Don’t Diss Decaf

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There is no question that Swiss Water® Decaf is a house-hold name when it comes to decaf coffee… and for good reasons! They have honed their craft over many years and continue to put out an incredible product. Maybe you or a friend is caffeine sensitive, or maybe you just want to cut back a bit on your caffeine intake this year. Swiss Water® Decaf is your best bet.

Recently I had the chance to get a personal tour of the Swiss Water® Decaf facility in Burnaby, BC. So on a rainy February afternoon in Vancouver, I made my way out to their facility.

I was immediately greeted by a friendly team once I entered their main doors and was escorted down to their processing floor where I donned a Swiss Water® lab coat & hairnet (sorry no pictures were allowed…LOL). Over the course of the next 45 minutes I was shown around their entire operation…trust me, the space is HUGE! The best way to describe it is it was like walking through a brewery. There were pallets everywhere, massive holding tanks reaching up to the roof, and a bunch of other machinery dedicated to one thing-making great decaf coffee. This facility runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year! If you ever wondered if there was much demand for decaf coffee, that previous line should answer that question.

What I noticed throughout the tour was the team members who you could tell loved what they did. There was quite the atmosphere of camaraderie. I felt like I was drinking from a firehose with all of the amazing information that I was being told. There is so much that goes into the process of making truly exceptional decaf coffee.

Image courtesy of Swiss Water

Before I took the tour I felt like I had a decent grasp on the decaffeination process, but Swiss Water® sent me over some info to be able to share here on the blog about what all goes into creating exceptional decaf coffee. They have an excellent website as well where you can find much of this and more.

A (very) brief history of decaf:

The very first isolation of pure caffeine from coffee beans occurred in 1820 by a German chemist named Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge. The first commercially successful decaffeination process was invented by German merchant Ludwig Roselius and co-workers in 1903 and patented in 1906. In 1903, Ludwig accidentally stumbled upon this method when his freight of coffee beans was soaked in sea water and lost much of its caffeine without losing much taste.

The Swiss Water Process:

Swiss Water® Process uses a unique, proprietary, multi‑stage, chemical free process that removes the caffeine from green coffee beans while maintaining the flavour of green coffee beans. 

  1. Beans are shipped to the Swiss Water® Facility: Beans are shipped to Swiss Water® from the finest growing regions around the world. Cleaned and hydrated with pure, local water to prepare them for caffeine removal, these beans are beginning their journey to becoming amazing decaf coffee.
  2. Green Coffee Extract (GCE): Internally developed GCE is introduced to the beans and caffeine removal begins. Caffeine ventures out on its own, away from the coffee beans into the GCE until the ratio of soluble compounds in the GCE to the compounds in the coffee reach the point of equilibrium. Caffeine and GCE flow continuously through proprietary carbon filters until all the caffeine is trapped and separated from the GCE. Then the GCE is refreshed so that it can be used again and again to remove more caffeine.
  3. Continuous Monitoring: For the next 10 hours, the Swiss Water® team continuously monitors the process and caffeine levels in each batch they are decaffeinating. They monitor time, gauge temperature controls, and check the levels on the GCE flow. The result of all this loving attention to detail is worth it — 99.9% caffeine-free coffee.
  4. Export: Finally, the decaffeinated green beans are shipped to the roasters and the specialty coffee brands Swiss Water® works with, so that the beans can be turned into something special. Swiss Water® is privileged to be one small stop on the amazing journey that brings coffee from unique places of origin to a customer’s cup.

The importance of a chemical-free process:

One of the biggest things I appreciate about Swiss Water® and their entire process is that it is 100% chemical-free. While this may not seem unusual to us here in North America the use of chemicals in the coffee decaffeination process is still quite common in much of the world.

The market for decaffeinated coffee is divided into decaffeinated with-and-without the use of chemical solvents. Did you know that more than 75% of worldwide decaffeination capacity uses chemical decaffeination methods, including methylene-chloride processing and ethyl-acetate processing. Direct chemical processing is the most prevalent method employed, whereby green coffee beans are soaked in these chemical solvents. Most jurisdictions regulate the amount of permissible residual traces of the chemical solvent in the decaffeinated green coffee bean. 

After my tour I had a few moments to connect with some of the team in their cupping lab. Getting to spend time with Mike Stumpf, Aaron Braun & Tom Bennett, was a great way to hear their insights into the roasting & cupping process of their coffee. Mike & Aaron also handle a significant amount of their green coffee purchasing and shared more of their philosophy and practice of sourcing great green beans to create incredible decaf coffee.

IMG_1216One unique takeaway from learning more about the roasting process with decaf coffee is that oftentimes the final product will have a more significant appearance of development. What do I mean? Well the bean will appear much darker than its identical fully-caffeinated counterpart. So decaf coffee often appears to be much darker as a roasted bean.

The image on the left shows the caffeinated coffee roasted as whole bean & ground in the left column and the decaffeinated coffee as whole bean & ground on the right. So even if the decaf coffee appears to be darker as a whole bean, when you grind it, it is almost identical as the caffeinated counterpart.

I can see how this could be off-putting to those who are newer to drinking specialty decaf coffee. I know that for myself, preferring lighter roasted coffees, if I were to open up a bag of decaf coffee that I was anticipating being in a similar roast profile and saw beans that appeared darker I would be shocked. These are the types of things that I love about specialty coffee. There is always much more to learn and discover.

So that next time you stop by your favourite local coffee shop, have a look at what they offer for retail and likely you’ll see the iconic Swiss Water® Process branding on their bags. And you know it’s going to be one killer cup of coffee.

It was an incredible tour, and I owe a great deal of gratitude to the entire team at Swiss Water® for showing me around, and sharing more about their history. Their facility is located at 3131 Lake City Way, Burnaby, BC.

So…can we finally stop saying “death before decaf”!?

Stay de-caffeinated,



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