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Decaf update.

Decaf Update

Decaffeination process in Europe which use methylene chloride will probably be converting to other solvents over the next three to five years despite the fact that all agree it is a safe method, according to Dave Parker, assistant vice president at Mercon. This change, necessitated by a regulation governing members of the EEC, will likely spill over into other markets, most notably the U.S. This will leave roasters worldwide with the job of reassessing the entire decaf market from three basic perspectives.

The first consideration is that all the remaining processes which are widely in use lay claim to being "natural" in one way or another. Which process is the most "natural" may become a point of contention in future marketing campaigns, and all the "natural" processes will be fighting against each other instead of the common enemy (methyl chloride). This could erode the credibility of decaffeinated coffee as an entire category.

Secondly, the absence of methyl chloride-processed coffee (the least expensive way of removing caffeine from coffee now in use) will put other processes in a much more competitive position. Naturally, existing facilities will be converted to using other solvents (ethyl acetate, almost certainly) but the customers themselves may not "convert" so easily; the change may prompt many to look at other systems and suppliers.

Thirdly, many roasters have felt that certain methylene chloride-processed coffees were the best-tasting; these roasters will be forced to look at alternative processes and may not feel that ethyl acetate-processed coffee is necessarily the best alternative. Taste, it might be noted, has become a much more important issue to the decaf processor of late, and with the elimination of a front-runner in that competition everyone may start pushing a little harder. Coffex North America, processors of Swiss Water, has been capitalizing on accolades received in the consumer press and has instituted an agressive public relations campaign with an eye toward supporting the sales of their branded product. This will likely cause other contenders to begin pushing their product in a similar fashion. Roasters, therefore, can look forward to "help" from various processors around the world who want to take their message not only to the trade but to the consumers as well.

In other words, the change in solvents used by some of the world's largest decaf plants may serve to catalyze a change in the direction of the industry as a whole. Underlying this change, also, will be a steady increase in decaffeination capacity throughout the world. Recently, for example, plants of varying types have come on line in Mexico and Canada. Other plants are in the planning stages in San Francisco and New Orleans to mention just two projects. It remains to be seen, however, whether consumer demand will be adequate to absorb this new capacity. The rapid increase in consumption of decaffeinated coffee which occurred in the 70's and 80's seems to have levelled off, according to several large dealers in decaf coffee.

Nonetheless, many people are still bullish about the future of the decaffeinated coffee market. The principals involved in the proposed CO[sub.2] plant in Richmond, California feel they have enough serious interest on the part of brokers and roasters to more than absorb the 90,000 bags a year they plan to process on a toll basis. How much of this will be new decaf business and how much will come from the share now owned by other processors remains to be seem. Given that their plant is in the hub of the West Coast coffee trade (and the specialty trade in particular) it is likely European processors who now ship large amounts of coffee to Bay Area ports will suffer first. This, though, is reportedly not of concern given their projections of increased demand within the EEC and from opening markets in eastern Europe.

Terry Taciuk, marketing & sales manager for Coffex North America, wonders "whether consumers and the industry in general will accept ethyl acetate as a `natural' process." Taciuk, in fact, takes the surprising position that there is no decaffeination process which is `natural.' "Would you call grapes `naturally seedless' if you had to process them for twelve hours to remove the seeds?" Taciuk asks. Any natural product, according to Taciuk, should involve minimal processing--and no decaffeination process, in Taciuk's view, fits that description. Taciuk questions whether all the plants presently planned for construction can run at full capacity. "We built our factory with our growth potential in mind, so we have room for more production; also, the plant was engineered so that it can be easily expanded." (Jacobs Suchard was recently sold to Philip Morris; Coffex North America, however, was not part of the sale and is still owned by Klaus Jacobs.)

In addition to the existing decaffeination capacity existing in the world today, there are many groups, companies and even governments looking at the feasibility of establishing more decaffeination plants at origin. These plants, it is likely, could produce a product which would be competitive and might further disrupt an already changing market.

Most participants in the specialty industry estimate that decaffeinated coffee accounts for approximately 35% of whole bean consumption in the U.S. market. According to the ICO's 1989 Winter Coffee Drinking Study decaffeinated coffee accounts for only one in four cups of coffee consumed. So it may be that drinkers of whole bean are more likely to drink decaf, or that the estimates are too high. Despite the overall decrease in per capita coffee consumption in the U.S., decaffeinated coffee, minus some statistically minor fluctuations, rose steadily from 1962 until 1982, at which time it appears to have levelled off at about .4 cups per person per day.

Total worldwide capacity, according to private estimates, is approximately 7.3 million bags. U.S. consumption, therefore, might be as much as 60% of the world's total capacity. As relatively large that share estimates is, it may, in fact, be correct: The decaf trend, while it started in Europe, really blossomed in the U.S. Americans are in general more "health conscious" and this may lend some credibility to this estimate. Additionally, the total capacity estimate may be on the low side, given the desire of most plants to low-ball their capacity and production figures.

It is ironic to note that the reason for the ban on methylene chloride was not because of possible ill-health effects. Rather, methylene chloride has been identified as a leading suspect in the alleged depletion of the ozone layer. Any process using it, therefore, given the inevitability of a certai amount solvent's manufacture, transport and use, presents a risk, and this includes the decaffeination of coffee.
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Title Annotation:coffee decaffeination processes
Author:Castle, Tim
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Sep 1, 1990
Previous Article:Decaffeinating with carbon dioxide (CO2).
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