Growers, roasters improve decaf

November 19, 2006|By Betty Hallock | Betty Hallock,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Decaffeinated coffee was always the stuff that garnered sneers from aficionados, but decaf drinkers now can feel vindicated, because a rich, flavorful - even exciting - cup of decaf is realizable.

"People are regularly astounded," says Peter Giuliano, director of coffee for Durham, N.C.-based Counter Culture Coffee and board member of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, who conducts weekly consumer tastings and often includes decaf.

"They always say, `I can't believe that it's decaf.' The message I always try to send to other coffee people in the industry is you've got to respect the decaf drinker more."

Some have already gotten that message. The variety and quality of decaffeinated coffee have grown, roasters are paying more attention to their decaf offerings, and consumers are drinking more of it. Decaf represented 18 percent of U.S. coffee consumption in 2005, up from 12 percent in 2000, according to the National Coffee Association.

To remove all that caffeine - 97 percent must be extracted to meet the international standard - the beans have to go through some distress - they're heated or steamed or soaked or exposed to chemicals. The consequence is that flavor is altered, but decaffeinators constantly tweak their methods to preserve flavor.

"Individual plants have perfected their technique, and they're really good at it," Giuliano says. And much of the onus of making a great decaf lies with the roaster.

Decaffeination occurs after fruit picking and drying, but before roasting. The three main processes for decaffeination use carbon dioxide, water or chemical solvents such as ethyl acetate (found naturally in fruit, so it's often referred to as a "natural process") and methylene chloride - a solvent that also has industrial uses such as removing paint. Experts say that because methylene chloride evaporates quickly, coffee drinkers aren't exposed to any residue.

Coffee companies often won't indicate decaffeination methods on their packaging unless it's water-processed, as it's the most marketable.

Betty Hallock writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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