If you like to drink caffeine-free coffee the next time you make one you should raise your cup and toast to the memory of Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge. Runge was a 19th-century German chemist who caught the attention of Goethe, the German poet who was also a science enthusiast. Goethe had heard of Runge’s pioneering research into belladonna, a poisonous plant. Runge had managed to isolate from the plant a compound that caused the muscles of the eye to dilate if swallowed.
Goethe had received a box of coffee beans and asked Runge to analyze them. Caffeine is present in other beverages and foods, especially tea and chocolate, but it is closely related to coffee. It is a stimulant and also an appetite suppressant, so it is widely used by students preparing for exams, people working at night, and anyone in general who needs to be awake.
But caffeine is as good as it is bad
Caffeine can cause anxiety, insomnia, diarrhea, excessive sweating, accelerated heart rate, and muscle tremors. For many people, the pleasure of drinking coffee is outweighed by the negatives of caffeine. Can caffeine be eliminated from coffee? Is caffeine-free coffee health?
As we can see in any supermarket shelf, the answer is yes. But the process is not as simple as one might think. The first person to discover a practical method of decaffeination was another German, Ludwig Roselius, head of the Kaffee HAG coffee company.
Roselius discovered the secret of decaffeination by accident. In 1903 a shipment of coffee had been covered by seawater during its transfer. That caused the caffeine to evaporate but did not affect the taste. Roselius developed an industrial method to repeat it by steam bathing the coffee beans with various acids before using the resulting benzene to eliminate the caffeine. That’s how decaffeinated coffee was born.
How is decaf coffee made?
But it turned out that benzene was a possible carcinogen, so new techniques were sought that could extract the caffeine from the coffee beans. Chris Stemman, executive director of the British Coffee Association, says that most of the methods developed during the early days of decaffeination are still in use today. But the process is not as simple as one might expect.
“The coffee companies themselves don’t do it,” says Stemann. “There are companies that specialize in decaffeination that do it. Many of these companies are based in Europe, Canada, the United States, and South America.”
You might think it would be easier to roast the coffee, grind it to the required size, and then start the decaffeination process. But that’s not how it’s done, Stemman says. “It’s done when the coffee is green, before roasting,” he reveals. “If you tried to decaffeinate roasted coffee, you would end up producing something that tastes like straw. That’s why with 99.9% of decaffeinated coffee to date, the process is done at the green coffee stage.”