While at TED, we had the pleasure of sitting down and chatting with Mr. Mike Strumpf, who, aside from being a Licensed Q Grader, SCAA Instructor, SCAA Competitions Committee Member, Roaster’s Guild Advisory Council Member, and Head Judge, is also the Green Coffee Buyer for Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Company here in Vancouver. He happily obliged to answer some questions about his job at Swiss Water and explain some details of the process:
World Coffee Events (WCE): So, your position with Swiss Water is Green Coffee Buyer. Can you explain the different ways that your company interacts with roasters?
Mike Strumpf (MS): Yeah! There are more or less 2 different business channels: One is called tolling. Tolling is when a roaster owns coffee and then send it to us and we are the toll processor. No monetary transaction of buying coffee; we just take possession of it for a couple days, decaffeinate it, and then send it back to them.
In addition to tolling, we also go out and buy green coffee, decaffeinate it, and then sell it, rather than simply selling the processing. We don’t roast for sale though. We roast for evaluation, and we roast what we drink in the building. We have a production roaster so that we can speak about production roasting which really helps a lot, because it is much different from sample roasting. Just having a sample roaster is great for evaluation, but it doesn’t help us talk about the end product. We like to be as knowledgeable as possible because a lot of the job is educating accounts about how to roast decaf properly, and how to serve the best decaf possible.
WCE: How does roasting decaffeinated coffee differ from regular roasting?
MS: The roasting is similar, but you have different cues. If you are going by color, you’ll see a similar progression of color from light to dark, but it’s kind of like a different Pantone swatch. Your starting point is different, so even though your progression follows the same path, it starts at a different point, so what you expect at 3 minutes will be a different color than expected. I have a background in production roasting and sample roasting, and so I do a lot of work with people on how they can fine tune their roasts, which is tricky, because we aren’t trying to tell people how to roast coffee so we have to listen to them about what their roasting style is and then try and think about what they can do differently.
WCE: How many decaffeination plants exist as far as you are aware?
MS: There are about 20 decaffeination plants in the world, but we are the only one that really markets our brand as strongly as we do, and we are really the only ones that do direct-to-consumer marketing.
WCE: In my experience with decaf coffees, when you hear a coffee was processed by Swiss Water, you know it’s going to be good…
MS: Here’s the thing – The secret to decaf is that if you have good coffee before it’s decaffeinated, you have good decaf. Which shouldn’t be a secret, but that’s the key, and so that’s why the toll processing program is really great. Because if you are a roaster and you already buy great coffee, you can offer the exact same coffee in regular and in decaf, and your customers already know that farm or coop and that works really well. Otherwise, if you don’t have enough volume to process your own decaf, you have to go with someone like us who is selecting the green coffee and decaffeinating it. But it’s hard to give up that control.
WCE: Can you explain the process of decaffeinating the beans?
MS: Of course! They all work in about the same way. First, you soak/steam beans (makes it easier to extract caffeine when they are moist), then you just need a medium to remove the caffeine from beans, and then you have another process to remove the caffeine from that medium, and then you dry the beans. And that’s decaffeination everywhere.
WCE: What makes the Swiss Water Process different from other processes?
MS:The difference comes in asking: What do you do to soak/steam the beans? What’s the medium? How do you remove the caffeine from them? The big difference is the medium that we use is what we call green coffee extract (water saturated with flavor-soluble solids of coffee) So caffeine is a soluble solid…it just brews out with water. You put beans into this extract, because the soluble solids are at equilibrium and the extract is in the beans, the only thing that brews out is the caffeine. The flavor never leaves, it just stays in the beans. What is very unique to us is how we remove the caffeine from that medium. We call it the Proprietary Carbon Technology: use columns of carbon to remove the caffeine from the extract, but to not remove the rest of the soluble solids. And that’s what is proprietary about it is that it is custom for us and we have to manage the whole process and make sure that it is working properly. This is what allows us to decaffeinate without the use of chemicals.
WCE: Most companies sell off the caffeine after they extract it. Does Swiss Water also do this?
MS: We are pretty much the only people that don’t sell the caffeine. We put our carbon through a reactivation furnace which allows the carbon to be used again. We are organic certified and as far as I am aware there are less than 5 certified organic decaffeinators in the world.
WCE: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about before we finish up?
MS: I’d love to return to the subject of coffee sourcing – the fact that you have to trust us to buy your coffee means you have to know who we are, and having face to face interactions really helps, so that’s why we support events with WCE/SCAA/SCAE. We are the same specialty coffee professionals that the roasters are. That is why we support this kind of event, along with almost every other WCE event or competition.
WCE: How are the sentiments about decaf coffee changing in the specialty coffee world?
MS: We are serious about specialty coffee. And it starts from within, because even in the industry, it’s a hard paradigm to break away from and it’s happening slowly, but it is happening, and people are not thinking the same way about decaf where it’s simply an afterthought. For example, the type of service held here at TED, with farm-specific decaf alongside the farm-specific regular coffee; there is just as much information about decaf coffee, and it can taste just as good, but you have to give it the same amount of attention. When a process comes out perfectly, the coffee tastes the same.
Learn more about the Swiss Water Process at their website.