Serious Eats: Drinks
In Defense of Decaf
Decaf drinkers have it rough. Not only are they always the butt of (never very funny) jokes and the constant recipients of barista skunk eye, but they're also often reduced to settling for the dregs in their cups.
This is an outrage—and it doesn't have to be like this! I'm here to stand up in defense of decaf and its devotees: You're tired as hell, and you don't have to take it anymore.
I will go on record right here as saying that decaf coffee doesn't have to taste bad, so we can't automatically blame the coffee itself. In fact, I've enjoyed—yes, truly enjoyed—my fair share of no-jolt coffees, and I hold firm to the belief that all it takes is a little love and a little respect for our caffeine-free friends.
For one thing, the decaffeination process has gotten much more sophisticated over the past years, especially as specialty coffee has taken a stronger culinary foothold.
Some methods, like those that use water to draw the soluble caffeine out of high-quality green coffee, can be surprisingly able to maintain the integrity of the bean's flavor and aromatics, allowing fewer and fewer top-shelf roasters to rely on chemical-based techniques. Perhaps as a result of that improved integrity, roasters are also starting to trend toward putting better coffees through the decaffeination process, rather than saving the worst for last.
But decaf can only really taste good when it's fresh and brewed with respect. That's right: the real blame for the majority of the world's tongue-offending decaf is the wham-bam combo of stale whole beans and stale brewed coffee.
The first offense is perpetrated by cafes that over-order decaf, letting it get stale on their shelves since relatively few customers per day order the stuff. Easy fix: Order less, more often. If those big five-pound bags of buzz-free beans are sitting around for more than two weeks without being used up, then you don't need to order five pounds at a time, cafe owner.
Baristas everywhere (even me!) are guilty of the second offense: brewing and neglecting decaf pots, letting them sit and grow bitter in thermal carafes as the hours pass. Just because it's still hot doesn't mean it still tastes as good as when it was first brewed—coffee left languishing in an urn for half the day does eventually start to taste like the vessel it's sitting in. "Air-potty" is how we often describe this flavor, and the second half of that word is remarkably apropos.
There are two easy ways to solve this problem. A cafe might consider only offering decaf espresso-based drinks, thereby forcing each one be made to order. Drip-coffee aficionados can transition to ordering fresh Americanos (a relatively close approximation to filter coffee, made by diluting espresso with hot water), and all those latte lovers can still get their fix as well.
The other possibility? Stop brewing pots of decaf after 11am, and develop a by-the-cup program instead—yes, just like Starbucks did. Brewing by the cup instead of by the pot saves a cafe money (it takes fewer beans to brew one cup than one gallon of coffee, and if most of that gallon of coffee gets dumped out when it goes stale, that's even more moolah down the drain), and it makes the decaf drinker feel a little bit special.
Which, if you think about it, they actually kind of are: decaf drinkers should almost be held in more esteem by baristas than caffeine junkies. After all, these folks aren't lining up like zombies looking for a fix, they're drinking coffee for the pure love of the stuff itself. And why, if they're the folks savoring every sip, should they be pushed to the back of the line, forever being served stale coffee that's been sitting for ages in a neglected carafe, getting sludgy, bitter, and acrid?
Let's put an end to the dismal decaf situation. Demand better, my sleepy friends! I'm on your side the whole way.
About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook. Her latest project is Eat This Neighborhood, wherein she attempts to eat at least one thing at every single restaurant in the vicinity of her Chelsea apartment.