What is decaf coffee? - Everything you need to know

From artfully crafted Turkish brews to pre-packaged grounds, coffee is one of the world’s favorite beverages. And the top reason why? According to one survey, 74% of coffee drinkers say it's the taste.

Decaf coffee has long been a popular choice for those seeking to enjoy coffee’s rich flavor without the stimulation of caffeine. Still, the existence of decaf raises more coffee questions: How is decaf coffee made? Is it truly caffeine-free? And what is the difference between decaf and regular coffee?

In this comprehensive guide, we will do a deep dive into decaffeination, exploring these questions and more. Here’s everything you need to know about decaf coffee.

How is decaf coffee made?

First, what is decaf coffee, and how is it made?

It all starts with decaffeination—a meticulous process that seeks to delicately strip coffee beans of their caffeine while preserving their distinctive flavors. Various methods have been developed over the years to accomplish this, each with its own unique approach. 

Today, there are three decaffeination techniques that are most commonly used in the coffee industry:

#1 Swiss Water Process

This method, renowned as a chemical-free and environmentally friendly approach to decaffeination, consists of four basic steps:

1. Soaking the beans in water to extract soluble components. 

2. Passing the water through a carbon filter to remove caffeine. 

3. Drying the beans and preparing them for roasting. 

4. Recycling the caffeine-infused water for the next batch of beans. 

The Swiss Water Process is perhaps the most sustainable approach to decaffeinating coffee beans, while also being highly effective. That said, some aficionados might argue that since the same water is recycled between multiple batches, the mixed oils and compounds might dilute the coffee’s subtler notes.

#2 Direct solvent method

Also known as the "traditional" or "conventional" method, this process involves the use of chemical solvents to extract caffeine from green coffee beans. Essentially, the green coffee beans are steamed to help dissolve the caffeine.

While this method has been used for decades, advancements in technology have led to stricter regulations and the development of safer solvents. 

Many of these modern solvents are designed to fully vaporize in the high temperatures of the bean roasting process, meaning the chance of ingesting any harmful chemicals is extremely slim.

#3 Carbon Dioxide (CO2) method

Employing pressurized carbon dioxide, this method relies on CO2’s unique properties to selectively extract caffeine from the coffee beans. Here’s how it works:

● Green coffee beans are soaked in water and loaded into a sealed container, exposing them to high-pressure (up to 1,000 lbs per square inch) liquid carbon dioxide. 

● The carbon dioxide interacts with the coffee, binding with the caffeine molecules, and drawing them out. 

● The caffeine-rich carbon dioxide is filtered, separating the caffeine from the gas.

● The purified carbon dioxide is recycled, and the caffeine-free beans are ready to roast.

This method is widely renowned for maintaining the integrity of the coffee's flavor profile during the decaffeination process, although it is far more expensive and less commercially available than other methods.

How much caffeine is in decaf coffee?

While the name implies that all the caffeine is removed, it's important to note that, in almost all cases, decaf coffee is not entirely caffeine-free. So what is the difference between decaf and regular coffee when it comes to caffeine content? Here are some numbers to clarify:

● According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, coffee that is labeled decaf can still contain up to 3% caffeine.

● This means that the caffeine amount in decaf coffee generally ranges from 1 to 5 milligrams per 8-ounce (240 ml) cup. 

● By comparison, your average cup of regular coffee contains anywhere from 95 to 200 milligrams of caffeine.

The specific caffeine content may vary depending on factors such as the type of coffee bean and the decaffeination method used. The Swiss Water Process, for example, can reduce caffeine amounts by as much as 99.9%. On the other hand, light roasts are known for having a higher caffeine content since it maintains more caffeine in the production process.

Thus, the quest for caffeine level reduction involves striking a delicate balance. 

The goal is to remove the majority of caffeine while still managing to preserve the rich taste that coffee lovers cherish. All that said, if you are avoiding caffeine consumption for health reasons, it’s best to steer clear of decaffeinated coffee as most of it still contains a small amount of caffeine. 

Decaf coffee vs. regular coffee

Decaf coffee and regular coffee may share a common origin as beloved beverages derived from coffee beans, but with the decaffeination process comes a number of key differences. 

When it comes to taste, smell, and all other essential elements of the coffee experience, just what is decaf coffee able to bring to the table? What is the difference between decaf and regular coffee? Here are a few distinctions:

● Flavor profile – Decaf coffee, although carefully crafted to retain its essence, may exhibit subtle variations in flavor compared to its caffeinated counterpart. Is coffee acidic? Yes it is and decaffeination can introduce small modifications to the coffee's taste profile, leading to a slightly milder, less acidic cup of joe.

● Aroma – Coffee’s signature, intoxicating aroma is an integral part of the overall experience. Decaf coffee tends to emit a delightful fragrance that is reminiscent of regular coffee but somewhat less pronounced. This is because the decaffeination process impacts the aromatic oily compounds in the beans, resulting in a slightly toned-down scent.

● Effects of caffeine – Perhaps the most notable distinction between decaf and regular coffee lies in the impact caffeine has on the body. Decaf coffee allows individuals to enjoy the sensory pleasures of coffee without the stimulating effects of caffeine. 

Overall, while an experienced coffee enthusiast would likely be able to identify key differences, decaf retains the “spirit” of coffee with its invigorating and earthy flavor profiles. But to what degree decaf shares these features with regular coffee depends heavily on the decaffeination process that was used.

The advantages of decaf coffee

What is decaf coffee able to offer that regular coffee doesn’t? With a lower caffeine content, decaf offers a range of benefits that make it an appealing choice for even the most casual coffee enthusiast. Let's explore a few reasons why you might consider swapping to decaf:

● It’s sleep-friendly – Caffeine is notorious for interfering with sleep, especially when consumed later in the day. Decaf coffee is a better java choice for those who want to enjoy an occasional iced coffee on a Sunday afternoon—without the potential insomnia that comes with it. 

● No more post-coffee jitters – Caffeine sensitivity varies from person to person, with some individuals experiencing jitters, restlessness, or increased heart rate after consuming regular coffee. Drinking decaf coffee allows you to enjoy the pleasure of a warm cup without the side effects associated with higher caffeine intake. 

● For health considerations – For individuals who need to monitor their caffeine intake due to certain health conditions, medications, or pregnancy, decaf coffee may offer a satisfying alternative. Additionally, drinking decaf coffee may be a suitable choice for those who are more sensitive to the diuretic effects of caffeine.

● It tastes milder – They say drinking coffee itself is an acquired taste—and the same can be true of decaf. Since the decaffeination process results in a smoother, less acidic cup, some may come to appreciate the richness and complexity of decaf coffee over caffeinated.

● It’s versatile – Decaf can be enjoyed in various forms, just like regular coffee. Whether you prefer a classic drip brew, a creamy latte, or a robust espresso shot, decaf coffee can be used as a base for creating a wide range of delicious roasted coffee beverages. Savor the ritual of coffee preparation and explore different flavor combinations while opting for lower caffeine content.

Whether you prioritize a good night's sleep, seek a gentler caffeine experience, have specific health considerations, or simply prefer the taste, embracing decaf coffee offers a delightful way to indulge your coffee cravings. So, brew a cup of decaf, savor the flavor, and enjoy a moment of caffeine-free relaxation.

Discover the delights of decaf with Breville

The world of decaf coffee is vast and varied, and we’ve only offered a fleeting glimpse into it. Yet one thing is certain: To get the most out of your coffee, decaf or not, requires the right tools.

Worried about finding the best grind for espresso, or what tools to use? From innovative coffee machines that boast precision brewing technology to espresso machines that deliver cafe-quality beverages in the comfort of your home, Breville's collection of coffee equipment is tailored to suit the needs of passionate coffee enthusiasts like you. 

Experience the joy of brewing with precision, extracting the full flavors and aromas that coffee has to offer.



1. Survey Monkeys. A look at why we drink so much coffee and what it means for our health. https://www.surveymonkey.com/curiosity/coffee-statistics/

2. Savorista. How does the Swiss Water Process work? https://savorista.com/blogs/savorista-blog/how-does-the-swiss-water-process-work

3. BBC Future. How do you decaffeinate coffee? https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180917-how-do-you-decaffeinate-coffee

4. Homegrounds. How Is Coffee Decaffeinated? – The Truth About Decaf Coffee. https://www.homegrounds.co/how-is-coffee-decaffeinated/

5. Hugo Coffee Roasters. What’s the (Real) Difference Between Decaf and Regular Coffee? https://hugo.coffee/whats-the-real-difference-between-decaf-and-regular-coffee/

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What is decaf coffee? - Everything you need to know