The Difference Between Decaf and Regular Coffee

As coffee becomes more and more popular by the day, new coffee varieties start joining the coffee world in order to make it more accommodating for everyone. Being able to find things like lactose-free coffee, or coffee which is prepared with dairy-free milk in almost every coffee shop helps everyone to enjoy coffee without worry.

Decaf coffee is also something that is a staple in almost every coffee shop nowadays, and its popularity keeps increasing every day. You’ll notice that the word decaf gets thrown around a lot more at the coffee shops lately, showing that plenty of people are giving regular coffee up in favor of decaf.

But what really is decaf coffee, and how does it separate from regular coffee? Let’s find out.

What Is Decaf Coffee?

Decaf is short for decaffeinated, which means that decaf coffee stands for decaffeinated coffee. Although not completely free of caffeine, the caffeine content of decaf coffee is negligible.

To achieve this, coffee beans go through a process called decaffeination which causes them to lose a big portion of their caffeine content. Coffee beans that go through this process contain anywhere from 0.1 to 3 percent caffeine compared to regular coffee beans, meaning that a cup of decaf coffee has even fewer calories than a cup of tea. 

The caffeine content of decaf coffee has to follow the standard of a maximum of 3 percent in the US, and 0.1 percent in the EU.

Origin

The first commercially successful decaffeination process was invented in Germany in 1903 by a coffee merchant called Ludwig Roselius. 

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that coincidence played a big role in the invention of decaffeination as the process was discovered after a shipment of coffee beans were soaked in water by accident, losing most of their caffeine content while retaining their flavor. 

Decaffeination Process

There are a few different methods that can be used to decaffeinate coffee. All of these methods utilize certain types of solvents that allow caffeine to be extracted from unroasted coffee beans while keeping the flavor intact.

Direct Method

The direct method is the first method ever to be used for coffee decaffeination. For this process, coffee beans are first steamed with acids or bases, and then rinsed with the help of a solvent. In the early days, benzene was the solvent choice for this process, but because of health risks associated with using benzene, solvents such as dichloromethane and ethyl acetate are used instead in today’s world.

Applying this process only one time isn’t enough to completely decaffeinate the coffee beans, which is why this process is applied multiple times until the caffeine content reaches a level that meets the standard.

Indirect Method

The indirect method is a different variation of the direct method where the process starts with the soaking of coffee beans into hot water. The beans are then removed, and solvents are used in order to remove the caffeine from the water. This process is repeated with the same water and new coffee beans until both the water and the coffee beans essentially share the same properties, making it so that the water can’t absorb anything other than caffeine from the coffee beans, leaving the flavor of coffee intact.

Also known as water processed decaffeination, this method was invented as an effort to make the decaffeination process completely water-based, without the need to use solvents.

Swiss Water Process

The Swiss Water process differentiates itself from the previous two methods by only using water for the decaffeination process. To start off, unroasted coffee beans are soaked in hot water and then filtered through a charcoal filter to remove caffeine and obtain a solution called GCE (Green Coffee Extract). 

When the GCE is ready, a new batch of unroasted coffee beans is added to this solution, which results in caffeine from the beans transferring to the solution. Since the GCE is caffeinated now, it’s passed through carbon filters to remove the caffeine once again, and this process is repeated until the beans are decaffeinated.

Triglyceride Process

The Triglyceride process also starts soaking unroasted coffee beans in a mixture of hot water and coffee, drawing the caffeine to the surface of the beans. Beans are then removed from the solution, and soaked in coffee oils at high temperatures.

The oils draw the caffeine from the beans, allowing the beans to be separated from the oils in a caffeine-free form. 

Supercritical CO2 Process

The Supercritical CO2 process leverages the fact that carbon dioxide is able to act both as gas and liquid at the right temperature and pressure.

Unroasted coffee beans are first steamed and then added to a pressurized container where a mixture of carbon dioxide and water circulates through the container. By providing the correct pressure and temperature, the carbon dioxide acts as a supercritical fluid, allowing the caffeine to dissolve into the carbon dioxide while keeping the flavor of the beans intact.

How Is Decaf Different Than Regular Coffee?

Caffeine Content

The main difference between decaf and regular coffee is the caffeine content. Decaf coffee contains a very small amount of caffeine in comparison to regular coffee, to a point where the caffeine amount in decaf is negligible.

While a regular 8 oz. cup of coffee contains roughly 100mg of caffeine, an equivalent cup of decaf coffee contains roughly 2mg of caffeine. This means that you would have to drink around 50 cups of decaf to intake the same amount of caffeine as you would with regular coffee. 

Please note that the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee can vary depending on a lot of factors, and these figures are only approximations.

Taste

While there shouldn’t be a big taste difference between the two on paper, people often report that their decaf coffee tastes much worse than regular coffee.

This difference is often caused by the quality difference in beans used and the quality of the decaffeination process. 

Since the decaffeination process is considered to be expensive, the coffee beans used in decaf coffee is often inferior to regular coffee in order to reduce costs. These beans are inherently bitter for the most part, meaning that they don’t exactly provide the greatest coffee experience.

On top of this, chemical decaffeination methods are often preferred by coffee makers due to the fact that they are cheaper, and these methods end up removing part of the natural flavor of the coffee along with the caffeine. 

With decaf coffee of higher quality (produced with better beans and a better decaffeination method), you’ll most likely never notice the taste difference.

Choosing Between Decaf and Regular Coffee

Regardless of caffeine content, there are many tasty coffee drinks one can have. While coffee was simply a way to get caffeinated for a while, nowadays the world of coffee is much bigger than that, which is why decaf coffee is gaining a lot of popularity.

If you are someone who really enjoys coffee drinks, you can simply start your day off with a cup of two of regular coffee, and then keep having decaf coffee throughout the day in order to avoid having more caffeine than recommended. This way, you can have your dose of caffeine to get you going in the morning, and have as much coffee as you want during the day without having to worry.

If you simply don’t like the effects of intaking high levels of caffeine, and this prevents you from having coffee, you can just go for decaf and enjoy any coffee drink you want to. Even though decaf coffee sometimes gets a bad rep by people who think the only reason for drinking coffee is caffeine, it comes down to preference at the end of the day, so if you enjoy decaf, just keep enjoying it.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

How many cups of decaf is equal to regular coffee in terms of caffeine?

While it’s hard to say a concrete figure due to the fact that there is a lot of factors when it comes to the caffeine content in a cup of coffee, a rough estimate would be around 30 cups if we do the calculation based on the US standard for maximum caffeine level in decaf coffee.

Since the US standard states that decaf coffee beans should contain a maximum of 3% caffeine compared to regular coffee beans, it would require 33.3 cups of decaf coffee to match the caffeine content of a regular cup of coffee.

How many cups of decaf can I drink in a day?

In terms of caffeine, there is almost no chance that you can hit the daily limit for caffeine by just drinking decaf coffee, meaning that you can have as much decaf as you want.

That being said, just like everything else, drink coffee in moderation.

Conclusion

Coffee has a lot more to offer than just caffeine, which is why we think that decaf coffee is definitely a great addition to the coffee world.

After all, everyone should be able to enjoy coffee, and allowing people to customize their coffee in a way that suits them brings nothing but positives to the table.

Enjoy your coffee!