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History of Decaf

The Weird, Wild History of Decaffeination

The history of decaf coffee is long and colorful. It ranges from a man’s lifelong vendetta against caffeine, to a 70 year quest to refine a chemical-free decaffeination process. Oh, and Nazis make an appearance. 

It’s safe to say that, in the over 120 years since Ludwig Roselius first created a decaffeination process, decaf coffee has taken many different forms. Its image too has ranged from a chemical-rich, inferior brew despised by coffee drinkers, to its modern form as a roast every bit the equal of its caffeinated cousin.

Let’s take a look at how decaf coffee came to be, and how it got to where it is 

A pop art depiction of water

Ludwig Roselius & the Direct Solvent Method

Decaf got its start with a particularly colorful character named Ludwig Roselius. To this day, Roselius is still referred to as the King of Decaf. His motivations for creating decaffeinated coffee were downright Shakespearean.

Ludwig Roselius was born in 1874 to a family of coffee merchants. His father died young, and Roselius forever blamed this on his high caffeine intake.  With his life’s mission to decaffeinate coffee set, Roselius purchased a storefront on Berlin’s tiny Böttcherstrasse to headquarter his company Koffee HAG.

Legend has it that Roselius’s breakthrough came when he received a shipment of green coffee beans that had been waterlogged. After brewing the coffee, he realized that the soaked beans had dramatically less caffeine than conventional beans. The seawater-soaked coffee was undrinkable, but an idea was sparked.

From there, Rosselius developed a decaffeination process known as the Direct Solvent Method, which he patented in 1906. This is still in use today with very few modifications. This process involved using steam and the chemical solvent benzine to draw caffeine out of unroasted, green coffee beans. The benzine was (mostly) removed by washing the coffee beans numerous times. Although this greatly reduced the beans’s caffeine content, the benzine could be never fully washed out. In the years since, benzine has been swapped out for ethyl acetate due to benzine’s status as a carcinogen. This process also seriously affected the quality of the coffee beans themselves, something that later methods would seek to rectify. 

Ludwig Roselius began selling his decaffeinated beans through his company Koffee HAG. The name was changed in France to Cafe Sanka derived from the French words for “sans-caffeine”. The name Sanka struck, and it was imported to America under this name. To this day, Sanka is still commercially available as a product from Kraft-Heinz. While its market cap has diminished from the days when Sanka was shorthand for decaf itself, Roselius’s invention lives on.

Roselius’s life remained colorful right up to the end. In the 1920s, he developed Berlin’s tiny Böttcherstrasse into a mecca of Brick Expressionist art and architecture. The Böttcherstrasse remains a historically protected, culturally important area to this day.

A political conservative, Roselius initially supported the rising Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler. After Hitler declared the Böttcherstrasse to be “degenerate art”, however, Roselius’s feelings began to change. Roselius’s daughter credited his business partner and confidant Barbara Goette with steering him away from Nazism. In 1942, he joined the German Resistance movement.

Roselius died in 1943 with Goette by his side. His wide ranging life included not only the invention of decaf coffee, but also innovations in the early aviation field. Before he died, however, he made one final mark on the decaffeination process.

The Indirect Solvent Method

In 1941, Roselius tweaked his decaffeination process. In doing so, he created another long lasting method for creating decaf. This process is known as the Indirect Solvent Method. 

This method involves steeping green coffee beans in hot water. While soaking, caffeine is drawn out of the raw coffee beans. Think of this caffeine as the starch that leaches out of pasta when it is boiled. After the beans have soaked for up to three hours, the water is flushed out and then treated with a solvent to remove the caffeine from the water. The resulting water still contains compounds that are crucial to coffee’s flavor. The water is therefore returned to the coffee, which allows the beans to reabsorb these compounds.

This method produces a smoother cup of coffee than the direct method, but it still relies on a chemical solvent. In 1975, one of the most commonly used solvents, trichloroethylene, was named a probable cause of cancer. Chemicals like this gave decaf coffee its reputation as a health risk throughout the 20th century. Even as safer solvents were introduced, it was hard to overcome being associated with a known carcinogen.

Today, Ethyl-Acetate is often used as the solvent in the Indirect Solvent Method. This is frequently referred to as the Sugarcane Method, as Ethyl-Acetate is an all-natural compound derived from sugarcane. This method has become popular with some craft decaf roasters, as it preserves the coffee beans’ acidity and brightness, while also providing a chemical-free cup of decaf.

Even more so than the Sugarcane Process, however, one process towers over modern decaffeination: The Swiss Water Process.

The Swiss Water Process

The Swiss Water Process

The Swiss Water Process technically predates the Indirect Water Process. It was first developed in 1933, in (where else) Switzerland. For decades, this process remained the only chemical-free way to decaffeinate coffee beans. There was just one catch: from its invention in 1933 until the 1970s, it remained commercially unviable. 

In 1980, the Swiss company Coffex S.A. developed the first commercial take on the Swiss Water Process. Still, this process produced coffee beans that were difficult to roast. Moreover, the actual amount of caffeine removed from the beans varied from batch-to-batch. On top of this, the process remained inefficient to conduct. 

It wasn’t until 2007 – a full 74 years after the method was first developed – that a truly commercially viable Swiss Water Process was created. The timing was fortuitous. By 2007, specialized coffee had undergone a renaissance. With it came a decaf method that finally ushered us out of the decaf dark ages and into today.

So how does the Swiss Water Process work? It remains a long and exacting process, usually taking 10 hours to complete. There are two key additions that the Swiss process relies on: specialized carbon filters and Green Coffee Extract (GCE.) 

GCE is made by soaking green coffee in hot water until all of the water-soluble solids in the beans have been extracted into the water. The coffee is then removed, and the caffeine is filtered out through proprietary carbon filters. The filters are designed to remove caffeine, while leaving all of the other water-soluble solids behind.

The now caffeine-free GCE is then introduced to a batch of green coffee. The GCE naturally draws caffeine out of the coffee beans. It then passes again through the carbon filters, which again remove caffeine from the GCE. This process is repeated and carefully monitored until almost all of the caffeine has been removed from the coffee.

Unlike the Direct and Indirect Solvent Methods, the Swiss Water Process is able to remove 99.9% of the caffeine content from a coffee bean, making it a far more effective decaffeination process. Because it is chemical free, it also has significantly higher health benefits than most other methods.

There remain other forms of decaffeination, such as the Supercritical C02 Method (a name that sounds like an accessory in a cyberpunk novel.) Supercritical remains fairly rare today. Although it is an environmentally safe decaffeination method, this method has also been linked to hazardous working conditions.

The Swiss Water Process, on the other hand, remains essentially the industry-standard method for the craft decaf boom, along with the Sugarcane Process. The Swiss Water Process has been replicated in other procedures as well, such as the Mountain Water Process. It is also a sustainable practice. 85% of the water used in the process is returned to community drinking sources. And for our purposes, it remains a top method to create decaffeinated beans that taste pretty much identical to their caffeinated cousins. 

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