Before we started this journey, admittedly I knew very little about decaf coffee except that I didn’t generally like it. Daniel on the other hand knew next to nothing about any kind of coffee, thanks to avoiding caffeine for health reasons.
That’s why we knew that when we started exploring coffee in Colombia, we also still had so much to learn about decaf. And what better way to learn than to visit the very place where the magic of decaffeination happens… the city of Manizales, Colombia! We met with the leadership of Descafecol, the Colombian decaffeination company, in what is one of the most beautiful factory locations on the planet, even on a cloudy day. They taught us so much and gave us a tour of their plant.
First, all coffee has caffeine when it grows and robusta beans have twice the caffeine of arabica beans.
Once harvested, the green coffee beans are either sent to a roaster to be roasted and served as caffeinated coffee or sent to a decaffeination plant. Once you roast coffee you can’t remove the caffeine. Decaffeination must happen at the green coffee stage between the farm and the roaster.
Also, there are a few different processes to remove the caffeine that only use natural ingredients. The Swiss Water Process and Mountain Water Process only use water to decaffeinate, some decaffeination uses carbon dioxide (yup the same CO2 that we breathe out, but pressurized) and in Colombia they use a byproduct of sugarcane.
Colombian Sugarcane Byproduct Method
To use sugarcane in this way, you take sugarcane molasses and ferment it to produce EA (ethyl acetate), which is commonly found in wine, fruits and in bananas too. Other companies use synthetic EA, but at the Descafecol facility it is is naturally derived, and we liked that a lot. As far as we know, this is the only facility in the world that uses natural sugarcane. Plus, Colombia produces a lot of sugarcane, and the sugarcane is grown just a couple hours away from Manizales.
[Colombian sugarcane fields that could be turned into caffeine-removing EA]
But before you put the EA to work, you have to take a few steps to prepare the beans. First, you steam the beans with water, to open up their pores and soften the beans. Next, you moisten the beans, which swells them further to improve caffeine removal.
Finally, you bathe them in the natural EA bath which dissolves out the caffeine. The EA (with caffeine) gets drained, then distilled, leaving just the caffeine. Apparently, other companies need caffeine as an ingredient (for pharmaceuticals and cosmetics), so it doesn’t get wasted.
Afterward, the beans get steamed one last time, at a temperature higher than the boiling point of EA. This ensures that any leftover EA evaporates, and you are left with just the original beans, minus the caffeine, which are left to cool before they can be sent to a coffee roaster. Any potential residual EA would evaporate during the roasting process so you aren’t consuming it. The caffeine free beans are sent to a roaster to be transformed into a coffee you can drink at any time of the day or night.
One of the things we loved about their process is the mini circular economy it creates. Meaning the byproducts of sugarcane are used to decaffeinate the coffee, then the extracted caffeine is sold to be used in other products rather than thrown away.
[With our friends from Descafecol, before touring the facility]
It’s all about the beans
Even though this process uses natural ingredients like water and sugarcane, don’t forget that the quality of your decaf coffee is only as good as the beans in the first place. No matter how natural the decaf process is, low quality beans will still produce low quality coffee.
[The beans on the right are great quality and look like what we share, the ones on the left...well that may be your other decaf]
That’s why we’re starting with really high quality beans from Colombia, running them through a natural decaffeination process in the same country, and then roasting it right before we send it out so you can enjoy perhaps some of the best and freshest decaffeinated coffee you’ve ever tried. In fact, it’s better than a lot of regular coffee, simply because of the quality of the beans.