How (And Why) to Switch to Decaf

Coffee is awesome. Sometimes, though, the caffeine isn't. Photo credit:
Coffee is awesome. Sometimes, though, the caffeine isn’t. Photo credit:

Why the hell would you want to drink decaf??

This has been a bit of an ongoing conversation for me lately. Every time I mention to a friend or acquaintance that we’re drinking decaf now, some variant of the above is always asked. And considering the number one reason a vast section of the country drinks coffee is for that blissful caffeine hit, it’s a fair question.

As I mentioned in my previous coffee post, Raccoon and I both love our coffee. Sadly, we’ve recently discovered that the Raccoon has an MTHFR gene defect. (There’s a lot more to treating MTHFR than just going caffeine-free. But that’s a whole ‘nother post.)

And about six weeks before that, I found I was becoming increasingly sensitive to caffeine – headaches, nervousness, crazy mood swings, racing heart – the whole shebang. Another not-so-fun side benefit of my cup-a-morning habit was blocked sinuses.

The prescription for both of us? Ditch the caffeine.

These aren’t the only reasons you might want to switch to decaf, of course. Some of the more common ones are:

  • You’re pregnant. Current guidelines state you should limit your caffeine consumption to 200mg a day or less. That’s one or two coffees, depending on the brewing method and type of bean used.
  • You’re having trouble sleeping at night. Sometimes cutting caffeine for a week or two can help you see if it’s affecting your sleep.
  • You need to undergo an elimination diet.
  • You take certain prescription medications. There are some medicines that interact with caffeine, producing moderate to severe side effects. This list is compiled from, but I found it easier to read than the Drugs list. You can search for your prescriptions using the interaction checker.


General Decaf Tips

Find good beans. Coffee is a tricky substance – there’s about 1,000 different chemicals that, put together, make up the taste we think of as “coffee”. The challenge for manufacturers is to take out the caffeine, but leave the other substances intact.

As I’ll cover below, there’s a few different methods used to decaffeinate coffee beans. Some of them are better than others. Like most things in life though, you get what you pay for – the methods that leave the most flavour and aroma intact are usually the most expensive. So shop around. If you can, try samples of the decaf before you buy. If you’re limited to supermarket packets, buy the smallest you can until you’re sure you like it. Remember: if you start with shitty beans, you’ll get shitty decaf. Just like with regular coffee.

It’s important to know what “decaffeinated coffee” actually means. Standards vary between countries, but the EU considers coffee “decaffeinated” if it’s 99.9% caffeine-free by mass. The International Standard “only” requires that 97% of the caffeine be removed. Either way, you’re never going to get a 100% caffeine free coffee. Depending on how sensitive you are, even a cup of decaf might have too much caffeine for your body to handle.


Types of Decaf

Coffee beans are decaffeinated in a four different ways. These are the Swiss Water Method, the CO2 process, the ethyl acetate method, and the methylene chloride method.

All of them start by soaking green (unroasted) coffee beans in water. Then a decaffeinating agent (carbon filter, carbon dioxide, ethyl acetate and methylene chloride respectively) is used to remove the caffeine from the water. The first two don’t use chemical solvents, and I’ve found they produce better tasting coffee than the latter two. The Swiss Water and CO2 methods are also the most environmentally friendly, as there are no waste byproducts.

If you’re interested in the specifics of how each method works, check out the “Further Reading” links at the bottom of this post.

How to Taper

It’s easiest if you drink real coffee. Decaf beans (or grounds) are both easier to find, and better quality than instant. (Instant coffee will always lose some flavour during processing, and so will decaffeinated coffee. Having both in the same product is a double whammy of taste loss.)

If you don’t drink much coffee (one cup per day or less), you might find moving straight to decaf is doable. Since I was only having a regular coffee every second or third day, that’s what I did. There was still a day or two of withdrawal symptoms, but they were pretty mild and I got through them quickly.

Since the Raccoon has been a three-cup-a-day drinker for the last several years, he’s taking things much more slowly. Here’s how he’s tapering down. Remember that we grind 250g of coffee beans every 4-5 days in the Thermomix.

  • We started by mixing 50g of decaf beans with 200g of regular. We’ll keep moving the decaf weight up by 50g each time, and the regular beans down by the same. So the progression will look like this:
  • First “tapering” grind: 50g decaf, 200g regular.
  • Second grind: 100g decaf, 150g regular.
  • Third grind: 150g decaf, 100g regular.
  • Fourth and last “tapering” grind: 200g decaf, 50g regular.
  • All grinds going forward: 250g decaf coffee beans.

If this looks too scary, start with just 25g of decaf in the mix. We’re on the second tapering so far, and the Raccoon hasn’t reported any of the usual withdrawal symptoms.

If you buy pre-ground beans, you can do the exact same thing. Just mix the ratios in a glass jar, and scoop out of that, until you’re on full decaf.

If you grind your beans fresh each time, there’s two options. The first option is to grind up a day’s worth of coffee each morning, adjusting ratios towards decaf every 4-5 days. This will be easiest, and you won’t lose too much flavour.

Option two is to mix the beans themselves in a jar, and scoop out each time you grind coffee. It won’t be as accurate as the other methods, but that may not be a problem for you.

Hopefully this has given you some insight into the world of decaf. It’s not so scary, right? Be sure to let me know in the comments if there’s any brand of decaf you recommend. I’m always looking to expand our range.


Further Reading, if you’re interested

How is Coffee Decaffeinated? (Covers Swiss Water process and Supercritical fluid CO2 extraction)

Wikipedias’s Decaffeination article (Covers all methods of decaf, plus decaffeinating tea)

Scientific American – How is Caffeine removed from coffee?

International Coffee Organisation’s decaffeination page