The time has come. Let us remove the stigma from the orange coaster. Science has taken us far from the flavorless decaf of olde and heralded an era of decaffeination where taste, not buzz, is king. Decaf drinkers, after all, are worthy of our respect. They reach for a cup, and put in the effort to brew the best, all for pure flavor experience—none of this half-cocked, sleepy-eyed early-a.m. drug-fix stuff the rest of us struggle with while trying to dig out of the bleak pit of the morning.
And connoisseur though I may attempt to be, I found my own biases checked quickly when brushing up for this article. Decaf was all nice and fine, I thought, but it wouldn't ever taste good enough that I'd select to drink it. But months of tasting, and a trip to Burnaby, British Columbia's Swiss Water Process decaffeination plant, swayed my groggy mind towards the growing possibilities for those who don't, or can't, choose to ride the caffeine train. I noticed myself wanting to drink the decafs on my counter just for the taste of it—I think this means the orange coasters have won a battle here.
Natural processes of decaffeination available nowadays, such as Swiss Water, which eschews chemicals in favor of a pretty amazing soaking-green-coffee-in-decaffeinated-green-coffee-extract method, allow for green coffee beans to release caffeine molecules while retaining as much integrity to the flavor compounds of the bean as possible. Decafs these days are capable of coming out of the gate with great nuance of flavor, minus that tiny bit of edge.
Roasters are taking more and more care in selecting coffees that would taste great as decaf, and putting them through processes like Swiss Water that will leave them tasting like the coffees they are supposed to taste like. I tasted my way through an assortment of options alongside the talented Michelle Warner of The Brooklyn Kitchen, die-hard-decaf drinker. What follows is the best of the best that will still let you sleep at night.
Four Barrel Decaf Buena Vista, Bolivia
I love Four Barrel's caffeinated coffees, but the mellowness of this Bolivia might have been too much of a challenge for taking the "bite" out of the cup. It's light and sweet, soft and gently chocolatey, but a little unspectacular. (We're quick to acknowledge that it flew in a regular coffee bag across the country to us, so those more local to the San Francisco roaster may have a slightly punchier experience.) All that said: this is a gentle and delicious cup that would be perfectly suited to a post-meal wind down. Go ahead and have two.
Coava Decaf Capucas, Honduras
Now we're really getting somewhere—Portland roaster Coava's single origin decaf Honduras promises big up front, with a floral aroma followed by sips of very fruity, balanced and delicate coffee. Notes of citrus, berry leaf and milk chocolate took my mind off of any fancy scientific filtering processes, leaving me only with a huge-bodied, delicious cup. Michelle and I found this exceptionally easy to enjoy, and leagues above most decafs out there. Cheers to Coava for taking such great care to offer a single origin decaf with so much character.
Batdorf & Bronson Decaf Dancing Goats Blend
Now, blends are a tried and true science of trying to bring out the best in flavor under any circumstances, like, for instance, putting your coffee through a decaffeination process. They're shooting for mild, safe and smooth, but we mostly got toasty roasty out of this one. (Batdorf also offers a decaffeinated Peru that is somewhat lighter and more character-filled.) However, drinkers of darker roasts will likely find this on par with the flavors they like best—sweet and dark and rich—and I totally bet you could sneak a cup of decaf past them just like in the good old days on TV.
Intelligentsia House Decaf
Another blend here aimed at creating a dependable, tasty decaf experience for the cautious drinker. We liked the intense flavors: fruity and tart with an intact acidity that kept some fun on the safe side of the street. A solid, flavorful blend here—you could change my morning coffee to this decaf and I totally would not notice until the horrible, crippling headache set in.
Cafe Grumpy Decaf La Igualdad, Guatemala
Not beating around the bush, this decaf is totally delicious. Intensely fruity, and the "most drinkable" of any coffee we sampled, Michelle and I were both taken by the juicy bite of this sweet-orange citrusy Guatemalan. If some decafs lack a certain je ne sais quoi (even if we all know what the quoi is), this decidedly doesn't: it's all round and bright and full of fun. Have three! You'll go to bed early and happy.
Thanks to Coava, Four Barrel, and Batdorf & Bronson for samples provided for review.
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently compiling photographs of the best coffee in the world to be published by Presspop later this year.