Decaffeinated coffee, or “decaf” is firmly entrenching itself in the specialty coffee sector as a highly sought-after product.
While early versions of decaf coffee failed to excite consumers, recent research shows the value of the global decaf coffee market is expected to reach $2.8 billion by 2027.
This growth may be attributed to technological advancements that have seen safer, more organic decaffeination methods come into use. These include sugarcane ethyl acetate (EA) processing, also known as sugarcane decaf, as well as the Swiss Water decaffeination process.
Sugarcane processing, also commonly referred to as natural decaffeination, is a natural, clean, and green method of decaffeinating coffee. As a result, sugarcane decaf coffee is becoming increasingly popular in the industry. .
To learn more about sugarcane decaf coffee, I spoke with the specialty supply chain coordinator at Sucafina, Juan Andres Gutierrez
How decaffeinated coffee has pivoted
As far back as 1905, the decaffeination process used benzene to remove caffeine from already moistened, green coffee beans.
However, it was found that long-term exposure to high levels of benzene can be detrimental to human health. This, understandably, concerned many coffee consumers.
Another early decaffeination method used methylene chloride as a solvent, dissolving and extracting caffeine from moist green beans.
The continued use of solvents raised the concerns of health conscious coffee consumers. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave these solvents the green light in 1985, stating the likelihood of health risks from methylene chloride was low.
These chemical-based processes quickly led to the “death before decaf” stigma that has followed the offering for years.
An additional concern among consumers was that these processes tended to alter the flavours of the coffee.
“One thing we noticed from the traditional decaf market is that the beans they were using were usually stale, old beans from past crops,” says Juan Andres, who also has experience trading in specialty coffee.
“So, the decaf process was often about masking the flavours from old beans, and this is what the market was predominantly giving out,.” he adds.
In recent years, decaf coffee has gained popularity, particularly among Millennials and Gen Z’s who are opting for holistic health options with food and lifestyle.
These groups are more likely to choose caffeine-free beverages for health reasons, including better sleep and reduced anxiety levels.
This is not to say caffeine has overall negative effects, as studies have shown 1 to 2 cups of coffee can improve alertness and mental performance. Rather, it is to provide alternatives for consumers who may experience adverse effects to caffeine.
Improved decaffeination processes have also helped retain coffee’s inherent characteristics, helping to improve the offerings reputation.
“There has always been a market for decaf coffee and the quality of it has certainly changed,” Juan Andres says. “With the sugarcane decaf process in particular, when the right raw materials are chosen, it really enhances the coffee’s flavour and tastes good.”
“At Sucafina, our EA decaf offering is consistently cupping at a 84 point SCA target,” he adds.
How does the sugarcane decaf process work?
Decaffeinating coffee is often a complex process that requires the expertise of specialised companies.
Once the coffee industry moved away from solvent-based methods, the search for healthier, more sustainable processes was on.
One such process is the Swiss Water method, which started in Switzerland in 1930 and gained commercial popularity during the 1970s.
The Swiss Water method involves soaking coffee beans in water before straining the caffeine-rich water through activated carbon.
It results in chemical free decaffeinated coffee and preserves the inherent origin and flavour characteristics of the beans.
Another more environmentally friendly decaffeination process is the supercritical carbon dioxide method. This involves using liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) to dissolve the caffeine compound and draw it out of the bean.
While this results in a smooth decaf offering, in some cases, the coffee may taste mild or flat.
The final method is the sugarcane process, which originates from Colombia. This method uses the naturally occurring compound called ethyl acetate (EA) to extract caffeine.
Green coffee is steam at a low pressure for around 30 minutes before being immersed in a solution of EA and water.
Once the beans reach the ideal level of saturation, the solution tank is emptied and refilled with a fresh EA solution. This process is repeated several times until the beans are sufficiently decaffeinated.
Then, the beans are steamed to remove all traces of EA before they are dried, polished, and packaged for distribution.
The ethyl acetate used is formed by mixing sugarcane and water, making it a healthier decaf solvent that will not affect the coffee’s inherent flavours. Notably, the beans tend to retain a slight sweetness.
One of the most important factors in this process is the freshness of the beans.
“Our approach at Sucafina is to pick fresh, raw materials where the acidity and sweetness of the coffee bean can be pronounced after the decaf process,” Juan Andres says. “We focus on the flavour of the coffee, as that’s one of the main aspects consumers are looking for with their decaf coffee.”
Should roasters offer sugarcane decaf coffee?
While many specialty coffee professionals are split over the potential for quality decaf, there is clearly a growing market for it.
Plenty of roasters around the world now offer specialty grade decaf coffee, which means the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) recognises it. Additionally, a growing number of roasters are choosing to use the sugarcane decaf process.
As the popularity of decaf coffee, and the sugarcane process grows, roasters and coffee shop owners could benefit from adding it to their offerings.
Most roasters have had pleasant experiences roasting sugarcane decaf beans, noting they tend to roast to a medium body and medium-low acidity. Often, the final cup has flavours of milk chocolate, mandarin, and honey.
To help consumers understand and enjoy sugarcane decaf’s unique flavour profile, it must be properly packaged and preserved.
Sustainable packaging options such as kraft or rice paper with a PLA lining will help ensure your sugarcane decaf coffee tastes great right until the last sip.
MTPak Coffee offers a range of 100% recyclable coffee packaging options made renewable materials such as kraft paper, rice paper, or multilayer LDPE packaging with an environmentally friendly PLA lining,
More so, we give our roasters complete control over the design process by allowing them to build their own coffee bags. This means we can help design coffee bags that explain the uniqueness of your sugarcane decaf coffee offerings.
Plus, we are able to custom-print coffee bags using innovative digitally printing technology, with a quick turnaround time of 40-hours and 24-hour shipping time.
MTPak Coffee also offers low minimum order quantities (MOQs) to micro-roasters who are looking to remain agile while showcasing brand identity and a commitment to the environment.