Why businesses are backing low-caffeine coffees
Jordan Montgomery speaks with Emily Pegler of Rave Coffee and specialty coffee importer Cole Torode about the growing opportunities of a coffee market without the caffeine.
The latest trend is never far away in the coffee industry.
Last year, we saw the emergence of coffee balls, beauty-boosting blends, and “beanless” coffee, to name just a few. The year before that, koji coffee, potato-based milk, and home roasting all had a moment.
In 2023, there have been a number of predictions cast about the trends that will define the year. However, one that has been quietly gaining traction is the growth of low-caffeine coffees.
Often called “split shot” or “half-caff”, these low-caffeine coffees are typically blends made from a 50-50 mix of caffeinated and decaffeinated beans.
Unlike “lightly caffeinated” coffees, which naturally have lower caffeine due to their genetics or growing conditions, half-caff deliberately caters to a growing demographic of caffeine-sensitive customers.
Indeed, according to consumer research from StudyLogic, in both the US and Western Europe, the number of cups of specialty decaf coffee consumed has grown annually since 2017, representing an estimated 8.7 billion cups annually.
As such, a number of roasters and coffee shops have launched products to capitalise on the interest and cater to this growing thirst for caffeine-free and low-caffeine drinks.
“I think now, more than ever in our history, people are consciously making choices about what they consume and the effect that will have on their body; for some, that means managing or lowering their caffeine intake,” explains Emily Pegler, marketing manager at Rave Coffee, which launched its own half-caff coffee blend, Half Caf Blend No.13, in response to an increasing amount of low-caffeine orders.
She agrees that “lower-caffeinated products” present a solution that arguably didn’t previously exist. For her, this is down to the coffee industry’s long history of producing poor-quality decaf. With the rise of specialty coffee, this perception seems to have changed.
“We can’t pretend we invented the concept of a half-caff blend,” Emily says, “but you’d be surprised by the number of requests we get in the coffee shop for customers wanting one decaf and one caffeinated shot in their lattes.”
Evolving beyond decaf coffee
Most within the specialty coffee industry today acknowledge that decaf’s days as a source of ridicule are over.
The rising popularity of decaf coffee is motivating change in the industry, with many coffee roasters and competitors now experimenting with blends and coffee varieties regardless of their caffeine content.
The focus for businesses, however, is how they can leverage the opportunities that a low-caffeine market offers for driving greater consumption among consumers.
Traditionally, coffee outlets have competed for a narrow window – usually between 6am and 4pm, with some exceptions. But coffee with less caffeine (or none at all) opens up a whole world of opportunities regarding the number of cups and the time at which they are consumed.
“Half-caff provides options,” Emily says. “If you’re caffeine sensitive and limit your intake, you can enjoy a few extra cups of coffee a day. It makes [for] a great coffee later in the day when you don’t want a dose of rocket fuel that will keep you up all night.”
Cole Torode is a two-time World Barista Championship finalist and the founder of Rosso Coffee Roasters and Forward Specialty Green Coffee Importers. He believes that if consumers are focusing less on caffeine intake, there’s a clear opportunity to grow the coffee market overall.
“The average person drinks one coffee per day, due to the caffeine narrative,” he explains. “However, when people go out for alcoholic drinks, having ‘another one’ isn’t usually a big deal for most consumers.”
He suggests that if the industry adopts this “relatively simple shift in marketing”, businesses could capitalise on a huge opportunity that would have a “massive impact” on the global coffee industry.
Some specialty coffee shops, encouraged by experimentation at global coffee competitions, are introducing naturally low-caffeine coffee species and varieties to their menus. These include:
- Coffea eugenioides, made famous by competitors at the 2021 WCC in Milan
- Laurina, an arabica varietal first discovered growing wild on Réunion Island
- Aramosa, a hybrid variety of arabica and Coffea racemosa
If widespread adoption does indeed take place, many coffee professionals believe that low-caff (or half-caff) options won’t simply allow consumers to drink more coffee more often – but actually enable them to taste it better than ever before by reducing bitterness.
“Caffeine does not give us energy, as mass-marketing efforts have put out there,” Cole clarifies. “It actually blocks our adenosine receptor, which connects between our tongue and our brain.”
This encourages the release of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter chemical that the human nervous system uses to activate muscles.
“Also, caffeine is a bitter compound,” he adds. “Bitterness is the number one flavour category that specialty baristas and roasters strive [to move] away from with lighter roast profiles and more focus on extractions that showcase acidity and sweetness.”
Will low-caffeine coffees take off?
Low-caffeine coffees are still very much in their infancy. To date, only a handful of roasters offer half-caff blends and you are unlikely to find them available on most café menus.
However, while a number of trends have burst onto the scene before fizzling out shortly after, low-caffeine coffee is building slowly and sustainably in line with demand. Young consumers in particular drove renewed attitudes towards decaf, and they appear to be doing the same for 50-50 blends.
“We’ve seen steady growth in demand for low-caffeine and no-caffeine since our inception, with particular piques of interest in the new year – and we don’t expect it to stop,” Emily says. “We’re really all about the people we roast for here at Rave. If there’s a demand for something we’re happy to try it out providing it passes our pretty high standards.”
Indeed, the potential success of half-caff may influence coffee consumption for years to come, changing the way roasters and consumers view caffeine and consider coffee’s inherent flavours.
“I believe there’s a clear correlation between the consumers of coffee that have low or no- caffeine being true champions of our industry,” Cole says.
“If you consider their interests, they directly correlate with the desires and intentions of the specialty coffee sector. These consumers are seeking out coffee for flavour, which is the effort that we push in competitions, in marketing, and most avenues of specialty.”