naturally decaffeinated, are usually treated one of two ways – either through the Swiss water process or the carbon dioxide method. 

While both are more expensive than a solvent bath, they tend to be gentler to the desirable characteristics that roasters wish to retain in their green beans.

Swiss water processing is probably the best known higher quality decaffeination process. It involves first creating a green coffee extract, which is done by soaking the beans in hot water until they have about 50% moisture content. This allows the soluble flavour and caffeine compounds to dissolve into the water.

The extract is then decaffeinated through a carbon filter. The next step involves steeping the green coffee that is to be decaffeinated in this extract for 12 hours. 

This allows the caffeine to dissolve into the extract, as there is now a “caffeine -shaped hole” after filtration, and keeps the aromatics through osmotic balance. The extract is then filtered again so it can be reused.

An alternative to this is the carbon dioxide method. This process uses pressurised liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) as a solvent to remove caffeine from soaked green beans.

The beans are then returned to normal atmospheric pressure, leaving the unwanted caffeine behind. However, this requires expensive technology and is less accessible than other methods.

Despite improvements in processing methods, and the decaffeination of higher grade green beans to cater to more discerning customers, decaf coffee has retained its negative image in large sections of the specialty coffee community.

That said, this is a perception many coffee professionals are keen to change, such as award-winning barista Cole Torode. In 2020, he showcased a high-quality Colombian Gesha at the Canadian National Barista Championships, eager to highlight the improvements in the decaf sector.

According to recent research, more than a million British coffee drinkers have switched to decaf within the last 12 months. This growth in popularity has seen the quality and standards of decaf coffee rise alongside it.

Close up image of man pouring filtered black decaf coffee from chemex into black tin mug with unbleached kraft paper coffee bag on beach.

Why has decaf coffee recently become popular?

In previous years, the majority of traditional decaf consumers have been the older generations who are trying to avoid caffeine due to health problems. 

While this still accounts for a significant amount of the sector, decaf coffee is attracting a younger crowd. Statistics from the American National Coffee Association show decaf is increasingly popular among Millennials. Those aged between 18 and 24, as well as 25 to 39 year olds, are two groups that are most likely to opt for caffeine-free beverages.

This is logical, as further evidence suggests Millennials tend to favour a more holistic outlook on health, preferring preventative action over waiting to fall ill.

Notably, this is the age group that appears to be most taken with specialty coffee. A 2016 report from the Specialty Coffee Association found 48% of Millennials had at least one cup of specialty coffee in the 24 hours leading up to the survey.

As younger drinkers are opting for both specialty and decaf coffee has encouraged roasters to provide better quality decaf offerings. 

This has created something of a positive feedback loop between better availability of specialty decaf coffee and its popularity. As more consumers realise the quality improvements, perceived benefits, and greater availability of specialty decaf, more roasters offer it. 

Close up image of female Caucasian barista pouring milk ino decaf coffee.

Why should roasters and cafés offer decaf coffee?

With a definite rise in demand for decaf coffee, roasters can benefit from accommodating it into their business model. 

It is essential for those working in the coffee industry to move with the market trends and provide what consumers are asking for. In the case of decaf coffee, specialty grade is now a viable option. 

Depending on the client base, it is important that roasters consider including a high-end decaf option in their range. 

Furthermore, it is important that roasters diversify revenue streams and offer a good range of decaf options, as this will be a key way to stay competitive.

Research is ongoing to improve the retention of aromatic compounds during the decaffeination process. Agriculturalists are working with several Latin American farms to crossbreed naturally caffeine-free species with strains of arabica in order to produce intrinsically low caffeine, high-quality coffee.

The consistent innovation in the coffee industry, as well as the rise of a new, younger decaf market, are driving improvements in decaf quality. 

At MTPak Coffee, our Education Centre is a free platform that can help roasters stay updated on market trends and new developments within the coffee industry.

Furthermore, we are able to offer roasters a range of sustainable packaging options made from eco-friendly materials, such as kraft or rice paper with a LDPE or PLA lining, will help ensure your decaf coffee is perfectly preserved.

Our investment in the HP Indigo 25K allows us to digitally print coffee packaging with a 40-hour turnaround and 24-hour shipping time. Additionally, we offer low minimum order quantities (MOQs) of packaging, no matter what size or material.

For more information on sustainable coffee bags, contact our team.

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