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Ludwig Roselius (1874-1943)

The coffee decaffeination process
Das Entkoffeinierungsverfahren

Decaf coffee, Kaffee HAG and the Max Planck Institute

Ludwig Roselius
Ludwig Roselius
Foto: Radio Bremen

Today there are at least six different techniques for producing decaffeinated coffee (entkoffeinierten Kaffee). All of them remove caffeine (das Koffein) from the green coffee beans before roasting. The first commercially successful decaffeination process was invented in Bremen by the German coffee merchant Ludwig Roselius and his assistant Karl Wimmer in 1903 (patented in 1906). The Roselius process involved the use of benzene or methylene chloride as a solvent and was used for many years to produce the Sanka brand of decaf coffee in France and the United States (today a different process is used). In 1906 Roselius founded Kaffee HAG (Kaffee-Handels-AG [Aktiengesellschaft]) in Germany - and later in the U.S. (He lost rights to the brand in the U.S. after World War I.)

Roselius was also a patron of the arts. In the 1920s he used his coffee fortune to commission local artists to convert Bremen's narrow Böttcherstraße into a gothic and art-nouveau fantasy. The street, today a popular pedestrian zone, was earlier home to Bremen's coopers and barrel makers. World War II turned much of Bremen and the Böttcherstraße into ruins, since rebuilt. (See related Web link below.)

Legend says that Roselius' decaf discovery actually came about as the result of an accident. Coffee beans from Nicaragua had become water soaked during shipment. When the "ruined" beans arrived at Roselius' coffee warehouse, his researchers determined that the exposure to water had extracted much of the caffeine without affecting the taste — except for some saltiness. Although the decaf process that Roselius and Wimmer invented used steam and chemical solvents, a later process developed in Switzerland would use only water. (See below.) In the 1970s Kaffee HAG patented a process developed by the Max Planck Institute that uses carbon dioxide (das Kohlendioxid) to get rid of the caffeine. This CO2 process is still one of the more common methods in use today.

Although the first commercial decaffeination process was invented by Roselius in 1903, the first chemical extraction of caffeine from coffee beans was accomplished by the German chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge (1795-1867) in 1820. Supposedly, his friend, the German poet J.W. Goethe, had suggested that Runge analyze coffee to discover the substance that was causing Goethe's insomnia. In 1820 Runge was able to isolate relatively pure caffeine from coffee beans. (Independently, three French pharmacists also isolated caffeine a year later.)

Other German coffee connections:

  • 1721: The first coffeehouse opens in Berlin.
  • 1777: Frederick the Great of Prussia (Friedrich der Große) tries to block the importation of coffee because it is competing with local beer and sending money out of Prussia for coffee bean imports. He reverses his decision after public outcry.
  • 1908: Dresden-born housewife Melitta Bentz (nee Liebscher, 1873-1950) patents her paper coffee filter invention (die Filtertüte), making possible the first drip coffeemakers. That same year she founds the Melitta company.
  • 1910: German decaffeinated coffee made by Kaffee HAG is marketed in the U.S. under the name Dekafa. Later it will be sold under the Sanka brand.
  • 1938: The Swiss Nestlé company invents Nescafé instant coffee (freeze dried).
  • 1970: The Max Planck Institute registers the CO2 decaffeination process invented by Dr. Kurt Zosel for a patent. Das Verfahren zur Entkoffeinierung von Rohkaffee (DBP 2005293) wird zum Patent angemeldet.

The patented Swiss Water® Process was developed in Switzerland in the early 1930s. Many international and U.S. coffee roasters and retailers use the decaffeination process at the only Swiss Water facility in Vancouver, Canada. (See Web link below.)

Decaf still has some "caf"
However decaffeinated coffee may be produced, the decaffeinated green coffee must contain less than 0.1 percent caffeine (dry weight) to qualify as "decaf" under EU regulations. This corresponds to 99.9 percent caffeine free or about 3mg of caffeine in a cup of decaffeinated coffee. U.S. standards are not as stringent, requiring only 97 percent caffeine removal. Drinking five or six cups of decaf gives you about as much caffeine as one cup of normal coffee.

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