The caffeine issue

A usual topic discussed with Latinamerican friends and costumers is caffeine. I am Latinamerican myself, but my business is based in the Netherlands: a country where you hardly find decaf coffee. On the other hand, last week I was visiting friends in Barcelona (Spain) which typically is a country where it is easy to find good quality and tasteful decaf coffee. So caffeine seems to be more an issue for some of us than for others, but choosing for decaf coffee is a solution with consequences. Allow me to elaborate….

I have a more than average interest for caffeine since I am intolerant to caffeine. Yes, indeed, I love coffee and I run a coffee business but I cannot handle caffeine as diagnosed back in the days when I was still living in Mexico City. And so I stopped drinking coffee, coke, tea and eating chocolate. After a few weeks I could handle most of the absences but coffee, and so I started drinking decaf coffee. Unfortunately it is hard to find decaf coffee that doesn’t have that typical burnt taste, but after lots of screening I found a brand for which the taste was not so bad. As I was living in Mexico, my options for preparing my morning coffee were either a filter machine at my office or a little french press for my personal use. Decaf coffee brewed by either of these two methods still has caffeine so I could only drink 1 cup of french-pressed coffee a day to not damage my health.

Then I moved to the Netherlands and I discovered a wonderful way of preparing coffee: espresso! This may shock you but 7 years ago it was almost impossible to drink an espresso in Mexico City! When moving to the Netherlands I also became a researcher, and so besides doing research for a university I also did research for my health. That is how I learned that espresso is the best way to enjoy your coffee while having very little caffeine in it. A standard serving of espresso is 30 ml and contains about 70 mg of caffeine per serving for a 100% Arabica espresso. This amount varies depending on the type of coffee: Arabica has considerably less caffeine than Robusta. To see it in perspective: one gets the same amount of caffeine when drinking 730 ml of Coca Cola. So when friends come to my place and are drinking coke the whole night but refuse an espresso after dinner because it has too much caffeine and they may not sleep until late, I usually suggest them to stop drinking Coca Cola and enjoy a good espresso!

Other ways of brewing coffee do lead to a high consumption of caffeine. Filter coffee or percolated (french press) contain between 100 to 200 mg per serving for a serving of 150 to 190 ml. Coffee brewed with a Moka contains about the same amounts but for smaller servings, usually 40 to 50 ml.This is because caffeine exhibits high solubility in hot water. Therefore, because of the long contact period between water and ground coffee when brewing coffee with a filter machine, a french press or a moka the caffeine content in your cup of coffee is higher than for an espresso. In total 80-98% of all the caffeine in the ground coffee will end up in your cup. When percolating an espresso only 70-80% of the caffeine in the ground coffee is extracted. The time of percolation for an espresso (which should be 30 ± 5 sec) is just too short to extract much caffeine from the cellular structure.

As mentioned before, the caffeine content of your cup also depends on the type of coffee. Arabica has lower levels of caffeine, amino acids and chlorogenic acids in comparison to Robusta, but it has 60% more oils. It makes sense: producing caffeine is a chemical mechanism of defense for a coffee plant. Robusta coffee grows at warm and humid climates of tropical lowlands (below 1000 m altitude, 22-26 °C) while Arabica coffee grows at higher altitudes (1000-2100 m) where temperatures average around 18 to 22 °C. Arabica coffee can grow at lower altitudes as much as downto 400m in regions further away from the equator. In environments ideal for Robusta plants to grow there are simply more birds interested in eating nice coffee cherries and therefore the plant protects itself by producing caffeine and chlorogenic acids.

Decaf coffee has considerably lower levels of caffeine, not more than 70 mg per liter, but decaffeination is unfortunately a chemical process. In the earliy days it was done by steaming the beans and then solve the present caffeine in benzene, but obviously for health issues the use of benzene is no longer allowed. Less harmful chemicals are now used, but nevertheless they’re still synthetically produced chemicals with their environmental impact. More environmentally friendly methods involve soaking coffee beans in water to slowly desolve the caffeine, but this also leads to dissolving other componenets of the coffee bean that in fact make the flavour of the coffee. This can be resolved by soaking the coffee in water saturated with those other components from another batch of coffee, but in the end the coffee will be altered in more ways than just reducing the amount of caffeine. So in all those processes many things can go wrong during this chemical process which lead to terrible flavour. Is there no perfect way to make decaf coffee? Well, actually, the best way that only removes the caffeine is to soak the coffee for hours in carbondioxide under immense pressure, but as one can imagine this is an expensive process that consumes quite some energy as well.
Therefore I always have a bit of a laugh when I meet people that drink fair-trade organically grown….decaf coffee. They’re clearly not aware of the environmental issues that may come with the decaffination process.

Anyway, if you, like me, have issues with caffeine and either cannot find decaf coffee with decent taste or refuse to drink coffee that has been chemically treated, then go for an espresso!


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