Design Classic

Are you sure that’s decaf?

In cafeterias and restaurants around the world, the coffeepot with a distinctive orange band around the neck is immediately recognized as the one containing decaf coffee. Today most people don’t know how that tradition began. Actually, it was once one of the world’s most effective branding campaigns, even though these days consumers don’t associate the color with the product that started it all.

The orange label premiered in 1923 when Sanka, the first commercial decaf coffee, appeared on grocery store shelves in America. In 1932, General Foods bought Sanka (a catchy contraction of “sans caffeine”) and set out to promote the brand to restaurants and diners by giving away free “Sanka-orange” coffeepots and a few samples of the product. Customers and waiters came to recognize that orange signified Sanka, and over time it became the generic color-code for any and all decaf coffee brands.

Decaf coffee itself is an innovation that resulted from trying to salvage a disaster. Legend has it that in 1903 a German coffee merchant named Ludwig Roselius discovered that a shipment of coffee beans got soaked in seawater en route from Nicaragua to Germany. Before throwing out the “ruined” beans, Roselius and his assistant, Karl Wimmer, decided to test them and found that exposure to water actually removed most of the caffeine without affecting the taste. Further research led them to develop the first commercial decaffeination process using steam and chemical solvents — the method used for many years to produce the Sanka brand of decaf coffee. Today Sanka has been overshadowed by dozens of trendier decaf labels, but the brand still has a ubiquitous presence with its signature color orange.