It is safe to say that the coffee industry today is almost unrecognizable from the coffee industry thirty years ago. Today, the industry loves to compare coffee and wine, as a nod to coffee’s complex taste profiles and difficulty to master. The difference between today and thirty years ago is, coffee is no longer enjoyed solely for its caffeine content and is now widely consumed for the pleasure of its taste. However, this change in consumption of decaffeinated coffee has outpaced the change in perception, and those in the coffee industry still largely overlook the need to offer that taste experience independently from the caffeine. Bob Weagle of Swiss Water Decaffeinated notes, “too many people believe coffee’s credentials come from caffeine,” and as a result there is a huge market potential that is currently being ignored.
So what is behind this lag in decaf adoption by the industry? Demetrio Arandia Muguira of Descafeinadores Mexicanos SA de CV explains, “many years ago several roasters offered their regular coffee at the same price of the decaf and that forced them to use lower qualities on their decaf so that hurt the consumption.” Today however, advancements in decaffeination technology have enhanced the decaf experience to the point where many consumers are unable to tell the difference between a caffeinated cup of coffee and a decaffeinated one. Muguira explains, “in a recent poll during the SCAA show, we found that on a blind test of two cups of coffee only 58% (of people) were able to identify the decaf coffee, and from that same cup 48% liked the decaf cup more than the regular.” It is a misconception, explains Swiss Water’s Bob Weagle, that “if it’s decaf coffee it must taste bad since if you remove the caffeine you also remove the flavor … Our internal R&D team created our proprietary carbon regeneration technology that micromanages the fractal geometry of our carbon. This regeneration allows our carbon to be very specific in capturing caffeine molecules, leaving valuable flavor and body components untouched.” Similarly, Maximus Coffee Group notes on their website that they have a “precise process for decaffeination, removing only the caffeine in the shortest amount of time, leaving all flavor and aroma components intact.” Essentially, the days of terrible tasting decaf are over, and with the ability to produce decaffeinated coffee that is very true to the original flavor comes the opportunity to offer great decaf to caffeine-conscious consumers.
While the availability of great tasting decaf is a reason to reconsider any prejudices one may have against the product, it is also important to note that there is actually a growing profit potential for decaf coffee. While in the past the term “caffeine-conscious coffee consumer” referred to only a minute portion of end-users in general, the generation that enjoyed the blossoming of specialty coffee is aging, and as such decaffeination is becoming increasingly important. The point, says Bob Weagle, is that “decaf presents an opportunity for growth in the industry.” He continues “I have had some conversations with people in the industry where people have told me they believe if they don’t offer decaf people will still buy their coffee. What they don’t understand is that a dual-user may, but an individual who is sensitive to caffeine won’t.” In this respect, it is immensely important that roasters, retailers and coffee shop owners offer decaffeinated coffee if they are interested in maximizing their profits. The vital thing is not just to offer a decaf option, but to offer a high-quality decaf option. Bob Weagle comments “you are judged by all the coffee you offer, not just your regular coffee. So if you serve bad decaf, that is going to impact how people view your brand altogether.”
In sum, the days of looking at decaf as caffeinated coffee’s ugly stepsister are over. The market for decaffeinated coffee is growing, and that growth will continue alongside the expansion of the specialty coffee industry. As the Third Wavers and Gen X’ers, Y’ers, and so on, age, demand will grow for high-end coffee without the caffeine. Roasters, retailers and coffee shop owners should take notice, and ensure they are not missing out on potential profits from the decaf-seeking consumer base. Just remember, your brand is only as good as your weakest product. It is imperative to seek out high-quality decaf. Many of today’s decaffeination companies provide a product on par with its regularly caffeinated counterpart, so hold any decaf you consider offering to the same standards you would your regular coffee. If you wouldn’t want to drink it, it is safe to say your customers won’t either.