TO CAFFEINATE OR DECAFFEINATE - THAT IS THE QUESTION!
And it's a big one. Caffeine is not for everyone, hence decaf tea! In theory, a great idea - the possibility to enjoy the same flavours without the 3am bedtime. But have you ever noticed a little something lacking in the taste department when it comes to a decaf tea vs its caffeinated counterpart? Perhaps a diluted flavour? A certain je ne sais quoi that not even steeping longer can remedy? Buckle up, Tea Friends, I’m about to tell you why!
There are many reasons you are experiencing a difference in taste between caffeinated and decaffeinated teas . Simply, they are vastly different products. The teas are poles apart in quality, leaf components and regional influence, like growing terroir and cultivars. How the decaffeinated leaf tastes and takes flavour are why these teas are so different from their conventional companions. Let's get into it!
Firstly, all decaffeination processes expose tea leaves to moisture, water and solvents. No method is perfect at only removing one chemical - caffeine - and all methods remove some oils and flavour. The caffeine in tea does give some depth to flavour in mouth feel, bitterness and when it’s removed, the tea tastes a bit flat. Most companies would never choose super high quality leaves to undergo decaffeination. The process is expensive and alters the product - painstakingly created by highly skilled tea makers. It removes an essential part of the flavour profile and in smaller amounts, some antioxidants, oils and other flavour compounds.
Secondly, as a flavourist, I have found decaffeinated tea needs more Flavour (capital Flavour, as in added natural/artificial flavour) than its caffeinated comrade. The decaf leaf, stripped of some components, tends to absorb more of the added natural/artificial Flavours. Basically, this means I need to pour more Flavour into the blend to achieve the desired result. Sounds easy, but there is a limit to how much Flavour can be put on a product based on safe consumption and logistics.
The third reason for the difference in the taste, is the type of tea and region of growing. Specifically in The Tea Girl Laboratory, I am limited to decaffeinated black tea from South India. One is a broken leaf and one is a fanning - a very small cut leaf. As it’s all from one region, essentially I’m building a flavoured tea on more of a “one note” base, which restricts the flavour profile. The conventional blends are made up of Pu’erh, Kenyan, Assam, and Yunnan teas, which range in tasting notes (malty, earthy, roasted, caramel) to create the base I want to hold up the flavour - like a music cord.
You will need more decaf tea in your cup to get a stronger flavour, but it will not make up for the lack of depth removed by decaffeination. I like to add milk and sweetener to these teas to give some missing body back into my drink. I also know when I am drinking it, it will never be the same as conventional but a lot of people that drink only decaf get used to the lighter taste! If you are limiting caffeine from your diet, try getting into the herbal blends. I like honeybush as a tea alternative, and more spice blends. I find these do not sacrifice the depth I am looking for in a beverage as much as floral or mint blends. But more on this in another blog!
If you’re looking for more info, below is an in depth look at decaffeination, so you can understand why all of this is happening, and the methods out on the market to look for.
I hope this helps!
Methods of Decaffeination in tea & coffee
- Solvent: Methylene chloride. Produced by treating methane with chlorine gas. High volatility, and toxic when overexposed or prolonged exposure (working with the chemical).
- Solvent: Ethyl acetate. This chemical does naturally occurs in fruits, and generated in wine fermentation. Often marketed as "naturally decaffeination", however the chemical is actually synthesised for use in industry by a reaction of ethanol and acetic acid. Has a low cost and low toxicity, low evaporation temperature.
- Carbon dioxide. Uses highly pressurized CO2 which acts as a binding solvent. Non toxic and low cost. (This is the method the decaf tea I carry has gone through)
- Water method (sometimes referred to SwissWater - which is actually a company brand from Vancouver who uses this method and heavily advertises): only water used, Used for coffee, too harsh for tea.
1 & 2 : Solvent Decaffeination processes (Methylene chloride or Ethyl acetate):
- Direct solvent extraction: First leaves/beans are softened by steam. Solvents are added to the leaves/beans directly. The caffeine molecules bind to the solvent. Water is used to rinse the solvent off of the beans/leaves. Then steam is applied evaporate any remaining solvent. The product is then dried. The finished product is caffeine free to 96-98%
- Indirect solvent extraction (water mixed with solvent) First steamed to soften. Hot water is then used to remove everything from leaves/beans - caffeine, oil, chemicals, flavour. This solution is separated from the leaves/beans then mixed with the solvent, which binds to caffeine molecules. The solvent is then removed from the mixture. The caffeine free water solution is reintroduced to the beans/leaves that reabsorb the oils & flavour. Residual solvent is evaporated during the last steaming phase.
3 : Carbon Dioxide
First leaves/beans are softened with steam, and placed in an extractor. Carbon dioxide gas is pressures in a vessel to 250-300x atmospheric pressure, which makes it Supercritical Carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide in a supercritical state, functions both as a liquid and a gas. The Supercritical Carbon dioxide is introduced to the extractor with the leaves/beans. At high pressure, Carbon dioxide becomes a solvent, attract the small caffeine molecules. The Carbon dioxide solvent, now holding onto caffeine is passed through a carbon filter which filters out the caffeine, and the Carbon dioxide is reused. The leaves/beans are removed from the extractor, and any remaining Carbon dioxide evaporates as a gas again. This method extracts 96-98% caffeine.
4 : Water method
Material soaked in water, and flavour extracts and caffeine are stripped from the beans. The initial batch of beans is thrown out. The solution is carbon filtered to remove the caffeine, and the solution is then returned to a new bean batch. Due to the Solubility principals: the lower caffeination levels in the solution attracts the caffeine out of the bean. This process is repeated until it reaches 94-96% caffeine extraction.
Decaffeination label in US is restricted to levels of 3% and below of the original caffeine.
Videos & diagrams available from this great article: https://jayarrcoffee.com/blogs/news/how-decaffeinated-decaf-coffee-made/