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Roasting Fundamentals: Getting Started with Decaf Coffee

Roasting Fundamentals: Getting Started with Decaf Coffee
Mar. 13, 2020

Decaffeinated coffee has been steadily improving in quality, and we think the time has come to let go of the “death before decaf” mentality. All of the decafs we sell at Sweet Maria’s are decaffeinated using the Swiss Water Process - this chemical-free method is gentle on the coffee's organic structure and leaves much of the volatile compounds that affect aroma and flavor intact. For more info on SWP, check out our Decaf Fundamentals

Does the decaffeination process affect flavor? Of course - it would be dishonest to suggest otherwise. Even with improved processing, there will be a difference between the regular and decaf version of a coffee; we recently had the chance to compare the same coffee with regular and decaf side by side. For this reason, roasters will rarely choose their best coffees to be decaffeinated - doing so would be like burning money! Luckily for Sweet Maria’s, we don’t face the same challenge and, as a result, all of our single origin decafs have a cupping score of 86 or higher even after decaffeination. Given our high quality decaf, home roasters who drink decaf might experience an even larger jump in quality from store bought alternatives compared to those home roasters that stick to regular. 

Have we convinced you to try your hand at roasting decaf? Here are a few basic things to keep in mind as you get started: 

Don’t trust color change as an indicator of roast level. Decaf coffee gets very dark, very quickly, but that does not reflect the actual roast level. What gives? While the Swiss Water Process does a great job of leaving the volatile compounds in the coffee intact, decaffeination weakens the internal structure of the coffee. Due to these changes, you’ll notice a different color progression - the beans will go from green to brown to dark brown very quickly, well before the coffee approaches first crack. Similarly, the surface texture of the bean will stay somewhat wrinkled, rather than smoothing out as you roast darker. 

Roast a similar, regular (caffeinated) coffee. Since judging the roast level of decaf can be difficult, we highly recommend roasting a regular, caffeinated coffee from a similar region and of the same varietal. Decafs tend to roast similarly to regular counterparts, despite differences in roast level indicators (color change, etc), so having a go-to profile for a regular coffee provides a helpful baseline for your reference. 

Listen carefully for the cracks. The snaps of first crack tend to be slightly softer in decafs, so you can miss them if you aren’t paying attention. The cracks are definitely perceptible, though, and it’s particularly important to note the end of first crack when roasting decaf. Timing your roast after first crack is one of the easiest ways to determine when the coffee has reached your desired roast level. 

Pay attention to smell. Once you’ve entered first crack, you’ll notice a sweet, almost vinegar-like aroma. This is a sign that your coffee is sufficiently developed - of course, you can roast darker if you’d like, depending on preference. Be sure to move past the yeasty, bready aromas noticeable in the drying stage or you might underroast - this is particularly important if you’re aiming for a lighter, City/City+ roast with a decaf coffee. 

Be careful with energy input during the drying stage. This concept is slightly more advanced, but helpful to keep in mind. Decaffeination weakens the internal structure of coffee and makes it less dense. Decaf coffee can take on heat more quickly as a result and, if you aren’t careful, first crack can run away from you. A good rule of thumb is to pull back energy input (using heat or fan settings, depending on your roaster) just before hitting first crack. 

Take notes and learn by trial and error. Roasting theory is always helpful, but the best way to improve is through repetition. This goes for all roasting, but is especially important when roasting decaf. Time your roast and take careful notes of changes in color, aroma, and temperature (depending on your roaster). What changes to your heat, airflow, etc did you make throughout the roast? Always note when first crack starts and ends. Once you’ve had a chance to brew the coffee, write down your impressions - was this a successful roast? Does it taste underdeveloped, or overdeveloped? The more data you collect, the easier it will be to improve future roasts.