Understanding Swiss Water Process Decaf

Great tasting decaf coffee without the use of chemicals

Most of our decaf coffees are produced by Swiss Water, a decaffeination processing plant in Vancouver, BC. Their patented Swiss Water process uses only water to remove 99.9% of the caffeine content from coffee. That fact alone is enticing. But in addition, the non-chemical process retains much of the coffees flavor characteristics, which sees us looking to Swiss to process our decafs whenever we can.

We generally don’t buy coffee already decaffeinated, opting to send off coffee from our own stock instead. How do we choose coffee to be decaffeinated? Quality is a big factor. Knowing that flavor will change to some degree from decaffeination, starting with a tasty coffee helps ensure we get a tasty decaf in return.

A grain pro lined jute bag from Swiss Water Process, this being a decaf we sent from Hunapu, Guatemala.
A grain pro lined jute bag from Swiss Water Process, this being a decaf we sent from Hunapu, Guatemala.

What’s the Swiss Water Process secret?

In this FAQ, we set out to answer some of the more common questions we get from customers on this chemical-free, decaf method.

What is the “Swiss Water Process”?

The Swiss Water Process is a patented decaffeination method that uses only water to remove 99.9% of a coffee’s caffeine content. Heat and time are also employed, but clean water is the only added ingredient.

How do you remove caffeine using only water?

It’s complicated, but the short answer is, diffusion. Swiss Water explain that the green coffee is soaked in their proprietary Green Coffee Extract (“GCE”) containing all the water-soluble compounds found in coffee, except for the caffeine. The solution is heated so the coffee beans swell, and become porous. The caffeine molecules move out of the swelled coffee and into the GCE through osmosis, while the volatile compounds that affect things like flavor and aroma are left in place. The process is repeated until the coffee is 99.9% caffeine free.

How does it differ from other decaf methods?

The Swiss Water method uses no chemicals whatsoever, whereas many other decaffeination methods employ the use chemical solvents like methylene chloride (“MC” decaf) and ethyl acetate (“EA” decaf – either naturally and synthetically derived).

Are chemical-based decaffeination methods bad for your health?

There is some debate about this and we’ll leave that conclusion up to you. While there are most certainly trace levels of methylene chloride found in both green and roasted “MC” decaf, a recent study shows that the levels are far lower than the EPA limits. Ethyl acetate is often touted as being a “natural process” alternative. However, it’s harmful to ingest ethyl acetate in large amounts regardless if it’s naturally or synthetically derived. Though again, the trace amounts found in coffee are well below the allowable levels set by the EPA.

Evaluating several cups of coffee through cup testing and inspecting the physical quality of the roasted coffee beans.
Evaluating several cups of coffee through cup testing and inspecting the physical quality of the roasted coffee beans.

Do Swiss Water process decafs taste just like the non-decaf coffee?

Decaffeination involves hydrating and re-drying coffee, so no process is immune to changes in flavor. But compared to most other decaf methods we’ve tried, the Swiss Water method is the most transparent in terms of imparting flavor on the coffee’s cup profile. Send off a fruit-forward coffee and you can expect to receive a fruit-forward decaf in return. MC and EA decaf types can taste great too, but we think the Swiss Process decaf method has the least impact on original flavor.

What happens to all the water that is used for this type of decaffeination?

85% of the water that is used for Swiss Water Process decaffeination is returned to the source as clean, community supply water. The other 15% is used up during processing.

What happens to the caffeine after it’s been removed?

After decaffeination, the GCE, containing the caffeine removed from the green coffee, passes through a series of charcoal filters to trap all of the caffeine, and the clean water is then ready for re-use.

Examining green, unroasted decaf coffee from Swiss Water Process in a blue coffee tray.
Examining green, unroasted decaf coffee from Swiss Water Process in a blue coffee tray.

How do Swiss Water process decafs roast compared to other decafs?

The Swiss Water process coffees are a lighter shade of brown than those processed using MC or EA methods, making it easier to judge roast degree by physical appearance. The process of caffeine removal can also weaken the cellulose structure when the bean when swelled with water and heat during decaffeination. This may lead to softer, less audible 1st and 2nd cracks. It also means oil is likely to rise to the surface of the bean a few days after roasting.

More tips on roasting decafs here.

How well do decaf coffee beans store?

Compared to non-decaf coffee, most decaffeinated coffees have a shorter shelf life due to the physical changes I mention above, as well as higher water activity levels, also a bi-product of swelling the beans with water. That said, the folks at Swiss Water have refined their process so that water activity remains at a stable level, greatly extending the coffee’s freshness over time.

I tried Swiss Water process a long time ago. Has it changed?

The ingredients – water, with the help of heat and time – have not changed a bit. However, Swiss Water’s team of coffee professionals and scientists continually test and tweak their decaffeination method in order to achieve a process that has the least impact on flavor. We’ve certainly tasted a big improvement in the 10+ years of being a Swiss Process customer!

What else should I know about Swiss Water?

The Swiss Water team is made up of coffee tasters, roasters, baristas, Q graders, scientists, and engineers with a wealth of experience in their respective fields. They check every single coffee that comes into their plant to make sure they’re a good fit for decaf. They taste the coffee before and after processing, ensuring the quality level is up to snuff. And they are continually looking at ways to improve on their clean-water process. It’s no wonder they are widely recognized as an industry leader who churn out some of the best tasting decafs on the market.

Check out our Swiss Water Process selection on Sweet Maria’s, and Coffee Shrub (our wholesale site)

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