Decaf vs. Regular Coffee: My Taste Test Comparison (with Photos)

major dickason dark roast decaf and regular coffee beans side by side

QUESTION: I seem to have problems sleeping well if I have coffee after lunch, which leads me to consider decaf coffee. I am concerned about the loss of flavors – many told me the decaf coffee is not as flavorful as regular ones, even if they are of the same roast. How true is this? – Cindy C. 

NIGEL ONG AT CLEARLY COFFEE REPLIES: What you have heard may be true and not true. This is because how well a decaf coffee tastes may depend on many factors, with some decaf coffee taste much better than others. 

Let’s look at each of the factors below and then compare between actual coffee roasts.

What Factors Influence Decaf Coffee Flavor?

Decaf Process

Decaffeination is a process where caffeine content is removed from the coffee beans. There are three major ways to do this:

  • Solvent-Based Processes: These processes use solvents, such as ethyl acetate or methylene chloride, to get rid of caffeine from coffee. While they can be effective at decaffeinating, many are unsure about the chemicals being harmful to health.
  • Swiss Water Process: This Swiss Water uses water to decaffeinate beans without chemicals. Many believe it retains more of the coffee’s original flavor than other methods. It is probably the most popular decaf process.
  • Carbon Dioxide Process: This method uses CO2 as a solvent and is considered to be between the Swiss Water Process and the solvent-based processes in terms of flavor preservation.

Depending on the process chosen, the flavor of your decaf coffee may be similar, close, or far away from the original.

Roast Level

Coffee beans are first decaffeinated before being roasted. During decaffeination, coffee beans may have changes in moisture and other physical properties.

As a result, if you simply treat the decaf beans similarly to regular beans, there is a likelihood the decaf beans may not taste the same as the regular beans. Many roasters recognize this and adjust their machine for decaf beans. 

On roasting, decaf beans may look a little darker than regular beans as the decaffeination process softens the outer shell of the bean, making it become charred a little faster.

Coffee Bean Quality

Another factor is the quality of the coffee beans. Here’s the truth – not all coffee beans are the same, meaning they may taste differently after roasting, especially after decaffeination.

For example, some coffee bean batches may have large variations – some are small, while others are much larger. When coffee bean batches like this go through decaffeination, the smaller beans may lose much more moisture flavor and have an even softer shell. 

As a result, these smaller beans may char faster when roasting and become a little too dark compared to the other beans. This translates into poorer taste. The same could be said for beans with defects and uneven shapes.

Brewing Method

There are many ways to brew coffee. Popular ones include French press, pour-over, espresso, percolator, and more. Depending on your brewing style, some are known to produce decaf coffee that tastes different from the original. 

You may observe this issue if you brew your decaf coffee with more water, such as pour-over, French press, or drip machine. This is because some decaf coffee has less flavor than the regular roast. 

If you use a similar amount of coffee ground and hot water, the result would be a decaf coffee with a weaker taste than a regular brew. 

Brewing methods such as espresso are known to mask decaf coffee’s weakness well. This may be because it uses less water and brews coffee with a stronger flavor concentration.

Psychological Factor

Finally, there’s also the psychological factor at play. Some drinkers simply assume that decaffeination means stripping away the caffeine and some flavors in the coffee, which naturally also makes them decide that decaf coffee just tastes inferior. 

The assumption may have merit but do understand that not all coffee is the same, and not all will become inferior coffee beans once decaffeinated. Some excellent decaf coffee may be indistinguishable from the original roast.

Comparing Regular vs. Decaf Peet’s Major Dickason Roast

Now that we have discussed regular vs. decaf coffee in theory. Let’s compare them. Here, I have two of Peet’s famous Major Dickason dark roasts, one regular and the other decaf. 


You can often tell if the coffee roast is decaf on the packaging. Roasters usually print the word ‘decaf’ on the packaging to help you tell if the coffee is regular or not.

In this case, Peet’s made it very clear with a bright, almost fluorescent green ribbon on the packaging and printed the word decaf on the coffee. This should be good enough to prevent you from buying the wrong coffee roast.

My regular coffee comes in a whole bean, while the decaf comes in the ground. This, unfortunately, means we cannot compare the beans directly. However, I decided to ground the regular coffee beans down so we could compare the coffee grounds instead. 

From the picture, you may not be able to see the difference between the two. They are equally dark and consistent. Even when I look it over with my naked eye, I cannot tell exactly which.

Peet's major dickason dark roast decaf and regular coffees, side by side


As dry grind, both coffees have about the same aroma. There is a strong presence of smoky, woody notes with a sweet undertone behind them. 

If you pay close attention, your nose may notice a little more sweetness on the decaf roast, but it is subtle. 

I went ahead and brewed the coffee with a French press. I pulled out my Bodum Caffettiera for this. As usual, I used the 1 to 12 coffee-to-water ratio recommended by Illy Coffee, similar to my other coffee reviews.

I added 15 grams of coffee and 180ml of hot water at around 185°F (about 85°C). After stirring the coffee ground, I let the concoction brew for 4 minutes before pouring.

The aroma stays the same while brewing, to what I smell from the dry grounds. There are smoky, woody notes, indicating that this is a dark roast. 

Taste & Flavor

I prepared a glass of carbonated water and sipped it between switching drinks. This helps to cleanse my palate in between both coffees. Seltzer water should work, too.

To me, both coffees are, on the surface, similar. Both are smoky, intense, and bold, with the punch of flavor you would expect from a dark roast. There is a reason why Major Dickason roast sells so well – and it delivers the dark roast experience very well. 

I also picked up a bit of dark chocolate note, especially from the bittersweet taste of the coffee. There is also a bit of savory crispness, which reminds me of Graham crackers. 

For my palate, at least, I don’t really notice any major differences between the regular or decaf Major Dickason roast. If I am to nitpick, however, I would say the decaf version is slightly sweet, and only by a very small margin. 

To me, this shows the excellent work done by Peet’s Coffee, adjusting the roasting of the coffee to make the decaf version taste very close to the regular Major Dickason roast. 

Should You Try Decaf Coffee?

Decaf coffee may have a bad rep, but not all are as bad as many believed it to be. There is no reason to run away from every decaf roast out there, which is to provide a taste of coffee without the caffeine. 

If that is what you need, then go ahead and enjoy decaf coffee.

The key is to select decaf coffee from the right roaster, especially those with high standards. They are likely to make the right adjustments to produce good decaf coffee.

Leave a Comment