How Does the Swiss Water Decaf Process Work?

decaf coffee beans

QUESTION: How does the Swiss Water decaf process work? Is it really any better? How would water even work to take away the caffeine in coffee? – Graham H. 

ANSWER: The Swiss Water decaffeination method is the best possible way to remove caffeine from coffee beans. Not only is the process free of any harmful chemicals, but it also takes extra care to ensure that the flavor, aroma, and nutritional content of the coffee is not compromised in any way by the decaffeination process.  

In a market where decaf coffees that were processed using chemicals and solvents are the norm, finding a decaf coffee that is made with safety and quality in mind isn’t easy. That’s why we recommend only purchasing decaf coffee that has the Swiss Water process seal. The Swiss Water caffeine removal method claims that the process uses, “only water, temperature, and time to gently remove caffeine, while preserving all the coffee’s original characteristics.”  

The Swiss Water Process Explained

The way the Swiss Water decaf extraction works is actually quite complex. There is a video with a visual walkthrough of the entire process, and it looks like an adult chemistry set. To summarize, It’s all about the GCE, or Green Coffee Extract. Using water, the green coffee cherries are soaked and washed, which starts to remove caffeine molecules from the beans. The problem is, the caffeine compounds aren’t the only thing that is being isolated during the extraction. Other important water soluble compounds like sugars, oils, and nutrients, all of which compose elements of the coffee’s characteristic aroma and flavor are being leached out of the coffee right along with the caffeine. In the majority of mass market decaf coffees, the caffeine removal process does nothing to try to replace these beneficial compounds, or do anything to try to make up for the loss, and the result is noticeably bad. 

The Swiss Water process, however,  extracts these compounds as well as the targeted caffeine molecules, isolating them and separating them from the beans in a liquid form, as caffeine is completely water soluble. The result is fully decaffeinated coffee beans, as well as a liquid concentrate of all the water soluble elements that were extracted from them as they soaked. That liquid is the GCE we mentioned earlier.

After the 99.9 percent of caffeine is removed from the coffee beans and the extraction process is finished, the caffeine is then removed from the GCE entirely, and the newly decaffeinated beans are then soaked in the caffeine-free GCE to replenish the characteristics of the roast that were originally washed out during extraction. Whether solvents, chemicals, gasses, or (preferably) just water is being used, a lot of the coffee’s unique flavor and aroma can be lost or badly damaged by the decaffeination process. However, the Swiss Water method revitalizes the decaf beans by reintroducing the water soluble elements by soaking the decaffeinated beans in water. 

First, the Swiss Water team creates the GCE. Green Coffee Extract is made by soaking the coffee beans in water, which effectively removes all of the water soluble molecules in the coffee beans. Next, the green coffee beans are rehydrated, to prepare them for the decaffeination process. It is important that the beans be very moisturized before the extraction begins so that they are primed for the process, and cleaned of any dirt, dust particles, and silverskin.

Then, the coffee beans are soaked in the GCE solution for eight to 10 hours, or until 99.9% of the caffeine has been removed from the beans. It is important to use a previously made GCE solution for the soaking process, so that the water the beans are processed in is already high in the compounds that are easily removed with water. When the beans are soaking in the same molecules it is capable of releasing, a much smaller amount of compounds are lost in the wash. As the beans simply don’t release their water solubles at nearly the same rates when they are submerged in the GCE.  

Once the caffeine has been removed and absorbed into the GCE, a carbon filtration system is used to draw out the caffeine from the GCE so that it can be reused again and again. The carbon filters are taken to a furnace to dispose of the caffeine that was removed from the extract. The GCE is consistently maintained and reinvigorated so that it is not required for a new batch to be made for each extraction. 

A History of Swiss Water Decaf

The process was conceived of and first used in Switzerland in the 1930’s. 50 years after its creation, in 1980, the Swiss Water caffeine extraction method went commercial. The recent trend towards specialty hipster coffee snobbery around the world helped to push sales of decaf coffees that carry the Swiss Water process seal, as it is an organic, sustainable practice, which offers an improved taste and the peace of mind of knowing that no chemicals or toxic ingredients touched your decaf java. 

A History of Decaf Coffee

Decaf coffee has come a long way over the course of its short history. In 1820, German chemistry nerd Friedlieb F. Runge was able to separate caffeine from green coffee cherries, and the idea for a caffeine-free coffee was born. In 1906, that idea came to fruition, when a German coffee tycoon put a patent on the world’s first decaffeination method to develop decaf coffee for commercial sales.

The process included steaming green coffee beans with water and a cocktail of various acids and solvents, including benzene. Benzene is no longer used to make decaf coffee, nor is it still used as an aftershave lotion or an industrial solvent. This is because it is now known to be a carcinogen, and is recognized as a cancer-causing substance by the American Cancer Society. 

Today’s Mass Market Decaf

Though decaf is no longer made using Benzene, many companies still use a variety of chemical solvents to extract the caffeine from their coffee beans. One commonly used technique uses methylene chloride, also known as dichloromethane, as a chemical solvent to extract caffeine molecules from coffee beans. Though the use of Benzene has been discontinued in decaf coffee production, the EPA has decided to look the other way when it comes to methylene chloride extraction, even though the chemical has been banned as an ingredient in paint thinners and other industrial products because of its toxicity. It’s amazing to think that the chemical in question is too toxic to use in paint thinners, but that safety regulation organizations seem to think that it’s safe enough to use in decaf coffee production. No thanks. 

Another widely used caffeine extraction technique uses ethyl acetate, also called acetylated ethyl alcohol. Though this solvent can be created naturally, when used in commercial production, the ethyl acetate used is almost always synthetically made, which means it is technically a chemical solvent. Though ethyl acetate decaffeination may not be as dangerous as methylene chloride decaffeination, the chemical solvent extraction method extracts much more than just the caffeine from your coffee, taking out sugars, and other compounds that have nutritional value, and losing these precious molecules can greatly affect the flavor of the roast. When Ethyl Acetate is used to extract the caffeine, it adds a lasting fruit-like note, which would not otherwise be present in the roast. 

CO2 caffeine extraction methods use pressurized carbon dioxide which, while naturally occurring, the gas is typically distilled from industrial waste when it is being utilized for commercial scale production. Though the CO2 extraction process doesn’t use chemical solvents, does carbon dioxide that was distilled from industrial waste sound any more appealing? 

To make matters worse, when you look at the label of most big brand name decaf coffees, it will simply say that the caffeine was extracted from the coffee beans using natural methods. This is completely misleading, as these are the very companies that are using chemical solvents and gasses distilled from industrial byproducts.

Luckily, the big name brand deceivers are not the only decaf coffees on the shelves and available for purchase. These days, there are some truly natural decaffeination methods being put to use which can set your mind at ease before purchasing your new decaf brand. 

How the Swiss Decaf Method works, Summarized

The best of these processes is the Swiss Water decaffeination method, which uses only water, temperature, and time to gently remove 99.9 percent of the caffeine from coffee beans while carefully taking measures to maintain the coffee’s natural flavor, aroma, and health benefits. When purchasing decaf coffee, look for the blue Swiss Water process seal to be sure you get an expertly crafted decaffeinated coffee that was made without chemicals or solvents

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