Decaf vs. Regular Coffee: Can You Taste The Difference?

To be honest, we didn't expect our tasters to do very well.
Espresso cup, saucer and spoon from above on a dark wooden surface.
Espresso cup, saucer and spoon from above on a dark wooden surface.

Coffee drinkers, there is this thing we've all done: someone asks us "Regular or decaf?" We crinkle our noses up. "UGH, regular, thank you." But would we really even be able to tell the difference between the two? To the taste-testing cave! (Just kidding, we do not really have a taste-testing cave. OR DO WE?)

In order to see if our tasters could really tell the difference between regular coffee and decaf coffee, we tasted the same roast, from the same establishment, prepared two different ways -- hot and iced. We used Starbucks coffee, not because we think it is the best or worst, but because there is a Starbucks in close proximity to our office, and they are known to be pretty consistent. We tasted both preparations blindly, with the tasters only being informed that one was decaf and one was regular in each category. Our tasting pool included regular coffee drinkers, decaf drinkers and a few non-coffee drinkers.

To be honest, we didn't expect our tasters to do very well. Sorry tasters, it's not you, it's us. We didn't think we'd fare very well, ourselves.

Here's what happened:

  • Five of our eight tasters correctly identified which hot coffee was decaf.
  • Three of our eight tasters correctly identified which iced coffee was decaf.
  • Only two of our eight tasters correctly guessed the decaf cup in both categories.

In each category, the majority of tasters seemed to equate heightened bitterness with higher caffeine levels. Also, almost ever taster noted that the iced category was much more difficult to guess, because the dilution from the ice mellowed the coffee out quite a bit.

So, if you're handed the wrong kind of coffee on your next visit to the cafe, will you be able to tell immediately, by taste alone? Maybe, if it's hot coffee, but probably not if you're drinking iced. How do you think you'd fare in this test?

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