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What is Decaf & How is Decaf Coffee Made?


  • Coffee beans can be decaffeinated through one of a few methods involving chemical solvents, coffee oil extracts, or through a more natural water-based process. At Philly Fair Trade, we rely on the Swiss Water process (detailed below) for our fair trade decaf coffees, an organic and solvent-free approach to decaffeinating coffee beans.

  • Decaf coffee does have a small amount of caffeine content, though it is generally under 5 mg per cup and won't affect most drinkers. This compares to around 100-120 mg in a normal caffeinated cup of coffee.

Decaffeinated Coffee Explained

Decaf coffee on a bench outdoors
Picture this: enjoying a cozy evening with friends, and a tempting slice of chocolate cake appears. The perfect accompaniment? A steaming cup of coffee.

Yet, the dilemma arises – the post-dinner coffee choice between regular coffee and decaf coffee.

Decaffeinated (Decaf) coffee has faced plenty of public misunderstanding. As decaf has often been misinterpreted as completely "caffeine free", or even considered inferior when comparing normal coffee taste and decaf coffee taste, it's high-time to break the stigma.

Simply put, decaf coffee is made from regular coffee beans that go through a natural or chemical process to remove most (but not all) of the caffeine.

But what is the "caf" content is in a standard cup of decaf?

Amount of Caffeine in Decaffeinated Coffee Versus Caffeinated Coffee?

What is decaf coffee? To consider coffee beans officially "Decaf" involves the removal of most of the caffeine from regular coffee beans.

While there are several processes through which beans can be stripped of their caffeine content, the standard to which "decaf coffee" is held is that it must contain less than 5mg per cup of coffee.

Compare to fully caffeinated coffee, in which a typical cup will have a natural caffeine content of 50-120 mg.

Caffeinated Comparisons

To understand the amount of caffeine in decaf coffees, below is a breakdown of different caffeinated drinks:

  • Regular Coffee: 96mg per 8oz

  • Espresso: 64mg per 1oz

  • Decaf Coffee: 2mg per 8 oz

  • Black Tea: 47mg per 8oz

  • Green Tea: 28mg per 8 oz

  • Cola Soda: 22mg per 8 oz

  • Common Energy Drink: 72mg per 8 oz

How Much Caffeine is Too Much?

The FDA suggests that for healthy adults, up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day (approximately four or five cups of coffee) is generally considered safe.

However, individual caffeine sensitivity varies, and two or more cups of coffee can affect factors like metabolism, certain medical conditions, and how medications are processed in the body.

Those who are pregnant, trying to conceive, breastfeeding, or have specific health concerns or medications should consult their healthcare provider to determine if caffeine consumption needs to be limited.

Is Decaf Coffee Better for You?

The answer may seem anticlimactic - but it depends!

All types of coffee, regular and decaf coffee, offer potential health benefits.

Health Benefits of Drinking Coffee

Coffee contains antioxidants and other active substances that can improve inflammation and possaibly help protect against disease.

Research suggests that drinking coffee lowers risk for some of the U.S.' leading causes of death: Coronary Heart Disease and diabetes.

Coffee also contains high amounts of polyphenols, which help increase antioxidants and lower inflammation. In addition, regular coffee drinkers are less likely to develop Parkinsons Disease and other neurodegenerative diseases, according to some research, and on average have a reduced risk for liver cancer!

Go coffee!

Regular coffee specifically has plenty of well-studied benefits. One study showed that moderate dosages of caffeine can produce benefits such as increased awareness, focus, and higher energy levels. One may not, however, experience the full effect of the potential health benefits of caffeine unless they have 50 mg of caffeine or more.

Risks Of Caffeine Intake

Despite its' potential benefits, some people need to carefully balance the drawbacks of caffeine intake specifically before determining if regular coffee is a good drink for them.

The potential hazards of consuming too much caffeine are also widely known. Restlessness, anxiety, heart palpitations, trouble sleeping- all potential side effects of consuming over 300 mg of caffeine, and even less for some people.

Health Benefits of Drinking Decaffeinated Coffee

Decaf coffee, on the other hand, may hold the key to the perfect balance between the benefits of coffee and caffeine intake, while not overdoing it.

  1. Lowered Blood Pressure:

    Caffeine is known to lead to a short-term elevation of blood pressure. Regular coffee drinkers, especially those sensitive to caffeine, may experience high blood pressure.

    Choosing decaf coffee can be beneficial for individuals with hypertension or those aiming to manage their blood pressure. The reduced caffeine in decaf coffee may help in avoiding the transient BP spikes associated with regular coffee.

  2. Digestive Health:

    Caffeine can stimulate the production of stomach acid, which may lead to discomfort for some individuals. This can be particularly problematic for those with acid reflux, gastritis, or other related medical conditions.

    Decaf coffee is generally considered gentler on the stomach because it contains less or no caffeine. This study shows that people with sensitivity to caffeine or digestive issues may find that decaf coffee causes less irritation and a lower risk of discomfort compared to regular coffee.

  3. Pregnancy and Breastfeeding:

    During pregnancy, it's generally recommended to limit caffeine intake.

    High caffeine consumption during pregnancy has been associated with an increased risk of certain complications, such as preterm birth and low birth weight. Breastfeeding individuals may also choose to reduce their caffeine intake to avoid its transfer to the baby through breast milk.

    Decaf coffee provides a great alternative for pregnant individuals and breastfeeding mothers to enjoy the taste of coffee with significantly lower caffeine content. Drinking decaf coffee allows them to satisfy their coffee cravings without exposing themselves or their infants to high levels of caffeine.

How Coffee is Decaffeinated

There are four primary ways to make decaf coffee.

You may be aware that some chemical processes are used to decaffeinate coffee. At Philly Fair Trade Roasters, we offer organic decaf coffees decaffeinated through organic processes listed below.

Swiss Water or Mountain Water Process

The Mountain Water Process or Swiss Water Process is a method commonly used to remove the caffeine from coffee without the use of chemical solvents.

PFTR's Mexico Decaf Blend is made using this process! 

  1. Green coffee beans, prior to roasting, are steeped or circulated in hot water. This process removes some of the oils (and flavors!) from the green coffee beans.
  2. This same solution, called a "green coffee extract", is then used to steep the "target" beans. Caffeine is gently pulled from the target beans, while much of the flavor remains intact thanks to the "pre-saturation" process that the extract went through already. 
  3. With over 99% of caffeine now removed from the target beans, the extract solution can be filtered of its caffeine, and re-used to withdraw caffeine from another batch of beans. 

Interestingly, this natural process means that some decaf beans have a lower moisture content than usual, meaning that roasters don't hear the traditional "crack" during the roasting process as moisture escapes the roasting bean!

Supercritical Carbon Dioxide Method

The Supercritical Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Method is a decaffeination process that uses supercritical CO2 as a solvent to remove caffeine from green coffee beans.

This method is considered a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional solvent-based decaffeination processes.

  1. Green coffee undergoes a water soaking to enhance receptivity to extraction.

  2. Supercritical CO2, pressurized and circulating through the coffee, acts as a solvent, selectively extracting caffeine molecules.

  3. After separation, CO2 reverts to a gaseous state, leaving behind mostly decaffeinated beans.

  4. The coffee is dried to eliminate moisture before the roasting process.

Chemical Solvent Methods

Chemical solvent methods are traditional decaffeination processes that use chemical solvents to remove caffeine from coffee beans. While effective, these methods involve the use of chemicals that may raise concerns about residues left on the coffee. Here are two common chemical solvent methods for decaffeinating coffee:

Methylene Chloride (MC) Method:

  1. Green coffee beans are soaked in water to enhance receptivity to the solvent.

  2. Methylene chloride, a volatile chemical solvent, extracts caffeine by interacting with and removing these molecules.

  3. After separation, decaffeinated beans are washed and dried to remove any remaining solvent before the roasting process.

Ethyl Acetate (EA) Method:

  1. Like the methylene chloride method, unroasted coffee is soaked in water.

  2. Ethyl acetate, a natural compound found in fruits, serves as the solvent in the decaffeination process.

  3. Following extraction, the ethyl acetate mixture is separated, and decaffeinated beans are dried to remove remaining moisture before the roasting process.

Trichloroethylene (TCE) Method:

In addition to the above methods, another solvent-based decaffeination method is the Trichloroethylene (TCE) method, though the use of Trichloroethylene has declined due to environmental and health concerns, and it is not as widely used in the coffee industry today.

Triglyceride Process

The triglyceride process, the newest method to create decaffeinated coffee, uses coffee oils extracted from spent coffee grounds as an organic solvent.

  1. Similar to other methods, unroasted coffee is soaked in a hot water/coffee solution, prompting caffeine to surface.

  2. The beans are then immersed in coffee oil, where triglycerides selectively bind to the caffeine in the coffee.

  3. After hours of contact, the decaffeinated bean, with preserved flavor compounds, are separated and dried.

  4. Caffeine is extracted from the reused coffee oils in a sustainable, direct-contact process, offering an eco-friendly approach to make decaf coffee using natural coffee oils as organic solvents.

Drink regular Coffee or Decaf Coffee?

The research isn't perfectly clear that drinking decaf coffee has meaningful health benefits, and for many people the decision to go caffeine-free is more about how it makes them feel or how caffeine interferes (or enhances!) their daily schedule.

Philly Fair Trade Roasters offers a bean for everyone, including a brilliant Half-Caf blend of decaf and regular coffee for those trying to make a gracious transition.

Good luck on the search for the perfect coffee bean!

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