of Coffee Portfolio Strategy at Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Company, Inc, (SWDCC) my day-to-day focus is on quantifying how well we’ve done maintaining the flavor of the original coffees that we’ve decaffeinated. I also oversee green coffee purchasing, blend development and green quality standards-setting. These same tasks can (and should) be performed by any roaster selling decaffeinated coffee.
Sadly, many roasters don’t bother to actively cup, quantify or qualify their decaf offerings in any way, offering them only in a token fashion. The good news is that decaffeinated coffees and the market for them have come a long way since Sanka. At SWDCC, for example, we regularly invest in research and development to improve our processes and the results have consistently trended toward improvement. Decaffeination technology and practices today are better than they’ve ever been before. Decaffeinated coffees now can possess more origin character than they have had previously and because of this, more and more roasters are tolling specialty coffees for decaf that they would have previously not considered decaffeinating at all.
This all leads to only one place… the cupping table.
The best place to start exploring the possibilities for your list of decaf offerings is to cup before and after samples from various decaffeinators. This is what customers that decaffeinate (or “toll”) large batches do. In this manner, they can analyze the (hopefully) subtle differences between the pre and post decaffeinated green and roasted coffee.
However in cupping, it is important to remember that while there will always be differences between pre decaf and decaffeinated versions of the same coffee, the most important comparisons are those between different decaffeinated coffees. This is because the biggest consumers of decaf are exclusive decaf drinkers and they compare one decaf to another, not the (nonetheless important) “before-and-afters.”
Before You Cup, You Have To Roast!
Decaffeinated coffee loses some structural integrity through the process that removes its caffeine content. If you roast your decaf with the same roast profile with which you roast the regular green, you are almost guaranteed to tip, scorch and otherwise ruin your roast, and, with it, your decaf coffee’s flavor profile. Therefore, it’s wise to charge your sample roaster about 30° F lower than you would normally and slow your rate of temperature rise by two to three minutes. Patience with your decaf roast will always result in a more even, more developed roast.
If you’re not tolling your own batches of decaf, don’t worry! You can still comparatively cup your decaf against what should be a similar non-decaf coffee. You just can’t expect them to cup exactly the same. Depending on which method was used to decaffeinate your coffee, you can usually expect some artifact of that process to impact the flavor of your coffee in a subtle, yet perceptible way. We call this artifact the “process-note”, and it can range in its intensity from barely noticeable to overt and distracting.
Each method of decaffeination has its own advantages and drawbacks that can be understood only through repeated cupping of coffees decaffeinated by each process. Some processes will add sweetness, others acidity or body, each, at the same time, subtracting from other qualities. Ideally, the process should be invisible, neither adding nor subtracting and certainly adding no flavor of its own.
What To Expect
In many cases the decaffeinated bean will cup with a little less body and a slight decrease in acidity. That being said there are many cases where the decaf will score higher than the original bean! Just as decaffeination can diminish some qualities of coffee, so can it decrease the intensity of certain taints. This is often the case when comparatively cupping Sumatran pre and post decaf. Sometimes the decaf retains the heavy Sumatran body and medium acidity while slightly reducing perceived “earthiness” or “dirtiness.” This is one of the reasons why a heavy bodied Sumatran often times makes an ideal candidate for decaffeination. (But this is NOT to say that one should buy inferior coffees with hopes that the decaf process will “clean up” a given coffee. This, while often practiced by cost-conscious roasters, is a disservice to the decaf drinker and the coffee market overall!)
Whatever decaf process one chooses, it should always be kept in mind that all decafs age more quickly than unprocessed coffees. Decaf processing and deliveries, therefore, should always be “just in time” and much cupping should be devoted to watching the progress of each lot of decaf coffee delivered to your plant.
Considering the Source
Depth of origin character is of utmost importance. Just like with your other green coffees, you’ll want a coffee rich in origin character because you want to deliver that origin character to the customer, decaffeinated or not. Focus on finding the distinctiveness typical of that origin… the sweet mustiness of a Sumatran, the black currant-type notes in a good Kenyan. You don’t want to mess around with the run of the mill coffees. “These are ok coffees, let’s decaffeinate them”, is not the right thing to say to your self when choosing candidates. Make sure you’re decaffeinating freshly processed and freshly shipped coffees as opposed to old spot offerings that have been hanging around for a long time, either domestically or at origin!
Importantly and historically, highly acidic coffees have not been able to maintain that acidity through the decaffeination process. Recent developments at SWDCC have improved acidity retention, but I always caution myself against choosing high acid, low body coffees for decaffeination — instead I feel that ‘balance’ is especially important when tolling. This may be why, among roasters who toll, it is well understood that blends yield especially good results in terms of decaffeinated output. The basic rule of thumb, then, is that it’s important to remember that if you put garbage in, you’ll get garbage out. Decaffeination is not simply a way to blow through old coffee. If you do so, are you really giving an experience to your customer that will generate a return visit?
Relationship Coffees -
Decaf drinkers want them too!
Recently in the specialty coffee segment of the industry, direct input and output from roasters to farmers has resulted in an explosion of ‘relationship coffees’. With few exceptions, these relationship coffees are not offered to decaf drinkers. While developing relationship coffees, roasters should consider offering a decaffeinated version of those same coffees. There are so many opportunities to incorporate decaf consumers into the most exciting aspects of the coffee industry. (I would also certainly encourage roasters to develop a “relationship” with their decaffeinators…there is a lot of information that we have to share with each other, as I hope this article will indicate!)
The most important thing to remember when cupping decafs is to keep in mind the context of the finished product. Be sure to carefully cup decaf espresso blends as such, as the results may vary widely from the standard cupping method. Activities in and around the cupping table should be some of the most exciting and rewarding experiences in any specialty coffee business. The more often your decaf options are on that table, the greater your experience and expertise will become across the board! This will greatly assist your efforts to provide the optimal taste experience for your decaf coffee drinkers; a large and growing segment of the specialty coffee market.
Kevin Bavaro is the manager of coffee portfolio strategy at Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Company, Inc. in Vacouver, BC, Canada.