Photo: Decafino

Decaffeinated coffee gets a bad rap, since coffee snobs often think it’s a poor substitute for the real thing, with less flavor and nuance.

Decafino is a startup out of Seattle that’s trying to reinvent people’s attitudes towards decaf. The company has developed a small biodegradable pouch — about the size of a tea bag — which, when inserted into coffee, will decaffeinate it in three to four minutes. “We’re the first company in the world to decaffeinate coffee after brewing,” Decafino founder Andy Liu told me over the phone yesterday.

Liu, who has a background in engineering, was inspired to start Decafino because he loved the taste of coffee but not the jitteriness of caffeine. He found decaf bean selections limiting and often less flavorful. So instead of settling for pre-decaffeinated coffee, he decided to make a product that would allow him to turn any coffee into decaf. In 2016 he founded Decafino, which currently has a team of four.

Today the company launched a $25,000 Kickstarter campaign. Decafino is currently self-funded and Liu said they would use the crowdfunding to initialize production.

Decaf coffee is actually primed for some disruption. For consumers, buying decaf beans severely limits your selection. And since there’s less demand for decaf than regular coffee, roasteries often only make one or two decaf roasts at a time. Those who want to try a particular Ethiopian single origin but don’t respond well to caffeine might never get to taste it unless the company decides to make a decaf roast. Pop in a Decafino bag, however, and you can turn any coffee (or tea, or even soda) into a decaf, which widens your selection.

There’s also the fact that the process to decaffeinate green coffee beans often relies on chemical solvents that, Liu says, can remove some of the beans’ flavor. Decafino, on the other hand, relies on a physical process called “adsorption” that doesn’t involve any chemicals. Mineral beads in the porous tea bag attract caffeine molecules from the liquid and trap them, sucking in up to 200 mg of caffeine per bag (an average cup of coffee has around 180g).

Liu said that each bag can decaffeinate 16 ounces of coffee. The decaffeination process takes three to four minutes, but if you want to ensure every last caffeine molecule is gone you can let it soak even longer. For those who are concerned about losing heat by letting their coffee sit out for four minutes, you can also put the bag directly into your preferred coffee brewer and let it suck up the caffeine as you brew (or just use an Ember mug to keep your coffee hot!).

Decafino is aiming for a commercial release in Q2 2020. They’ve already developed partnerships with several local Seattle coffee shops, which will sell their bags and also use them behind the bar to make decaffeinated drinks. The bags will also be available via Decafino’s website.

Liu plans to price the decaffeinating bags at $1.50 to $2.00 each. Added onto your regular coffee drink, that can make a modest coffee purchase into a pretty pricey one — especially if you’re going for multiple cups per day. But considering that decaf coffee beans are already generally priced higher, and many stores add on an extra $1 charge for decaf espresso, it’s not out of line. Plus I’m guessing many consumers will be willing to shell out for the novelty effect, especially if they’re only having one cup of coffee as a decaf.

The real advantage in my mind, though, is on the side of the café staff. I worked as a barista for years and it was always such a hassle when someone ordered decaf. We never made a full pot of it since there wasn’t much demand, so making decaf coffee entailed hunting down the decaf beans, then specially grinding and brewing them. With something like Decafino I could just make a regular coffee drink, pop in the bag, then in three minutes voila! You’ve got decaf.

Seattle has become a bit of a hub for cutting-edge coffee tech (oh how far we’ve come from Starbucks). It’s also home to Atomo Coffee, a startup which makes molecular coffee without the beans. Pop in a Decafino and, come 2020, you could have a bean-free, caffeine-free cup of joe. What a world.

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