The process of decaffeinating coffee actually begins very simply. The coffee beans are submerged in a pool of near-boiling water, and left to soak for several hours. The caffeine is naturally extracted by the water.
This is great, right? Here’s the problem: What’s left is a flavorless bean. In fact, if you were to make a cup of coffee out of what is left you’d probably be unable to drink it. It’d be like trying to make a coffee out of the used grounds sitting in a filter.
So there is more to this process after all.
Once you’ve decaffeinated the beans by submerging them in hot water, the task becomes putting the flavor back in the bean. This is where the real effort comes in.
The primary method of returning the flavor to the bean is called the “direct solvent method.” This is where the caffeinated water is transferred into a separate pool, and a solvent is added that will absorb the caffeine. Once the solvent has had the opportunity to absorb most of the caffeine, it is then removed.
The solvent never truly mixes with the water, it is simply added to the pool to absorb the caffeine, so it is able to be easily removed. Once the solvent is removed, the water is added back to the first pool (with the beans) so the beans are able to re-absorb some of the flavor from the oils left in the water.
It is not possible to ensure that all the flavor is absorbed back into the coffee beans. So be wary, decaffeinated coffee is sure to taste at least somewhat differently than regular.
Some people may be concerned with the use of solvents due to health risks linked to a solvent that is no longer used. In 1975, trichloroethylene, which was a commonly used solvent at the time, was linked to cancer as a possible cause.
The two that are primarily used today, methylene chloride and ethyl acetate, have never been linked to any sort of disease. In fact, ethyl acetate is generally derived from fruit, so the chances of this being linked to a major disease are very slim. You will often hear coffee decaffeinated using this solvent described as “naturally decaffeinated,” for this reason.
A common misconception of this process is that all of the caffeine is removed. This is untrue. It is impossible for these solvents to absorb all of the caffeine. The law requires any coffee advertised as decaffeinated maintain a caffeine level of less than 2.5 percent. So if you’re concerned with the health risks of caffeine, you may want to steer clear altogether.
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