Article: Demystifying the Swiss Water Decaf Process

Written by Cafe Campesino on Mar 1, 2003 in Article, NEWSLETTER |
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So, you’ve heard of the phrase Swiss Water Process as you’ve poked around your favorite local coffeehouses, or shopped online with Café Campesino, but you’ve never really understood what it means. Do you need to use imported bottled Swiss water to make the coffee? Does it have something to do with those little army knives with the screwdrivers, corkscrews and pickaxes? Are there magical Swiss elves who spray fire engine hoses at the beans until the caffeine jumps out in surrender?

Well, that last idea isn’t that far from the truth, actually. Okay, the part about the elves isn’t quite accurate, but the caffeine does “jump” out of the beans while being soaked in water. Perhaps I should start at the beginning…

Our friendly neighborhood CC roaster, Lee Harris, decides his customers need some decaf coffee. Lee orders the beans (grown by farmer cooperatives in Guatemala or Peru) from Cooperative Coffees, who send it along to the Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Company processing plant in British Columbia, Canada. The beans are soaked in hot water, which extracts both the flavor of the bean as well as the caffeine. Running this water through a carbon filter, the caffeine is removed while the flavor remains in the water.

This supercharged decaffeinated flavored water is then used as a soak for more green beans. (If you remember your high school chemistry classes, you know where I’m going with this.) Based on the principle of osmosis, these new green beans will give up their caffeine into the water (since there is none in the water yet) but not lose any of the flavor compounds (since they are in the water already). By continuously cycling the water through carbon filters, the folks at Swiss Water make batches of coffee beans that still taste great but have lost about 97% of their caffeine content. This is obviously a simplified version of the Swiss water process — for a great explanation with more details, check out www.swisswater.com, which also has a fun Flash animation of the process.

Now, why should you care if your coffee is decaffeinated using this method as opposed to the industry-standard chemical methods? Well, if you don’t mind the idea of your coffee steeping in harsh chemical solvents to remove the caffeine, then I suppose you wouldn’t care which method. If, on the other hand, you want to be able to purchase coffees that are organic (as all CC coffees are), then the Swiss Water process is the a great method since it’s one of the few certified organic decaffeination techniques.

You may have wondered, as I have, how much of a difference it makes to drink decaf instead of regular coffee. If you’re concerned about caffeine intake, there is reason to note the substantial disparity between the two. There will be variations depending on bean variety, and chosen methods of roasting and brewing, but on average “straight-up” coffee will contain 100 — 150 mg. of caffeine per 8 oz. cup, while decaf will probably have only 5 mg. As a confirmed caffeine addict, however, keeping up with the medical literature on the potential hazards or benefits of caffeinated coffee is another task, and one that I blissfully ignore.

Writer’s disclaimer: Let me publicly announce that I have never tried Café Campesino’s decaf coffee. People tell me that it’s great, and I believe them as I’ve never met a Café Campesino coffee that I didn’t wholeheartedly enjoy. However, it’s not likely that I’ll switch to decaf anytime soon. I recently refrained from coffee (read: caffeine) consumption for a period of two days. Apparently, I was not pleasant company (or so my friends tell me).

Nate Wayman is a caffeine addict who is currently studying non-profit management in southern Vermont. He can be reached at nate@ifairtrade.net.

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