New Twist in Decaf: It’s In the Bean!

Water and chemical methods of reducing caffeine from coffee beans have challenged scientists and engineers for more than a century, and the most winning result is the water method for reducing caffeine, oftentimes up to 97%. However, even this gentle method dilutes the inherent flavor characteristics in the bean that come from the fats and oils which tend to be flushed away in this process and more so in chemical decaffeination. What’s a coffee producer to do? Well, some of the best coffee producers in the world have decided to grow a better bean, one that naturally contains lower amounts of caffeine. One new bean claims only 1% caffeine, and most of the others say their beans have at least half of the caffeine of regular coffee beans. In a $2 billion niche of the humungous coffee industry, this is not only big news, it’s big business in the making.

November 19, 2008

Water and chemical methods of reducing caffeine from coffee beans have challenged scientists and engineers for more than a century, and the most winning result is the water method for reducing caffeine, oftentimes up to 97%. However, even this gentle method dilutes the inherent flavor characteristics in the bean that come from the fats and oils which tend to be flushed away in this process and more so in chemical decaffeination. What’s a coffee producer to do? Well, some of the best coffee producers in the world have decided to grow a better bean, one that naturally contains lower amounts of caffeine. One new bean claims only 1% caffeine, and most of the others say their beans have at least half of the caffeine of regular coffee beans.

In a $2 billion niche of the humungous coffee industry, this is not only big news, it’s big business in the making.

Results in preliminary taste testing have been mixed, especially for those who relish the full complexity and layered flavor profile of fully caffeinated coffee. Yet, some of these were remarkable in their fresh juicy coffee flavor. The venerable Japanese firm, UCC Ueshima Coffee Co., Ltd. has been in business for 75 years, making it a baby in Japan’s more than 400 years of coffee drinking history. UCC grows its low caffeine beans, branded as Bourbon Pointu (for its elongated shape and pointed end) on the isle of Réunion, off the coast of Madagascar. There, in support of French partners, and a cooperative of farmers, it grows an Arabica varietal similar to Coffea Laurina, the most popular low-caffeine bean varietal.  The result is a rich intensely flavorful bean with fruity overtones from beans with few if any defects. This rare bean, which hasn’t been grown or exported for more than 60 years, dates to the 18th century and is considered by many in the coffee industry as more significant than any other; its cost reflects that, too: $300 per pound. Its web site does have English translation, but US retail outlets are not yet available but distributors promise that it will be soon. www.ucc.co.jp

Dedicated to coffee for only two decades, the Brazilian firm, Daterra Coffee, uses an offshoot of an Ethiopian Caffea Arabica long known for its naturally low caffeine. The producers say its Arabica Coffee’s Opus 1 Exotic contains only 1% caffeine which is being marketed to roasters of specialty coffee. It is not genetically modified, grown with organic composting, and is Rainforest Alliance certified. It is currently available to wholesalers and roasters.

The most prominent name among these new coffees is Illycaffé which introduced its low-caffeine espresso last month. Called Idillyum, it has been nearly 20 years in the making when the company first began experimenting with the Laurina varietal of Arabica beans. After dismal tests in Brazil, the company moved the test plants to El Salvador and the results greatly improved. The blend of nine coffees, it has 0.7% caffeine content with an intense acidic flavor. Idillyum is sold in capsules for the company’s Metodo Iperespresso, wherever Illycaffé products are sold. 

The Laurina, which resembles a Christmas tree, is also part of the success story in Costa Rica where the highly-esteemed Doka Estate has planted this varietal at high elevations (5,000+ ft.) on its Santa Eduviges Plantation, a fixture for nearly 50 years. The results are a complex cup with excellent body and mouth feel. Both Caribou Coffee and Peet’s Coffee & Tea offer limited supplies. It will be available soon on its website, www.dokaestate.com
 

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