Last Updated on May 26, 2023 by Barry Gray
I admit I’m not a fan of decaf coffee. I prefer knowing I’m getting my caffeine hit with every drink, and I think most coffee lovers will feel the same. But I get that decaf has a place in the coffee industry, and it opens up several important questions to consider. One of those questions is whether decaf coffee does taste different from regular coffee?
At times, there may be some slight difference in the taste between decaf and regular coffee. However, the extent to which there’s a difference in taste depends on the extraction method and the coffee beans used. Yet, you may not be capable of really experiencing too much of a difference if asked to sample both decaf and regular coffee.
But one of the things I know about coffee is that it’s often way more complicated to understand coffee beans, their taste, and brewing methods than most people realize.
Often, people fall into the trap of thinking you just have coffee beans and hot water and ultimately get a drink at the end.
Well, I will try to tackle all those things over the next few minutes. I admit I had to delve into everything you need to know about decaf coffee because my knowledge wasn’t quite up to scratch there.
And do you know something? My search for answers may have just changed my opinion on decaf coffee.
Of course, it won’t result in me drinking decaf regularly. Still, I certainly do not have the same level of fear over it lacking something as I did before.
Is There a Big Difference in Taste with Decaf Coffee?
I think the best place for me to start is by stressing you should not experience a significant difference in taste between decaf and regular coffee. That’s because other things in the coffee largely contribute to the flavor aspect, not just the caffeine.
But there’s a problem.
A regular coffee drinker with a love of caffeine can often look down at decaf and see it as inferior. It’s surprising how many coffee lovers believe decaf comes with a chalky taste or is clearly lacking in something.
Seriously, some people don’t even see decaf as being real coffee, and that’s wrong.
Also, I experimented. I bought two coffees that were the same, with the only difference that one was decaf. I had someone make both and not tell me which one was the decaf, and do you know something?
I couldn’t tell the difference. Well, if I really stopped and thought about it, I felt one was slightly more mellow than the other. Still, that difference could be attributed to a slight difference in how it was prepared. There was certainly no way of choosing the decaf just by taste alone.
Is Decaf 100% Free of Caffeine?
But before I really go into all the details regarding the taste, I will address the issue of caffeine in decaf.
The mistake people make is they believe that decaf coffee will be 100% free of caffeine. Well, that’s not true.
Sure, it’s almost entirely free of caffeine, but no extraction method has the ability to complete the task. Instead, decaf coffee still has caffeine but in vastly reduced amounts.
Typically, roughly 97% of the caffeine will be removed. That means your average cup of coffee will have in the region of 7mg of caffeine, but that’s a big difference from the caffeine version, which comes in at anywhere from 70mg to over 100mg.
So, while it still contains caffeine, it’s not something you will notice.
But let’s go back to the main point of this post – the taste.
The Coffee Bean is the Key
The taste always depends on the coffee bean used to make the coffee, whether you intend to drink regular coffee or the decaf version. It’s the bean that delivers the flavor profile rather than anything else, so I advise learning more about the difference between various beans rather than the caffeine aspect.
Also, the way in which the caffeine is extracted from coffee beans does result in the least amount of tampering with the flavor.
How is Decaf Produced?
If you are like me, you just knew decaf was a thing and never thought much about how they could extract such a key component as caffeine from coffee. Also, when you then learn they do this without drastically altering the taste profile, it becomes even more confusing as to how it’s even possible.
But the reality is they can extract the caffeine in different ways, and the various methods are all intended to leave the flavors intact as much as possible.
Using Water to Extract Caffeine
Also known as the Swiss method, it’s possible to use water to successfully extract caffeine and leave your coffee tasting great. However, it does involve following a specific process to get this perfect and to prevent you from ruining the coffee beans.
The crucial step is to take green coffee beans, which means they have not been roasted yet, and place them in water. The water must be hot but also below boiling point, so it’s a fine line to get this correct.
The beans are then saturated in the water. Still, this water must be filtered through activated charcoal to remove the caffeine. After this, the beans are added back to the water, which also contains aspects of the flavor, and you then have decaf coffee.
I get that this sounds confusing as to how it works. Still, coffee experts claim this is the best method for extracting caffeine and preserving the beans’ flavors.
If it’s good enough for them, then I believe what they say.
Using Carbon Dioxide to Extract Caffeine
This method I came across uses a bit more science, but it’s still viewed in the industry as one of the best approaches for extracting caffeine.
The thing about carbon dioxide is it has a habit of hooking up with caffeine molecules. That’s useful because the coffee beans are effectively steamed in carbon dioxide, which then grabs onto the caffeine and is extracted.
What’s cool about this process is it doesn’t change the bean aside from removing the caffeine. It should really taste the same but without the caffeine.
The Appearance of Decaf
When looking at the actual appearance of decaf, it’s easier for me to compare an Americano. After all, it does mean I avoid masking the results by adding a lot of milk.
When I then look at an Americano made with regular coffee and another made from decaf, I only see a slight difference between the two.
To my eyes, the decaf coffee is slightly darker in color than you get with the caffeine version. However, there’s an explanation for that.
Thanks to the process that’s required to remove the caffeine, the roasting process is slightly different for decaf. It takes a slower approach to the roasting, which changes the color of the bean.
Ultimately, if you have to roast something for longer and at a slower rate, then the outer shell of the coffee bean has a tendency to pick up more color than it usually would.
Now, I should add that it’s not a case of all decaf coffee is then dark roast. That’s not true either.
Yet, it certainly gives off that appearance thanks to the slower roasting process and decaf extraction methods.
Does Decaf Taste Different?
So, finally, there’s the taste. Will you notice when drinking decaf just from one sip?
Yes, there may be slight differences, but I reckon relatively few people would have the ability to discern between the two.
What you find with the taste of decaf is that the coffee is just as rich, creamy, chocolatey, or fruity as regular coffee. That’s because the extraction of caffeine does not alter the coffee bean’s flavor.
Instead, the caffeine part is a different entity from the chemicals that produce the flavor, along with the roasting aspect.
But if you look closely, you can perhaps pick up some subtle differences.
For example, I mentioned earlier that my decaf coffee was slightly more mellow. Also, there was a bit of added sweetness, which I wasn’t expecting.
But these taste differences were not something you would have typically noticed. I certainly couldn’t have selected the decaf version in a blind taste test.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s the coffee bean that plays an integral role. You will experience significantly more differences in the taste when you try different coffee beans than you will ever get comparing decaf to regular coffee.
Also, it’s not only me that says there’s no difference in taste.
Different tests have been carried out where people who loved coffee could not differentiate between the two. So, that idea of decaf coffee being undrinkable is simply not true.
My Recap on Decaf Coffee and the Taste Difference
Decaf coffee is an interesting topic to explore, and it certainly opened my eyes to what is possible with decaf. However, as I’ve covered a number of different points, a quick recap of the crucial points will make your life easier.
- Decaf is not 100% free of caffeine
- The difference in taste comes down to the bean rather than the caffeine
- The way decaf is produced can slightly change the appearance of the coffee
- Decaf may be slightly darker than regular coffee
- Some decaf may be slightly sweeter than regular coffee
- You may experience a decaf coffee as being slightly more mellow in taste
- It’s usually impossible to tell the difference between the two with the taste
In short, I don’t believe you should be put off by the idea of trying decaf. I really think you would be unable to spot it when you were drinking decaf.
Instead, I would focus more on the bean being used and the flavors that come from the bean. That’s more important than allowing the level of caffeine to dominate your thoughts.
You may notice some changes in taste when comparing decaf to regular coffee. However, I think most people would be somewhat surprised at the fact the difference remains only slight.
But let’s not forget it does mean you fail to get your caffeine fix, and that could be the main difference for most people.