An overview of the best decaf coffee

What to Look For In Good Decaf Coffee (Before You Buy)

Decaf coffee technically turns 200 years old in 2020. In this time, it’s come a very long way. However, we’re still often skeptical about the idea of great tasting decaffeinated joe. Perhaps that’s because original caffeine extraction methods were certainly not ideal. Which in turn, gave decaf a reputation for being watery, bitter and full of added chemicals.

So, if you're looking for a great tasting decaf, but don't know where to begin, this article is for you! We're going to cover how far this brew has come, starting with a brief history. Next we'll talk about what to look for in a good brand (the different methods and process used to decaffeinate, origin and batch size). Followed by the 10 best decaf coffee brands to buy. And of course, we'll end with our final thoughts.

Sound good? Great! Grab your decaf (or favorite brew) and let's dive in!

Coffee factory that uses solvents to decaffeinate

The Early Days of Decaf Coffee

When the idea was invented in 1820's Germany, the resulting product wasn’t intended for human consumption and it would be almost a whole century before a commercial brand was launched. Then, in 1903, the merchant Ludwig Roselius invented a decaffeination process using chemical solvents and his company, Kaffee HAG, launched a decaf product to popularity.

Some versions of the story say Roselius stumbled upon the idea accidentally when his shipment of coffee beans were soaked in seawater and lost most of its caffeine content. Others say he was inspired to develop the process because of attributing his father’s early death to drinking coffee.

Either way, decaf was born.

Unfortunately, the original technique used benzene (now a known carcinogen) to remove the caffeine from the presoaked beans. Later on, safer solvents were used, but as late as the 1970's, the flavor of decaf was notoriously bad, for reasons I’ll explore further on.

Nowadays, we have much more choice. Better raw ingredients and gentler, solvent-free decaffeination methods mean a better-tasting - and healthier - cup of decaf.

Here's what to look for in a good brand.

The Water Methods

Chemical solvents are the reason decaf gets such a bad reputation. After benzene, solvents like methylene chloride and ethyl acetate were used to decaffeinate coffee.

However, this method stripped the beans of a lot more than just the caffeine, destroying important flavor-carrying compounds.

Ironically, whilst there was less flavor, this method also left behind more caffeine than the more modern water methods described below.

The Swiss Water Extraction Process (Video)

The Swiss Water Method - developed in the 1930's but not popular until recent decades - is used by some of the best decaf coffee brands, along with another water method called the Mexican Mountain Water Process.

As the name suggests, the Swiss Water Method involves soaking the raw beans in water to remove the caffeine. However, there's more to it than that.

Swiss Water Process (Animation Video)

  • First, the beans are cleaned and hydrated with water, making it easier for the caffeine molecules to be removed.
  • Next, it is filtered through carbon to remove the caffeine but keep other compounds intact.
  • Lastly, the original beans are discarded and the filtered solution (which contains the same chemical makeup as the beans themselves, thus preserving the flavor) is then used to decaffeinate a new batch of beans.

The method is more environmentally friendly, gentler on the bean, and extracts 99.9% of the caffeine (though not 100% - all decafs contain traces of caffeine).

The Mexican Mountain Water Process uses water from glaciers in a similar way.

Look for the Swiss Water mark on the packaging, or other confirmation that the brand has been decaffeinated using a water method.

Carbon dioxide molecules concept

CO2 Method

The other alternative decaffeination method is the CO2 method, which uses carbon dioxide to dissolve the caffeine.

The process (which involves forcing CO2 through the coffee beans at incredibly high pressures) works selectively on the caffeine, because it is such a small molecule, unlike the other flavor-carrying compounds in the bean.

This method is good for preserving flavor, however it is expensive. The costliness of decaffeination means that some brands have tended to use lower quality beans to keep prices down. Additionally, because of the expense, it’s often used on very large batches of coffee. Batch size can sometimes affect quality, so these are two things to keep in mind when selecting a brand.

Shop owner putting decaf beans into a bag

Origin and Batch Size

One of the drawbacks of decaf is that the process is complicated, meaning that it usually happens in large factories many miles from where the beans were grown (often outside of the country of origin).

As well as not being very environmentally friendly, if fresh beans are shipped long distances to be decaffeinated, they may degrade in quality. If you're really interested in getting the best quality decaf possible, then it makes sense to choose a brand which processes in small batches in the country where the coffee is grown. This means the very best brands are likely to be single origin, rather than a blend.

Any decaffeination method will be time-consuming, and the resulting beans are more difficult to roast (they tend to be drier and respond inconsistently to heat). Because of this, a good brand is likely to be more pricey than a caffeinated coffee, but you pay for quality.

Young woman enjoying a cup of decaffeinated coffee

Best Decaf Coffee Reviews

Decaffeinated coffee comes in a huge variety of flavors and intensities, but it takes a careful and intricate process to produce a high quality brand.  

Here's our top 10 picks in decaffeinated coffee:

Stone Street Company decaf coffee

If you’re looking for an everyday cup of coffee that tastes great without the fuss of some other artisanal brands, Stone Street’s Mayan Water Decaf ticks all the boxes. They are also partnered with Sweet Unity Farms to fairly and ethically source their coffee.

This is a medium roast balanced cup with earthy notes, low acidity and a full flavor. The packaging contains a one-way degassing valve to maintain freshness.

Stone Street also offer two other decafs: Decaffeinated Espresso and European Fancy Decaf. These are both blends, unlike the Mayan Water variety, so go for the Mayan Water if you want the very best.

  • Method Used: Swiss Water Process
  • Single Origin or Blend: Single Origin for Mayan Water variety
  • Roasted in Small Batches: Yes
No Fun Jo decaffeinated coffee

Jo Coffee purchase from only the top 2% of the world’s highest-grade Arabica beans, and their decaf variety begins with the same excellent base before being naturally decaffeinated using a gentle water process. This coffee is organic, Fair Trade and on the sweeter side, with a full body and notes of milk chocolate and blueberry.

If you’re cautious about buying online from a brand you might not have tried before (Jo isn’t available from most major distributors besides Amazon, as they prefer to work with smaller stockists), this is one of the highest rated brands on Amazon, with over 5,000 positive reviews across all varieties.

  • Method Used: Swiss Water Process
  • Single Origin or Blend: Unknown
  • Roasted in Small Batches: Yes
Ethiopian decaf by Coopers Coffee Company

The aroma of coffee is a major part of the pleasure of drinking it, and decaf coffees should be no exception.

This medium roast coffee is especially aromatic, with a bold, smooth flavor and notes of chocolate orange, sweet lemon and black tea. Also try their Costa Rican Farm Gate Decaf, which has notes of honey wheat, bittersweet chocolate and molasses biscuit.

  • Method Used: Swiss Water Process
  • Single Origin or Blend: Single Origin
  • Roasted in Small Batches: Yes
Costa Rican whole bean decaf coffee

Decadent Decaf specializes in single origin decaf and is one of the most well-regarded decaf brands on the market.

Their flame-roasted Costa Rica variety won a Great Taste award in 2017 and is a balanced all-rounder, perfect for everyday drinking. It has gentle chocolate and nutty flavors, and is versatile enough for a variety of different brewing methods.

  • Method Used: Swiss Water Process
  • Single Origin or Blend: Single Origin
  • Roasted in Small Batches: Yes
Decaffeinated Mexican ground by Mystic Monk

Mystic Monk Coffee is the invention of a group of Carmelite monks living in the Wyoming mountains, who were looking for a way to support their community and had the idea of roasting and selling their own brand of coffee beans.

Ever since roasting their first few samples on a cast iron skillet in the monastery kitchen, they have slowly grown their stock to include more and more varieties, including a wide selection of decafs.

Their website offers some intriguing flavored decafs, like Cinnamon Coffee Cake, Huckleberry and White Chocolate Macadamia, but for a classic roast try their Decaf Mexican. This coffee is a medium roast and naturally decaffeinated with water, retaining the subtle chocolate and nutty flavors whilst removing all but a tiny trace of caffeine.

  • Method Used: Swiss Water Method
  • Single Origin or Blend: Single Origin
  • Roasted in Small Batches: Yes
Bulletproof original whole bean decaf coffee

You’re probably familiar with Bulletproof Coffee, but did you know it also comes in a decaf variety?

The Bulletproof brand is grown at high altitude single estates in Guatemala and only uses hand-picked crops (important, since when coffee is machine harvested, the beans can easily be picked unripe and end up damaged, affecting flavor). They also independently screen and lab test the beans to ensure that only the cleanest beans are selected.

This organic coffee comes in four roasts (light, medium, medium-dark and dark) with their medium roast containing notes of citrus, nectarine, cinnamon and hazelnut chocolate.

All of the other ingredients needed for making your brew truly Bulletproof are available on their Amazon store as well, but you need not follow the Bulletproof way to enjoy a cup of this coffee.

  • Method Used: Swiss Water Method
  • Single Origin or Blend: Single Origin
  • Roasted in Small Batches: Yes
Colombian Cafe Don Pablo decaf coffee

Grown in volcanic soil in Columbia, this coffee has a smooth, medium body with low acid content and notes of caramel, cocoa and citrus. The slow roasting process helps to slightly caramelize the natural sugars in the bean, introducing a slightly malty flavor.

Due to using a water method, it's 99.9% caffeine free, and because it’s picked and processed in its country of origin, you’ll know that it hasn’t been shipped any unnecessary miles before reaching your cup.

Enjoy it in a medium, light or dark roast.

  • Method Used: Swiss Water Method
  • Single Origin or Blend: Single Origin
  • Roasted in Small Batches: Yes
One hundred percent pure Kona decaf coffee

This 100% Kona bean coffee is grown in rich volcanic soil in the mountains of Hawaii and roasted to just between a medium and a dark roast to bring out maximum flavor.

Whilst they only offer one unflavored variety (flavored choices include Hazelnut, Irish Cream and Vanilla Macadamia Nut), and this is not decaffeinated locally (it is shipped to Vancouver for this process), they are a small, organic family brand which focuses on quality over quantity.

If you're ever in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, you can also drop into their unique cafe, where their coffees are available to try or buy - they even offer free samples.

  • Method Used: Swiss Water Method
  • Single Origin or Blend: Single Origin
  • Roasted in Small Batches: Unkown
Dean's Beans organic decaffeinated coffee

Dean's Beans really celebrate the qualities of single origin coffee, focusing on the unique character of each region given by altitude, soil quality and local farming methods.

Their shade-grown Mexican Chiapas Decaf is a smooth medium roast with low acid content and a warm, “cookie-like” nuttiness.

They’re also certified organic by the USDA and you can even compost the bags once you’re done.

  • Method Used: Natural Water Process
  • Single Origin or Blend: Single Origin confirmed for French Roast decaf and Mexican Chiapas decaf
  • Roasted in Small Batches: Yes
Simpatico decaffeinated low acid coffee

Sourced from small family farmers in Mexico, Simpatico Coffee is an award-winning decaf with a smooth body and woodsy, milk chocolate notes.

This coffee is also organic, Fair Trade and roasted in the energy-efficient Revelation Roaster, so you can be confident of getting an ethically sourced and high quality product.

Whilst the roast is bold and dark, it is also incredibly low in acid. A blind taste test by Coffee Review rated Simpatico the #1 low acid coffee perfect for those with sensitive stomachs, so if you love a rich, intense roast but find that regular coffee is too harsh, give this one a go.

  • Method Used: Mexican Water Process
  • Single Origin or Blend: Single Origin 
  • Roasted in Small Batches: Yes

Final Thoughts

When properly sourced and prepared, decaf can be just as good as caffeinated coffee - just without the effects of caffeine.

Whilst caffeine is safe for most people in moderation, there are plenty of reasons you might want to add decaf to your life. It's great for pregnant women or nursing mothers who want to limit or eliminate caffeine intake without giving up coffee. Also, it's ideal for any late evening coffee cravings without disrupting your sleep cycle.

As long as you choose carefully, there's no reason not to enjoy a good decaf.

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