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When Decaf Steals the Stage

A quiet revolution has swept through this country’s coffee culture. This isn’t news to top roasters, or their loyal local followers. But for the average coffee drinker, the new morning cup can be infinitely better than it was ten years ago. Beans are better for one major reason: more roasters travel to coffee-producing countries to cup and select specific varieties of beans straight from the source. Just as there is less saccharine-sweet generic white Zinfandel on the market as we learn to appreciate oaky, single-vineyard Cabernet, coffee drinkers are slowly converting from French Vanilla Folgers to single-country, or even single-estate coffees whose flavors introduce a new level of aromatic complexity.

Does the same revolution hold true for decaf coffee? After all, people who drink decaf arguably appreciate flavor the most: they must be drinking coffee for its distinctive flavor since they’re not drinking it for the caffeine. And ironically, decaffeinated coffee has historically been the poorest quality and least complex due to harsh bean treatments in the decaffeination process.

Yes, decaf coffee is getting better, but not just because roasters source better beans. When I spoke with coffee buyer Steve Ford at Ritual Coffee, the renowned coffee house in San Francisco, he noted that patrons often prefer Ritual’s house decaf to their other cups. And they don’t even know it’s decaf. What changed?

Classic decaf coffee is made using the “MC (methylene chloride) method,” the same chemical as in paint stripper. The solvent strips out the caffeine, but also almost everything else. Bitter notes and bland flavor are common, not to mention the fact that beans come in contact with a harsh chemical.

The MC method compromises the coffee. Even the cellular structure of the coffee bean is changed, and with it, the flavor. Enter a surprising solution: sugar cane. Sugar cane contains a naturally-occurring solvent called Ethyl Acetate, which is a gentler treatment for decaffeination used for coffees like today’s Ritual duo. Ethyl Acetate is even found in green coffee, as well as various fruits, and it is the most common ester in wine. In the EA method, coffee is soaked alongside sugar cane for a very short time, which leads to a touch of sweet residual flavor in the cup that complements the coffee. The method preserves the complexities of the origin in the bean. The resulting coffee is intensely sweet and fruited both in aroma and flavor.

“Flavor first” is the anthem of top roasters, and their siren song is no joke with EA decaf. The best news? We can now sip around the clock.