Decaf Nation

Decaf Nation

What is Caffeine?


Caffeine is a bonus. A little additional treat that comes with our morning ritual. It is sometimes celebrated, sometimes scorned. Both a saviour and an aggressor. It is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug globally, and mostly, it is misunderstood. 


I'm sure you're happy, as I am, with its existence and association with coffee. But, it's not the only reason we drink coffee. We drink coffee because it's delicious. The same can be said of those who genuinely love wine. They think it's delicious. And if the same drink existed minus the alcohol, people would still drink it. Fewer people, admittedly, but it would still be popular. The same can be said of caffeine. A delicious caffeine-free coffee would be popular if it existed. Well, I've got good news for you. It does. And it is. But, more on that later.


What I want to do today is talk about caffeine. What is it? And how much do we know about it? Read on to find out more.



Science & History

A Quick History of Caffeine

People have been ingesting caffeine for a long, long time. Long before they knew what it was and long before it had a name. And also, long before coffee burst onto the scene. In almost every part of the world, particular plants were prized by different cultures for their power to bestow "vitality" upon people. For centuries in West African cultures, people would chew Kola nuts to restore energy. In the 1880s, an American pharmacist, John Pemberton, mixed caffeine extracted from Kola nuts with carbonated water, sugar, and, well, cocaine extracted from Coca leaves to create Coca-Cola. You've probably heard of it. 


The earliest evidence of cocoa bean use, which would eventually evolve into chocolate, was found in Mayan pots dating back nearly three thousand years. The history of tea can be credibly dated back around 3500 years. However, some legends add another 1200 years to that! Meanwhile, in North America, the stems and leaves of the Yaupon Holly bush were used by Native Americans to brew something called Asi, which roughly translates into the "black drink". Archaeologists have found evidence of its consumption as far back as 5000 years ago. All these plants naturally contained caffeine. But it wouldn't be until the 1800s before it was identified and named. 


Who Identified Caffeine?


In 1819, a German chemist named Frielied Ferdinand Runge isolated relatively pure caffeine. He called it "Kaffebase", which, in case your German isn't perfect, means "coffee base". According to Runge, he carried out this experiment at the request of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, considered to be one of the most significant German literary figures of all time.

In France, two years later, and independent of Runge's work, a French chemist, Pierre Jean Robiquet, would be the first person to isolate pure caffeine and accurately describe its properties. At the same time, also in France, another two chemists, Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Bienaimé Caventou became the first to perform elemental analysis on coffee. They found caffeine (obviously), and Pelletier is credited with naming it so. Amazingly, their work was independent of both Runges' and Robiquets'. 


What Does Caffeine Look Like?


In its pure form, caffeine is a white, bitter, odourless powder that belongs to the chemical group of purine alkaloids. As a whole, alkaloids are naturally occurring organic compounds defined by having at least one nitrogen atom. And fear not, I'm not sure what that means either. Alkaloids have many natural functions, but nearly all are bitter in taste. Caffeine occurs naturally in more than sixty different plants. Interestingly, and like the scientist who discovered caffeine, these plants all produced it independently. This phenomenon is known as convergent evolution.

Plants mainly use it as a defence mechanism, essentially as a pesticide, to deter insects from eating their leaves or fruit. However, studies have shown that caffeine can improve bees' memory, helping connect sweet nectar with the flowers of coffee plants and any others that have caffeine. This, in turn, ensures their return and aids the plants in their quest for pollination.  


But, what about us? How does it affect humans? And, is it good for us?




How Does Caffeine Affect the Body?

Most people get their caffeine kick by drinking it. Either in coffee, tea or soft drinks. After ingestion, the caffeine gets absorbed into the bloodstream from the stomach and intestines. 30-60 minutes later is when the effects take hold. Caffeine works not by waking you up but by fooling you into thinking you're not sleepy. Over the course of the day, your brain produces a neurotransmitter called Adenosine. Neurotransmitters interact with receptors in our brains called neurons, and these, in turn, tell us to act on certain things. Eat, drink, use the loo, and so on. Adenosine is what makes you feel drowsy and encourages sleep. Our neurons recognise different neurotransmitters because they have individual shapes that attach themselves in different ways.

Think of it like a lock and key relationship. And here's the fun part, caffeine and Adenosine are almost chemically identical. The caffeine binds itself to the neurons and blocks the Adenosine. Your brain then stops producing it, and bingo, you feel more awake! It is this little trick that has ensured the enduring popularity of caffeine. 


Is it Possible to Overdose on Caffeine?


But what goes up must come down. The Adenosine floods back as the caffeine wears off, giving us that caffeine-crash feeling. Simple solution? More caffeine! But, how much is too much? Because unfortunately, there is such a thing. And too much can be toxic. Even fatal. But the good news is that it's hard to do through coffee alone. Any cases of fatalities have involved caffeine pills or medications that contain caffeine.

To reach toxicity means ingesting 10g of pure caffeine, which would equate to drinking between 50-100 cups of coffee in one day. Now, as much as someday's feel like that number is necessary, in reality, it isn't easy to do. And the reason the number is somewhat vague is because it's actually challenging to gauge how much caffeine is in any given cup of coffee. Arabica coffee beans have around half the caffeine content of Robusta. But also, the recipe or how the coffee is brewed will impact the caffeine content. A brewed 250ml filter coffee contains about 96mg; a double espresso would have roughly 126mg (milligrams). So a latte or cappuccino made with a double espresso would contain 126mg. The current advice is for adults to consume no more than 400mg per day, with that number falling to 200mg if you're pregnant. 



Are There Any Health Benefits to Caffeine?


The Health benefits of caffeine have proved hard to pin down. But, studies are increasingly showing that caffeine can benefit treating both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. It has also shown potential as a preventative aid to both these conditions. Studies also show small doses of caffeine can alleviate some symptoms of depression. 

However, the adverse effects of caffeine have been known for some time. Many people feel heightened anxiety or jitteriness from consuming just one cup of coffee. Unsurprisingly, caffeine consumption can also contribute to insomnia, even in mild doses. It has also been known for a long time that caffeine affects the cardiovascular system, and those who suffer from heart issues and generally told to avoid it. But, because everyone metabolises caffeine differently, this might not be necessary for everyone. But don't quote me on that. And certainly not if your doctor has advised you otherwise! 


I've got a more straightforward solution. Delicious Decaf coffee. 




A History of Decaffeination

People love coffee. Some because of its caffeine, others because of the flavour. And some, because of both. But there have always been many people who love the taste but don't enjoy the caffeine effect. But even though caffeine was identified in the early 1800s, it would be nearly 100 years later before someone figured out how to remove it.

The legend goes that a German merchant named Ludwig Roselius received a shipment of coffee beans that had spilt on its journey and had been soaked in seawater. Determined not to lose his load, Roselius decide to taste the coffee beans anyway. And in doing so, he realised two things. Firstly, the caffeine effect was gone and, to his surprise, it didn't taste bad. Now, I wasn't there. I didn't taste the coffee. But, I'm going to go ahead and make assumptions about the standard of coffee available at the time based on this opinion. Either way, he had accidentally discovered a decaffeination process. 


There are many different processes for decaffeinating coffee, and I will explain some of them shortly. But generally, it can be described as either a direct or indirect method. All of them involve the soaking or steaming of green beans rinsed with a solvent or solution. If the green beans have been soaked or steamed will determine if it's direct or indirect. For a coffee to be classified as decaffeinated in the EU, it must have 99.9% caffeine removed. In the US, that number falls to 97%. 



Direct Method

The first method used by Roselius was the direct method and was patented in 1906. It involved steaming the green beans with various acids and bases and then rinsing them with Benzene as the solvent to remove the caffeine (I've got serious reservations about this guys idea of good tasting coffee!). This step is then repeated 8-12 times. Luckily today, we now know Benzene is carcinogenic. And the solvents used today are much less likely to kill you, which can only be a good thing. The direct method remains the dominant process for decaffeination to this day. But its popularity is waning. 


Indirect Method

The Indirect method is a variation of Roselius' first technique and was first mentioned in 1941. Instead of steaming the green beans, they are soaked in hot water for several hours. The liquid is then removed to be treated with solvents (dichloromethane or ethyl acetate) to remove the caffeine. New beans are now soaked with the recycled decaffeinated water for several cycles. After this, the liquid and beans reach equilibrium with a similar composition minus the caffeine. 


Swiss Water Process

This process was first developed in 1933 in Switzerland (surprise surprise!), but it wasn't commercialised until the 1980s in Canada (somewhat surprising). It involves soaking the beans again in hot water. However, this time, the liquid left over after the seven-hour soak is filtered through an activated charcoal/carbon filter. This little step removes the caffeine molecules, and the liquid is now called GCE (green coffee extract). Fresh beans are now added to the GCE solution for another good soak. During this soak, the caffeine migrates from the bean to the solution. The GCE is again removed and filtered out before the process is repeated until decaffeination is achieved.  


Triglyceride Process

This is a somewhat newcomer to the decaf process. This time, the green beans are submerged in a water/coffee solution which draws the caffeine to the surface of the beans. Once soaked, the beans are transferred to a new container where they're immersed in coffee oils. These oils are obtained from spent coffee grounds and contain naturally occurring fatty acids called triglycerides. After several hours (that seems to be the magic time frame!) of high temperatures, the triglycerides remove the caffeine, leaving the flavour unaffected. The caffeine can then be removed from the oil to use again.  


Supercritical CO2 Process

This process, used in our FiXX Decaf, is the most popular way of decaffeinating coffee used in the EU. It was first developed by Kurt Zosel, again in Germany, in the late 1960s. The green beans are steamed and then added to a high-pressure vessel. Next, a mixture of water and carbon dioxide is circulated throughout the vessel at 65°C at 162 bars of pressure. And if you're not sure, that's a lot of pressure! Your average car tyre would be inflated to approx 35 bars to give you some context.

At this temperature and pressure, CO2 becomes a supercritical fluid, meaning it's somewhere between a gas and a liquid. As this supercritical solvent passes through the coffee beans, it acts like a magnet, attracting all the caffeine molecules to it. At this point, the gas containing the caffeine can be removed, and the decaffeinated beans are sent to dry before roasting.



This list of processes is by no means definitive. New techniques are constantly being developed. The world of decaffeination is big business. The caffeine removed from coffee can be repurposed and sold on. Many soft drinks add caffeine, and it is a standard ingredient for many medicines. In fact, if you are trying to reduce your intake, I would suggest you always read the label. You might be surprised where it'll pop up.


In Conclusion...


What I can say with confidence is that great decaf coffee exists. That was not always the case, and I'm looking in the direction of your man in Germany with his salt-water coffee! But, whatever preconceived notion you may have had about decaf coffee now needs to change. Our FiXX Decaf has twice been awarded gold medals for taste (while being adjudicated alongside caffeinated coffees, no less). Proving that you can achieve delicious decaf coffee with the right beans and the proper process.


So whatever your relationship with caffeine is, sworn enemy or friends with benefits, be it one of dependency or affliction, remember there's always a FiXX for you.


Thanks for reading.



  • Kevin Acheson

Kevin has worked in and around the coffee industry for over 20 years in Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, and Australia.