After Tasting 15 Decaf Coffees, We Found Five We Love

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a lineup of decaf coffee bags from a variety of roasters
Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

When I worked at coffee roasting companies, we always made our decaf blends a top priority. A lot of coffee drinkers grab a morning cup for their caffeine hit, but decaf drinkers are in it solely for the pleasure of drinking coffee. At the same time, the decaffeination process (which happens before roasting) can greatly affect the flavor potential of a coffee, making great-tasting decaf a difficult undertaking. 

There are many different ways you can decaffeinate coffee, but all of them start with boiling or steaming the unroasted coffee to open up the coffee’s pores and extract the caffeine. Caffeine is then removed from the water bath using a solvent (like methylene chloride or ethyl acetate), or the water is run through special filters or osmosis for the Swiss Water Process. Ethyl acetate, Swiss Water Process, and other water process coffees are usually preferred by specialty coffee roasters for having the least impact on a coffee’s flavor, but we wanted to put everything to the test (and include a variety of price points). To that end, we rounded up 15 decaf coffees from specialty roasters and the grocery store to see which decaf had the best flavor, acidity, body, sweetness, and balance. 

The Winners, at a Glance

Counter Culture’s Slow Motion was an excellent decaf coffee and won both of our taste tests outright with fantastic flavor clarity. Its medium roast had a great sweetness, pleasant acidity, and a full body with flavors of dark chocolate, cherry, and almond.

If you prefer a medium roast but also like a more fruit-forward profile, Stumptown’s Trapper Creek had an orange-like acidity balanced with milk chocolate and honey sweetness. It was also a well-balanced blend, with a medium, velvety body.

Onyx’s Decaf Colombia Huila impressed us with its bright flavors of berries, tangerine, and honey. Its lighter roast showed off its flavor complexity with a lighter, silky body, but it still had a great sweetness to balance its fruit-forward acidity. 

With big sweetness and a clean finish, Peet’s Big Bang Blend was our favorite dark roast. It had smoky flavors of cocoa powder, caramel, and praline, with a mild apple-like acidity that helped balance its full, round body. 

Another great darker roast, Peace’s Morning Glory Blend had a bittersweet edge to it, with walnut, milk chocolate, and dark caramel flavors. We really liked its full and velvety body, which helped anchor its sweet flavors. 

The Tests

a gooseneck kettle pouring boiling water into coffee inside a glass
Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

What We Learned

Evaluating Coffee Required Multiple Brew Methods

an arm lifting a spoonful of brewed coffee from a glass of water and coffee grounds brewing
Even though cupping is a standardized tasting method, we also brewed batches of drip coffee for a more thorough evaluation.Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

Cupping is a great way of tasting coffee because you can brew every coffee the exact same way at the same time for easier comparison. Because the grounds sit and brew in the glass the entire time, it’s a great way to extract everything from a coffee so you get a full perspective on its flavor profile. Brewing with a paper filter, however, helps clean up each coffee’s flavor profile and is a better representation of how people will taste the same coffee at home. By using both brew methods in our coffee evaluation, we were able to make sure our winning coffees were truly excellent. 

The Best Coffees Tasted Great No Matter How We Brewed Them

a glass mug next to a coffee brewer
Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

Our top picks consistently came out on top in both our cupping and brewing tests. We thought Counter Culture Coffee’s Slow Motion Decaf Blend and Onyx Coffee Lab’s Decaf Colombia Huila were both really delicious no matter how we brewed them. Other coffees were less consistent. La Colombe’s Luna Azul Decaf was harsh and bitter during the cupping, but showed more sweetness and balance when it was brewed. Kicking Horse Coffee Decaf Blend was the opposite: on the cupping table we thought it had a nice sweetness, but once brewed, it showed burnt, woody flavors that were unpleasant. 

Freshness Mattered (And You Should Buy Whole Bean Coffee)

the back of a bag of coffee with roast date and best by date in text
We preferred roasters that listed a roasted on date and not just a best by date.Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

All of our top picks featured a roast date somewhere on the bag so we could see how fresh they were. Roasting coffee creates hundreds of volatile aromatic compounds and carbon dioxide that keep coffee tasting fresh and vibrant up to 20 days after the roast date. Some roasters—like Caribou Coffee and Allegro Coffee—only have a “best by” date, but don’t list their criteria for how long after roasting that date is.

However, roast date isn’t the only indicator of freshness—grinding coffee exposes more surface area, and causes aromatics and CO2 to degas within minutes instead of weeks. The worst-performing coffees we tasted (including Folgers, Maxwell House, and Starbucks) were all pre-ground and tasted noticeably flat and stale in comparison to freshly roasted coffee that was ground immediately before brewing. 

Roast Descriptors Weren’t Always Accurate

five bags of coffee with different roast levels spilling out of them
Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

Coffee roasting companies tend to use roast descriptors based on their own internal roast-level standards, which can be confusing. Peace Coffee Roasters’ Morning Glory Blend is listed as a light roast on the bag, but when we looked at the coffee there were visible oils on the surface—an indicator that the coffee is more likely a darker roast. Same with Peet’s Coffee’s Decaf Big Bang Blend, which is labeled as a medium roast and had a considerable smoky flavor while being visibly darker than other medium roasts we tested. That didn’t affect our enjoyment of these coffees—both of them were top picks—but it is something to be aware of. Just because a coffee label lists a roast level doesn’t mean it’ll align with your normal preferences. 

Certifications Were Good, But Didn’t Affect Flavor

the front of a bag of coffee showing organic and fair trade certifications
Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

Many of the coffees we tested are certified organic, Fair Trade certified, or even Rainforest Alliance certified. These labels ensure that the coffee meets the criteria for each certification standard, but there aren’t any certifications that follow through with how a coffee actually tastes. Some roasters, like Intelligentsia Coffee, Counter Culture Coffee, and Stumptown Coffee each have their own internal criteria for sourcing coffee that include coffee quality as part of their guidelines, but those aren’t independently verified by a third-party certifier. The main impact that a certification has is that certified organic coffees can’t be decaffeinated through the use of solvents. That means if you’re on the fence about methylene chloride or ethyl acetate and the coffee label doesn’t list the decaffeination method, a certified organic label is something to look for. 

The Criteria: What to Look for in Decaf Coffee

a graphic showing all the best parts of good decaf coffee
Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

The best decaf coffees have complex flavors, pleasant acidity, strong body, big sweetness, and an overall balance. They’re also roasted fresh—especially when you order directly from the roaster—ensuring that you get to experience their full complexity. 

The Best Decaf Coffee

What we liked: In both taste tests, Slow Motion had the best balance between flavor, acidity, and sweetness. We really loved its dark chocolate, cherry, and almond flavor profile, and thought it had a mild, fruity acidity that was evenly matched by its big intense sweetness and body. It was a great, easy-drinking medium roast that we think is a crowd-pleaser. 

What we didn’t like: While it is a medium roast, it’s on the deeper end of that spectrum, and people who don’t like any roasty flavor in their coffee might pick up on some subtle smokiness in the finish. 

Price at time of publish: $16.

Key Specs

  • Package size: 12 ounces
  • Organic: Yes
  • Blend/single origin: Blend
  • Decaffeination method: Swiss Water process
  • Roast level: Medium
  • Roast date listed: Yes
a bag of counter culture coffee
Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

What we liked: Stumptown’s Trapper Creek impressed us with a great light citrus acidity that was a little brighter while still showcasing rich milk chocolate and honey flavors. It had a medium body and is a great choice for anyone who likes slightly lighter and brighter medium roasts. 

What we didn’t like: Even though its citrusy acidity was fairly mild, people who don’t like bright coffees might want to avoid this one. 

Price at time of publish: $17.

Key Specs

  • Package size: 12 ounces
  • Organic: No
  • Blend/single origin: Blend
  • Decaffeination method: Swiss Water process
  • Roast level: Medium
  • Roast date listed: Yes
a bag of stumptown coffee trapper creek
Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

What we liked: Full of vibrant fruit flavors like berries and tangerine, we really liked how bright and complex Onyx’s Decaf Colombia Huila was. And even though it’s a lighter roast with a light, silky body, it still had enough sweetness to balance out its high notes. It’s a great option for anyone who enjoys dynamic flavors and isn’t afraid of a juicy acidity. 

What we didn’t like: It’s a very fruit-forward coffee, which could be off-putting to people who want heavier, roast-forward flavors. It’s also the most expensive coffee of our winners. 

Price at time of publish: $21.

Key Specs

  • Package size: 10 ounces
  • Organic: No
  • Blend/single origin: Single origin
  • Decaffeination method: Ethyl acetate
  • Roast level: Light
  • Roast date listed: Yes
a box of Onyx Coffee labs decaf colombia huila
Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

What we liked: Smokey and full-bodied while still having deep sweetness, Peet’s Big Bang Blend is a great version of a dark-roasted coffee. We thought it tasted like cocoa powder and caramel, but there was still a mild apple-like acidity to help balance everything out. 

What we didn’t like: There was some slight bitterness and dryness on the finish, but that’s also pretty standard with darker roasted coffees. 

Price at time of publish: $20.

Key Specs

  • Package size: 16 ounces
  • Organic: No
  • Blend/single origin: Blend
  • Decaffeination method: Water processed
  • Roast level: Dark
  • Roast date listed: Yes
a bag of peet's big bang decaf blend
Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

What we liked: Peace’s Morning Glory had great milk chocolate and dark caramel flavors along with a really great full body. Its acidity was milder than Big Bang, so if you’re looking for a body-forward darker roast, this one’s for you. 

What we didn’t like: It had a mild bitterness that lingered a bit longer than our other top picks, but nothing out of the ordinary for a dark roast. 

Price at time of publish: $15.

Key Specs

  • Package size: 12 ounces
  • Organic: Yes
  • Blend/single origin: Blend
  • Decaffeination method: Water processed
  • Roast level: Dark
  • Roast date listed: Yes
a bag of Peace Coffee's Decaf Morning Glory
Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

The Competition

FAQs

Is decaffeinated coffee bad for your health?

While solvents like methylene chloride and ethyl acetate can be harmful to your health in high doses, the FDA has strict regulations about how much of these chemicals can be present in your coffee. If you’re concerned about chemical solvents, however, you can look for coffees labeled water-processed, Swiss Water Process, or certified organic. 

What’s the point of decaf coffee?

Decaf coffee is for people who enjoy the flavor of coffee, but not the effects of caffeine. While a lot of coffee consumption in the U.S. is tied to people’s caffeine intake, there are others who love coffee but have to cut caffeine out of their diet, due to migraines, allergies, anxiety, or other issues that caffeine can aggravate.

Does decaffeinated coffee still contain caffeine?

Decaffeinated coffee can have up to 3% caffeine content, so there are still trace amounts of caffeine in it. People who have a caffeine allergy should consult their doctor before drinking decaffeinated coffee, but the caffeine that’s leftover in decaffeinated coffee usually is a small enough amount for most caffeine-averse people to enjoy. 

Why does decaf coffee still make me jittery?

There are hundreds of organic compounds in coffee, and some of those can have unexpected effects on your body, which could cause some jitteriness. Decaf coffee also contains trace amounts of caffeine, so the particularly sensitive might need to avoid it altogether.


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