I sometimes drink decaf - even before it gets dark - and I used to be ashamed of saying so.
"What's the point?" said regular coffee drinkers.
Decaf was the stuff that garnered sneers and jeers from aficionados.
But decaffeinated coffee drinkers now can feel vindicated, because a deep, rich, flavorful - even exciting - cup of decaf is realizable.
"People are regularly astounded," says Peter Giuliano, director of coffee for Durham, N.C.-based Counter Culture Coffee and board member of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, who conducts weekly consumer tastings and often includes decaf.
"They always say, 'I can't believe that it's decaf.' The message I always try to send to other coffee people in the industry is you've got to respect the decaf drinker more. And to decaf coffee drinkers, I say don't allow yourself to be treated like the ugly stepchild."
Some have already gotten that message. The variety and quality of decaffeinated coffee have grown, roasters are paying more attention to their decaf offerings, and consumers are drinking more of it. Decaf represented 18 percent of U.S. coffee consumption in 2005, up from 12 percent in 2000, according to the National Coffee Assn.
To remove all that caffeine - 97 percent must be extracted to meet the international standard - the beans have to go through some distress - they're heated or steamed or soaked or exposed to chemicals. The consequence is that flavor is altered, but decaffeinators constantly tweak their methods to preserve flavor.
"Individual plants have perfected their technique, and they're really good at it," Giuliano says. And much of the onus of making a great decaf lies with the roaster.
Decaffeination occurs after fruit picking and drying but before roasting. A handful of decaffeinators operates facilities in North America and Europe. Roasters either ship their own beans to these decaffeinating plants, known as "tolling," or buy beans from the plants "off the rack." Large companies such as Kraft Foods Inc. have their own facilities.
The three main processes for decaffeination use carbon dioxide, water or chemical solvents such as ethyl acetate (which is found naturally in fruit so it's often referred to as a "natural process") and methylene chloride - a solvent that also has industrial uses such as removing paint. Experts say that because methylene chloride evaporates quickly, coffee drinkers aren't exposed to any residue. Coffee companies often won't indicate decaffeination methods on their packaging unless it's water-processed, as it's the most marketable.
Nobody seems to agree on which method best maintains the flavor of the coffee beans, and different processes can have varying effects on different beans.
"I blind cup decaf coffees of all methods," says Chuck Jones, owner of Jones Coffee Roasters in Pasadena, Calif. "I prefer whatever process tastes the best."
The majority of coffee still is decaffeinated with methylene chloride, but among specialty roasters, a shift away from chemicals continues, especially as demand for organic coffee increases.
Coffee labeled "organic" can't be decaffeinated with chemicals. Specialty roasters such as Groundwork Coffee Co. in Los Angeles and Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago are transitioning to all water-processed decaf. The big name in water processing is Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Co., which runs a plant in a suburb of Vancouver, Canada. Another company, Descaffeinadores Mexicanos, uses a rival water process called Mountain Water (and also offers methylene chloride decaffeination) at a plant in the Mexican state of Veracruz.
"We're growing at 12 percent to 15 percent annually (in volume)," says Swiss Water President Frank Dennis, "but our organic is growing at about 20 percent to 25 percent."
Starting out with high-quality beans is vital to the success of a decaf coffee. Once decaffeinated, the beans are more volatile and benefit from extra care by roasters.
How you brew decaf has an effect on flavor too. Most experts agree that regular coffee is best brewed at 190 degrees to 200 degrees. Decaf, on the other hand, should be brewed with water that is a little hotter, between 202 degrees and 210 degrees. And the ratio of ground coffee to water should be higher. Two tablespoons of ground regular coffee is enough for 8 ounces of hot water, but for decaf, 2 tablespoons is enough for about 6 ounces of hot water.