Much as it pains me to admit, coffee and I are taking a bit of a break from one another right now. This is not to say, however, that I am not still madly in love with the stuff, as I have been since the first sip served to me at age 9 by my grandparents in a tiny blue and white china espresso cup. From then on, stunted growth be damned, I demanded a cup of coffee to start my day before heading off to school. There was just something about the heady scent and the sophisticated, oh-so-grown-up ritual that I found intoxicating. It might have also been the caffeine.
Coffee and I have come a long way in the past few decades, growing up from Starbucks to Verve, from a percolator to a french press. Decaf is not somewhere I ever thought we’d go together, but here we are. I’ve always wholeheartedly agreed with David Letterman’s assessment of decaffeinated coffee as “useless warm brown water” and “what they’re drinking in Hell” (while watching “Ishtar” on a loop, if The Far Side is to be believed). The vast majority of decaf is truly heinous and in no way resembles actual coffee other than that it is brown, hot and liquid. I also recently learned that most decaf is — surprise, health nuts! — a chemical-laden nightmare because of the processing method used to remove caffeine from the beans. Mmm, methylene chloride!
Not to worry: there are some decaf beans made via the Swiss Water Process, which leaves possibly carcinogenic chemicals out of the equation but is more costly to produce and allegedly leads to a less flavorful finished product. Few restaurants and cafés serve water processed decaf, with even long-standing local mainstay Peet’s selling water processed decaf whole beans but not selling it brewed by the cup for, I suspect, these precise reasons.
All is not lost, however, especially for those of us fortunate to live in the mothership of outré coffee snobbery, San Francisco (Suck it, Brooklyn). A dear friend just brought me a cup of Swiss Water Process decaf from Contraband Coffee Bar, a brand-spanking new coffee shop in Nob Hill that roasts its own beans locally in Oakland. While certainly not the same as a cup of fully leaded french press, Contraband’s decaf had a surprisingly nuanced aroma and a certain essence of coffee-ness that many decafs lack. I’ve also taken the mountain water processed decaf from Four Barrel for a spin (served, among other places, at serially under-appreciated local gem, Baker & Banker Bakery) and found it to be so satisfying that I worried they’d given me the real deal by mistake.
Encouraged much? I think I’m going to give the water-treated decafs from local darlings Blue Bottle Coffee (remember when they were the coolest kid on the block?) and Philz Coffee a whirl. Unsurprisingly, the too-cool-for-school Missionites over at Ritual Roasters refuse to produce a water processed decaf and instead make one processed using “natural ethyl acetate derived from sugar cane” which purportedly has more flavor. Ritual’s regular beans are so damn excellent that I might still have to try this decaf, obnoxious hipster coffee snobbery notwithstanding.
Not that any of this is to say that my love affair with caffeinated coffee is over. No offense to my new friend, water processed decaf, but my french press and I will be dropping you like a bad habit as soon as this pesky caffeine ban is lifted, trust.