How we tested
Has grocery store decaf coffee improved as much as the high-octane stuff in recent years? Or is that asking for the moon? We tasted seven nationally distributed supermarket brands, all of which are sold preground, to find out. We brewed them according to package directions and tasted them first black and then with milk. We also sent the beans to an independent laboratory to confirm their caffeine content: All had even less caffeine than the U.S. government requirement that decaffeinated coffee be 97 percent caffeine-free.
Our top-rated brands contained only Arabica beans, a lower-caffeine varietal known for good flavor. The bottom-ranked brands blended Arabica with Robusta beans, a high-caffeine varietal that is faster and easier to grow, but doesn't taste as good. Manufacturers would not explain their decaffeination processes, but coffee experts told us that no matter the method, Robusta beans require more processing, which tends to diminish flavor and quality.
While we predicted that premium brands would do well, one of the cheaper ordinary supermarket brands actually edged them out to prevail in both tastings.