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Reflections In A Cup: Caffeine Anyone?

Caffeine Anyone?

February 29, 2008
By Stuart Daw


The recent article on decaffeinated coffee inconsistency in the New
York Times brings up a lot of questions. We at Heritage became
concerned some time ago about the caffeine content in coffee we buy as
being 97 per cent caffeine-free, for just the reasons alluded to in the

The recent article on decaffeinated coffee inconsistency in the New York Times brings up a lot of questions. We at Heritage became concerned some time ago about the caffeine content in coffee we buy as being 97 per cent caffeine-free, for just the reasons alluded to in the article.

As far as we know, we have gone further than any other roaster in equipping ourselves, in effect protecting us in this litigious society, in putting out decaffeinated coffee with more than the three per cent allowance.

The kind of “analysis” referred to in the Times article has been going on for a long time. When I first came into the business in 1950 decaf coffee was something of an oddity. The conventional wisdom seemed to be that a key component of the total coffee experience was caffeine.


Over the years however, the trade found that some people wanted the coffee experience without caffeine, and would still drink it even with the twin deficiencies of some loss in flavour and lack of the usual effect of a slight energizing of the central nervous system.

Interestingly, one driving force in the growth of decaffeinated coffee was the desire to acquire caffeine for the pharmaceutical trade and for the soda industry, both of which require caffeine. One shining example of this was when Coca Cola bought out Tenco, a group of 10 amalgamated instant coffee producers, not because it wanted to enter the coffee business per se, but for the procurement of caffeine.

One by one, several methods of removing caffeine were developed, and today we find methylene chloride, ethyl acetate, supercritical carbon dioxide, and straight water, used as solvents to remove caffeine from the green bean. In the early years, “98 per cent caffeine-free” was the operative slogan, but eventually it was recognized that the cost of infinitely approaching 100 per cent became very costly, so 97 per cent became the accepted norm.
Here it should be noted that the reference in the Times’ blog to “decaffein-ated” versus “caffeine free,” to be objective, really means “coffee partially decaffeinated, as opposed to drinking water or milk which, having no caffeine, are literally caffeine fee.”

And it is incorrect to draw a distinction between “decaffeinated” and “caffeinated” coffee, for with the exception of one or two companies actually adding caffeine to the ground coffee as a marketing gimmick allegedly for college students studying all night, coffee is already “caffeinated” in its natural state.

Corporations using any of the above extraction methods try to extol the virtues of theirs. For example, Folgers and others use the term “natural,” on the principle that ethyl acetate is derived from plants, while methylene chloride is a derivative of methane, thus could be dangerous. Getting to the practical point of the Times piece, the haggling over the years about how much caffeine is in a cup of coffee continues today. It helps to define exactly what one calls a cup of coffee in this context.

The criteria are almost endless. Among them: what is the ratio of coffee to water, what is the temperature during extraction, how dark was the roast, was it an all arabica or all robusta coffee, or a combi-nation of the two, and above all, “how big is your cup?” And what else beside coffee is in the cup, such as milk and other
additives occupying space.

The original Coffee Brewing Institute standard of 12 by 5 ounce servings of black coffee in a 64-ounce/half-gallon decanter, all arabica and brewed to Golden Cup standards, would mean around 150 mg of caffeine (robusta being around double that). So a 12-ounce cup of the same coffee would be 2.4 times 150, or 360 mg. By having three per cent remaining, that would mean around 10 mg.
Why would such wildly varying results be found? Reasons abound, including the reliability of the entities doing the testing. And at the restaurant level, did the person brewing use the wrong package, are the servers mixing half-used decanters, what was the coffee to water ratio, what and how much by way of additives were used in the coffee, or did the roasting plant get mixed up in green selection? And in specialty stores with small grinders, their decaf measure.
As to what we are doing at Heritage, using HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography), which we have in our lab, we can ascertain the amount of caffeine in the various coffees we roast. We want to extract the total amount of dissolved solids in the coffee, of which there are around 600 organic compounds, and some of which appear as only a trace. After brewing with a specific coffee to water ratio (we use distilled water for this purpose) to eliminate extraneous material, the coffee is then run through a special filter.

Then the coffee is put into a centrifuge at 5,000 RPM to separate the organic material from the water. The material is next placed in the HPLC unit, which breaks down the amount of any given organic compound on a molecular level. Thus the various elements are separated, yielding a graph that illustrates the exact amount of each compound, including caffeine, which incidentally usually has the highest reading of all the components.

I will refrain from dealing here with the psychosomatic aspect of some people thinking caffeine affects them when,
in fact, it might not (when done in moderation of course). Some interesting studies have been conducted on this