Understanding Swiss Water Process Decaf

Great tasting decaf without the use of chemicals

All 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 flavors in the cup following processing taste in line with the original, non-decaf coffee, which has led us to go with Swiss Water exclusively.

Every decaf coffee on our list was purchased by us to sell as non-decaf. Why do they wind up being decaffeinated? Sometimes it’s because the lots are large and there’s enough to be sold both as regular and non-decaf. Other times, it’s because we bit off more good coffee than we can chew from a particular origin.

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 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.

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.

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.

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

Not exactly. But compared to most other decaf methods we’ve tried, the Swiss Water process 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. However, all decafs affect flavor to some degree and you can expect accents I can best describe as tasting like bread dough due to process (most perceptible when roasted light). But characteristics like sweetness, acidity and top notes will remain an integral part of the cup too. MC and EA decaf types can taste fantastic as well, but for the most part, those methods have a much bigger role on final cup flavors.

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. Like all decafs, you should expect some oils to rise to the surface of the coffee a few days after roasting. Even in light roasts. This is due in part to slight degradation that occurs to the cellular structure of the bean when swelled with water and heat during decaffeination.

More tips on roasting decafs here.

So the coffee is damaged during decaffeination?

Not really. But the cellular structure is slightly altered by decaffeination. Other physical bi-products of all decaf methods are split beans, chips and nicks. Swiss Water evaluates each coffee to make sure they fit to withstand processing, thus minimizing the impact it has on the physical traits of the beans.

How well do decaf coffee beans store?

Compared to non-decaf coffee, most decaffeinated coffees have a shorter shelf life due to the structural 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 worked to refine their process so that water activity remains at a stable level, greatly extending the coffee’s freshness through 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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