How and why I switched to mostly decaf coffee.

Assumed Audience: lovers of coffee, tea, and other caffeinated beverages… and good health.

Thanksgiving week, I went off coffee cold turkey, and it hurt. It literally hurt.

Caffeine, though we don’t often think of it in these terms, is a drug.1 As a drug, it has withdrawal symptoms. There is of course the fatigue you’d expect (caffeine is a stimulant). Even worse for me, though — and I hear the same from most other coffee-drinkers I talk to — are the headaches. The headaches are bad.

I don’t drink coffee for the caffeine content the way many people (perhaps even most coffee drinkers) do.2 I drink coffee because six and a half years ago I learned from a genuinely great coffee shop just how good coffee can be. That it’s a thing you might want to drink for delight in its flavor. That you might drink it the same way you eat some foods not (only) because of your need for sustenance but for the delight of a delicious meal.

The result: when the coffee around isn’t to my taste, I just don’t drink it! If the reason for drinking it is the goodness of the flavors, then not-good flavors take away the incentive entirely. My body doesn’t know or care about my reasoning though. What matters, physically speaking, is that for over half a decade, I have been drinking an 8 – 10-ounce cup of coffee every morning. That may not be a lot, but it is consistent. My body has gotten used to — worse, come to depend on — the daily dose. The result is an addiction, however mild. Take away the hit, and the withdrawals set in.

This past Thanksgiving week was not the first time I have experienced caffeine withdrawals. Hopefully, though, it will be the last. When we got back from that trip, I opted to stay off caffeine. I want to be at full capacity whether or not I have light-roast single-origin beans and a good grinder and a pour-over setup. When I want coffee, I am drinking decaf.

This choice comes at a cost. The process of decaffeination cuts out some of coffee’s flavor. The best decaf in the world is good, but the best regular coffee in the world is much better. This in turn puts coffee producers in a bind. One half of the bind is purely economic: reduced flavor translates fairly directly to reduced demand, even leaving aside the fact that most coffee drinkers want the caffeine. The other half is the matter of craft: decaffeinating means reducing the flavor, which means reducing the goodness of the coffee! As a result, most decaf coffees are blends. A few places have started doing occasional batches of single-origin decafs, but inconsistently, and never of their very best offerings.3

I hope over time that changes. Perhaps more coffee lovers will come to want out of the caffeine addiction and increase economic demand. Perhaps technological innovations will allow us to decaffeinate without the flavor loss, enabling more people who love coffee for its goodness to drink it without caffeine. In the meantime, I’ll get by with good decaf.

There have been some unexpected upsides to dropping caffeine. I have long been a morning person anyway, but eliminating the caffeine dependency has made me much more awake and alert in the mornings. It seems that eliminating the need for a chemical stimulant has returned my body to a healthier base state. I also now get to enjoy coffee whenever I want, because decaf doesn’t keep me up at night. Some days I have a cup with breakfast; some days I don’t. Some days I make a cup at 4pm. Some days I have three cups! So far I have still had some decaf every day, but I also eat eggs and drink milk every day; the point is that I don’t need it.

For the delight of those very best flavors, I also allow myself a few ounces of the regular coffee we buy for my wife from time to time, and one caffeinated shot of espresso each week. Having caffeine from time to time is fine; it’s the daily routine which triggers dependence. While I don’t get quite the same taste quality on a daily basis, I do still get to enjoy great coffees, but without the downsides.

And when we travel again in a week, I’ll be without a reliable source of good coffee in the mornings — but this time it won’t matter a bit.

  1. A point of interest: why don’t we usually think of coffee in these terms? Certainly its relatively mild effects as a stimulant and its relatively mild withdrawal symptoms are part of that; so too is its normalcy in life throughout much of the world. Are there others? I’m not sure. ↩︎

  2. Normally, anyway. There have been times when I have reached for caffeine as a help in particularly exhausting phases, but I have always been careful to dial back after those times. ↩︎

  3. They don’t make a big deal about this, and they reserve the right to change it at will, but at the moment my favorite coffee shop uses a single-origin coffee for their decaf. I can hardly say how happy this makes me. ↩︎