This might come as a surprise: decaf can taste virtually as good as the best regular coffees.
Here's the little-known but very sensible explanation.
Decaffeination adds an extra step in the processing of coffee beans. And the extra step, whichever one it is (there are several methods used to decaffeinate coffee) costs money.
However, people do not want to pay extra for decaf.
Why that is, I can't say. Maybe it's because it's defined by the absence of something it doesn't have, and paying more for less doesn't appeal to people. But anyway, whatever the reason, that's the convention: decaf is not supposed to sell for more money than regular coffee. All else being equal, it should cost up to 30% more. But people won't pay that.
So the processors have to make up the difference somewhere. They do it by starting with less expensive coffee beans. That way, they can pay extra for the decaffeinating processing and still end up with coffee that costs the same as regular coffee.
The trouble is that the less expensive beans are of inferior quality. And that's why decaf tastes worse: it's because it's made from inferior beans, not because it's decaf.
Granted, for "deep" connoisseurs, there are some subtle flavor notes that are often associated with decaf coffees, and some of said connoisseurs don't care for those flavor notes. But decaf coffees, by almost any normal person's standards, can potentially be very, very good. You just have to be willing to start with good beans and pay the extra cost of the decaffeinating process on top of that, is all.
In fact, in my year and a half of roasting my own coffee, one of my two or three absolute favorites was a decaf. It was lovely and luscious, with astoundingly complex flavor, and I wish I could get more of it.
"Open Mike" is a series of off-topic posts that appear on Sundays. Some weeks, like this one, there are even two!
P.S. Oh, and by the way, I'm an idiot. The reason there are two this week is because I wrote one (this one) in advance, meaning to post it late Saturday night so that early risers would find it here early in the morning.
And then I forgot. Idiot....
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Featured Comments from:
Tom Robbins: "Timely topic for me, Mike.
"Several months ago I discovered that a minor, but consistent, stomach ailment was caused by caffeine. Yikes! So I switched to morning orange juice, but the aroma of brewing coffee and the daily cup or two has been sorely missed. What is that brand of decaf that you wish you can find more of? If it's that hard to find, what brand is in second place?"
Mike replies: It wasn't a brand, it was a bean. I roast my own coffee, so I buy green beans from three sources: Roastmasters, which is the mailorder branch of Willoughby's in Connecticut; Sweet Maria's in Oakland, California; and Phil Rosenberg of Kuni'i Coffee. Phil is a photographer and TOP reader who lives on the Big Island of Hawaii and grows Kona, most of which he sells locally to Hawaiian restaurants and hotels. I've written about him here on TOP. I just received my latest batch of beans from Phil, eight pounds of the world's best coffee. (And by the way, just the savings of buying green beans from Phil as opposed to buying roasted Kona commercially has paid for the cost of my roaster. Never mind all the other coffees I buy and consume.)
Roastmasters and Sweet Maria's travel the world and buy beans directly from producers, unusally in small batches they've cupped (tasted) themselves. They then buy some set amount of a particular crop and add it to their catalogs, which they sell until the supply runs out. Because different crops in different years are different, once a bean runs out it's not necessarily going to be available again; and, even if it is, there's no guarantee it will taste the same. At the moment I can't get that decaf I mentioned in the post—the batch is gone.
It's very important for everyone to buy Fair Trade coffee—Fair Trade is a program which ensures that middlemen are fair to growers, who often get taken advantage of. Since coffee is the second most valuable legal commodity in the world (after oil), fair treatment of producers is a very significant political issue across the Third World. However, the way I buy coffee is even better, in that there is only one step between me and the grower (zero steps in the case of Phil and Kuni'i—he grows it and I buy it directly from him). Roastmasters and Sweet Maria's pay very good rates to small producers, and in fact some growers have been encouraged by the "micro" specialty market to produce very high-quality coffees for direct sale to specialty dealers, foregoing mass production for wholesaling altogether.
I plan to make an instructional video at some point about roasting coffee at home, which I find relatively easy as well as worthwhile. Zander's going to help with it.