The chilling (not really... well maybe a little) story of decaf February 03 2017

Decaf doesn't get a lot of attention in the coffee world, but we here at Two Spots Coffee think it should. The bean must undergo quite a process to become decaffeinated. The caffeine basically, in its simplest terms needs to be washed out of the coffee.

The decaf beans that we use are Swiss Water washed. This particular method was invented in 1979 by Coffex. What this method means is that green beans (unroasted) are soaked in a green bean solution which extracts the caffeine, but retains the flavour of the bean. The beans are then removed from the liquid, washed and laid out to dry and follow the same process as caffeinated beans. The liquid that extracted all the caffeine is then passed through charcoal which removes the caffeine that came from the beans originally. The liquid can then be used to extract caffeine from another batch of beans.

However, in the early 2000's a lot of articles surfaced about GM trees that grew decaffeinated beans. That means that there would be no need for an extraction process on the beans. The story didn't begin there though. It originated in 1983 when Paulo Mazzafera, at the Agronomical Institue of Campinas (IAC) in Sao Paulo, Brazil set about finding a caffeine free coffee bean, his research will be discussed below.

A decade later, in 1992, John Stiles, a geneticist at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu wanted to create a way to stop specific proteins from growing in coffee plants, his particular target was caffeine. Over the next few decades he attempted to make caffeine free trees and often made bold claims about having discovered a caffeine free tree. He eventually left the University of Hawaii in 2000 and set up his own private lab. His private lab folded in 2008 and Stiles confessed that the was never 100% sure that he had in fact created a caffeine free tree. 

Similarly, in 2001, Shinjiro Ogita started a study at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Tokyo, Japan which aimed to remove the enzyme that causes the occurrence of caffeine in coffee beans. To some extent he succeeded, the tests that were conducted on the leaves of his GM coffee tree had 70% less caffeine than a traditional coffee tree. The GM tree has yet to grow any seeds/coffee beans* though.

Paulo Mazzafera, who is mentioned above, started his research in 1983. He finally had a break through in 2003 when one of his samples tested as caffeine free. After this discovery the Brazilian government offered the research group he was a part of 1.2 million to continue their research in secret. The research could not be disclosed to anyone and the location was kept well under wraps. The aim was to eventually yield a breed that could be grown as crops and sold. However, the research became public in 2004 and the IAC soon took over Mazzafera's research and now he only plays a small role. 

Mazzafera didn't give up though and in 2006 he soaked over 28.000 Arabica seedlings in a solution that causes mutation. He planted them and ended up with 7 plants that only have 2% of the caffeine a normal plant does. He has trademarked the beans as decaffito. Interestingly though, there are issues with mass producing these plants as some do not yield high enough number of cherries to be harvested. Another concern is cross pollination, when the trees are planted in the wild they may come in contact with caffeinated plants which might cause the caffeine to be reinstated in the trees. 

So for now we will enjoy the lovely flavours of Swiss Water decaf, but we wait excitedly for the future of caffeine free trees. 


*correct as of 2012, information on the tree as of 2017 could not be located.