Decaf is good, actually

Monday, April 1, 2024

We have made decaf a villain. We often malign decaf coffee and those who drink it. "No thanks, give me the good stuff." "Death before decaf." "Decaf isn't coffee."

It has this reputation that it's bad and that coffee people avoid it. And yet, if you drink decaf, you're a true coffee lover. You're drinking it for the flavor, not the buzz.

I have a long history with caffeine and coffee. In high school, I drank a lot of Diet Mountain Dew for the flavor, believing the caffeine helped me stay awake and alert. Then I added in sugary lattes from Starbucks. I continued with lattes in college until I started drinking black coffee during my operating systems class.

We had put off our project until the last half of the week it was due, then pulled successive all-nighters to get it done. That span, from 9am Wednesday to 3pm Friday, is the longest I've ever been awake and the only time I've passed 36 hours, let alone 48. We had a lot to get done, I knew I'd be staying awake, so I went for caffeine. If I had a ton of soda or sugary drinks, I could suffer health consequences1 so I went for black coffee.

This coffee was sold by one of our dining halls. By the time I got it, it had been in the carafe for half a day, and I paid for the privilege of drinking it. Black. Before this, I had only been able to drink coffee if diluted at least by equal parts milk. I made myself choke this down and forcibly adjusted to it over those couple days. I think the bitterness helped me stay awake more than the caffeine.

The following weekend, I went to my favorite local coffee shop, Scribbles2, to get a good cup of coffee. The heavens practically opened up. It was much easier to drink, and in half a week, I had become a black coffee drinker. I think I damaged myself to get to that point.

I drank black, full octane coffee for quite a while, but started dabbling with decaf as I read about caffeine's impact on sleep and anxiety. I have had a lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety and sleep, and I started to wonder how much caffeine was playing into that.

It turns out that a lot of the effects I attributed to caffeine were in my head. When I drank coffee, it did help me focus, but that was much as a focusing device and as a ritual. Those are very important parts of my routine which are more deliberate now.

Over time, I've learned that for me, caffeine has a wild and unpredictable effect. It's likely to put me to sleep if I'm already tired. I did an experiment one week and drank an espresso before bed each night and I fell asleep very quickly. It wasn't high quality sleep—the caffeine seemed to still disrupt it—but it was lights out right away. And with that, I've reduced my caffeine intake significantly.

I start each day with one caffeinated espresso, somewhere around 80 mg caffeine. This is enough to stave off a caffeine headache and keep some caffeine tolerance3. Then, the rest of my day? Decaf, all day every day. I drink two to six decaf coffees depending on the day4. I buy far more decaf beans than caffeinated beans.

It's liberating to be able to have as much coffee as I want, whenever I want.

Decaf does not deserve its bad reputation. We decaf drinkers drink it for the flavor, not for the caffeine. Many of us got started for the caffeine, but stayed for the flavor.

But how did it get that reputation in the first place?

A lot of it is historical, and some of it is also grounded in present reality.

When you take the caffeine out of coffee beans, it changes their structure. You can't get the caffeine out without moving other things around. Decaffeinated beans end up more porous, and they roast and extract in subtly different ways: they look like a darker roast than they are, they release oils more quickly and stale faster, and the brittleness changes how they grind.

Historical decaf processes were worse than what we have today, so roasters used some of the worst beans. They figured it's going to be bad anyway, so why put in any of the good beans? Bad coffee in plus a bad process makes some real awful dirt water on the other end.

Current processes are a lot better. Some roasters still do use low quality beans, which is part of the present reality that it may be bad. And since not a lot of people order decaf at coffee shops, it's commonly preground or not dialed in correctly, which just reinforces the problem by exposing people to poorly prepared decaf.

It doesn't have to be this way. Most of the best roasters also offer some excellent decaf coffees, sourced with the same care and attention as all their other beans5. A few of my favorites are Elixr in Philly and Brandywine in Wilmington, which have excellent decafs (and ship them). Check them out, or your favorite local roaster, and try some decaf. I don't think you'll be disappointed, and a 10 pm consequence-free espresso is a joyous experience.

This post is part of April Cools, where a bunch of us write things that are different from our usual but entirely earnest and up to our usual standards, as a form of protest of the April Fools joke posts.

Since I usually post about software engineering, I went in a different direction and wrote in a personal style about coffee, one of my passions. Below I've included an FAQ on decaf to address some of the questions I get that didn't fit smoothly into the narrative.

I hope you enjoyed it! Go forth and enjoy a decaf.

Decaf FAQ

  • Is it real coffee? Yes, it's real coffee! It's from the exact same beans, just has had some of the caffeine removed.
  • Is it safe? Chemicals are used... There are a variety of different ways of removing caffeine from coffee beans. The most common solvent is actually water! One method does use ethyl acetate, but it's not present in the finished beans (the beans themselves are more carcinogenic than the trace remaining solvent). But the most common methods use either water primarily or supercritical CO2, both of which are perfectly safe for you. Look for "Swiss water process," "Mountain water process", or "CO2" to find these if it's important to you.
  • Does it taste worse? It doesn't have to! Good beans in and good coffee out. Side by side if you have the same beans decaf and regular, you'd notice that one of them differs from the other. But you wouldn't immediately suspect it's because it's decaf. Even James Hoffman isn't able to tell what's decaf: once he was given an amazing espresso and after he complimented it, he was informed it was decaf. It shattered his worldview.
  • Isn't there still caffeine left in the beans? Yes. If you have a high sensitivity to caffeine, the amount in decaf may still be too much for you. The amount in a decaf coffee is about the same as in a hot chocolate, though, so for most people it's sufficiently reduced. And yes, an espresso has less caffeine than a cup of coffee.
  • Why are you evangelizing decaf? I don't like that it's maligned. It's also delicious. I want people to share this joy with me and, selfishly, I want demand to go up so we get more decaf options.


These would probably be less detrimental than the sleep deprivation itself, but I was a teenager. The all-nighter was misguided.


This is also the coffee shop where my wife and I had our first date, and where I used to chat and play chess with a friend.


It's So hard to avoid all caffeine that life is more convenient if I'm able to have it.


At our company leadership offsite, there was a vacuum pot of decaf which was arranged just for me. I made it my mission to drain it and, after 10 large decaf coffees, I nearly did. The full company offsite featured more decaf drinkers, some of whom I had convinced to try it in the first place!


They are fewer and further between due to demand, but we'll get more choices if we collectively increase that demand!

If this post was enjoyable or useful for you, please share it! If you have comments, questions, or feedback, you can email my personal email. To get new posts and support my work, subscribe to the newsletter. There is also an RSS feed.

Want to become a better programmer? Join the Recurse Center!
Want to hire great programmers? Hire via Recurse Center!