Swiss Water: Is it the best way to decaffeinate coffee?

Peter Lancashire
June 14, 2022
Swiss Water: Is it the best way to decaffeinate coffee

While many coffee drinkers search for that energy boost to start their day, high doses of caffeine may not always sit well with everyone.

Research shows that even small amounts of caffeine can affect individuals in different ways, inducing restlessness, stomach issues, or high blood pressure. For those who enjoy the taste of coffee but struggle with the caffeine content, decaf coffee beans are an effective solution. 

Original decaffeination methods developed in the 1900s used carcinogenic chemicals to extract caffeine. However, technological advancements have seen safer, more organic methods come into use and decaf coffee is becoming a staple part of the industry. 

These modern methods have allowed high-quality beans to go through the decaffeination process while keeping the coffee’s inherent characteristics intact. Many methods have become available, but the most recognised method is the Swiss Water Process (SWP) – an environmentally friendly, chemical-free water process. 

Read on to find out more about the Swiss Water Process and whether it is the best way to decaffeinate coffee. 

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Image of chemex with coffee in filter, alongside steel gooseneck kettle and white, multilayer bleached kraft paper coffee pouch with blue label.

What methods are commonly used to decaffeinate coffee?

Breaking down the caffeine in coffee is usually done before roasting. 

One of the most common methods is to do this on a mass scale: either by soaking or steaming the green beans and then adding a solvent. The solvent solution draws the caffeine from the beans.

Traditionally, the solvent used was methylene chloride. However, due to supposed health concerns, ethyl acetate has become one of the most economical and natural ways to decaffeinate coffee beans.

Ethyl acetate is created through what is known as the Colombian Sugar Cane process. Locally grown sugar cane is turned into molasses and then fermented to create ethanol. This is then added to acetic acid to become ethyl acetate, which works as the solvent to break down the caffeine in the beans.

Another widely used method is the carbon dioxide (CO2) process. Green beans are soaked in highly compressed carbon dioxide for around 10 hours, removing the caffeine. Then, the beans are put through filters of activated charcoal to remove all the excess extracted caffeine.

What is the Swiss Water Process?

The most widely used and recognised decaffeination process in specialty coffee is the Swiss Water Process. Many roasters and importers have quickly adopted this method as the default for their businesses. 

The process was developed in Switzerland during the 1930s. It became popular during the late 1980s, when Coffex introduced the method to the industry, becoming the only process available that did not use solvents. 

The process starts by polishing green beans in a large spinning drum to remove unwanted material, such as silver skin or other contaminants. The beans are then cleaned and soaked in water until they double in size. 

Then, the beans are soaked in a green coffee extract. This allows the process of osmosis to extract the caffeine molecules naturally and trap them within the solution. 

The green coffee extract, which is now filled with caffeine, is pushed through carbon filters to remove it. The now clean solution is then reused to soak the beans again. 

This process is repeated until the coffee is 99.9% caffeine-free, which can take up to ten hours per batch. 

Finally, the decaffeinated green beans are dried in a specialised machine that returns them to a state that resembles their original appearance – minus the caffeine. 

Birds-eye view of two handfuls of coffee beans, one dark roasted, one green and unroasted.

Is Swiss Water the best way to decaffeinate coffee?

The decaffeination process is complex and requires specialist equipment, which can add to the cost of the green beans. 

Regardless, the Swiss Water Process is favoured by many within the specialty coffee industry, as it is certified as both organic and kosher. Furthermore, as it avoids using chemicals, the coffee’s inherent flavours remain intact. 

That said, it has been argued that the flavour profile after the decaffeination process is less distinct than before. However, others in the industry contest this. 

Sweet Maria’s, a home roasting specialist and supplier based in the US, only buys decaffeinated beans that have gone through the Swiss Water Process. 

An article on their website states that this is because the SWP is more gentle on the coffee’s organic structure and leaves much of the volatile compounds that affect aroma and flavour intact.

Processes using methylene chloride, ethyl acetate, or carbon dioxide, and mountain water processes, yield coffees which are around 97% caffeine-free. However, the SWP decaffeinated coffee is 99.9% caffeine-free.

Notably, the company guarantees this, and confidently stands behind their product, providing each batch with an accompanying Certificate of Analysis. 

To further ensure top quality control each decaffeinated coffee is cupped and given a side-by-side analysis of the pre- and post-processed coffee.

One thing roasters may notice about decaf coffee is the colour of the beans: they are visibly darker than regular green beans. As a result, they need to be monitored carefully during the roast. 

The beans will shift from green to brown, to dark brown quickly, well before approaching the first crack. Similarly, the texture of the bean will remain slightly wrinkled, rather than smoothing out as it is roasted darker.

The decaffeination process weakens the internal structure of coffee, making it less dense. As a result, decaf coffee can take on heat quickly, and roasters should monitor it carefully throughout the roast process. 

Unbleached brown kraft paper coffee pouch with transparent window and white label on table surrounded by coffee cup and pinecones.

Deciding which decaffeination method to go with could depend on many factors. That said, as the specialty coffee market is so closely tied to practices to ensure quality and sustainability, the SWP has become a staple part of the industry.

As the process does not require solvents and only uses fresh water, importers can select high-quality beans to meet consumer needs for premium decaf coffee. 

At MTPak Coffee, we understand the need to meet the ecological demands of the coffee industry while delivering a high-quality final product to customers. Furthermore, we understand the desire to ensure that inherent characteristics of decaf coffees are perfectly preserved during transit. 

We offer specialty coffee roasters a range of coffee bags made from recyclable or biodegradable materials, such as kraft and rice paper, as well as LDPE and PLA-lined bags.

We can offer low minimum order quantities (MOQs) of digitally printed coffee packaging, with a 40-hour turnaround and 24-hour shipping time, no matter what size or material. 

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

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