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Coffee and Tea for Pesach

Rabbi Dovid Cohen
Administrative Rabbinic Coordinator of the cRc

March 2008

The following was prepared for presentation at the cRc Pesach Seminar held at Congregation K.I.N.S. in Chicago on March 31, 2008.

What is in coffee and tea that might make them unsuitable for Pesach? Although coffee beans and tea leaves are inherently kosher for Pesach,1 we will see that there are three processes done to the beans or leaves which potentially raise Pesach concerns, namely decaffeination, drying, and flavoring. Before we discuss those processes, it is worthwhile to discuss the two other processes which all coffee beans must go through to release their flavor, i.e. roasting and brewing. [Our discussion will focus on coffee, and tea will be discussed at the end of this article].

The process of roasting coffee beans changes their color from green to brown and helps develop the flavor; brewing the (ground) beans then discharges the flavor into the water. Just about all coffee sold in stores is already roasted, and a considerable amount of coffee is brewed in the factory and sold as “instant coffee”. Instant coffee is produced by removing the liquid portion of the brewed coffee to create particles of solidified coffee; these particles can be diluted in water to create a cup of instant coffee. The roasting and brewing steps do not present a Pesach concern.
Note: Whichever type of coffee you use for Pesach, whether it is the type which requires special Pesach supervision or the type which can be used without special certification for Pesach (as explained in this article), one should not use the same jar/canister which has been used throughout the year. A new jar/canister should be purchased for use for the duration of Pesach. If you have put away a Pesach-designated jar/canister at the end of the previous Pesach and have not used it during the year, you may use it again during this year’s Pesach season.
We now turn to the other three processes.

For the many people who enjoy the taste of coffee but do not want the stimulation provided by the caffeine, companies have developed a few methods of removing caffeine from the beans before they are roasted. The common denominator between the different methods is that the beans come in contact with a (hot) liquid which draws the caffeine out of the bean.

The liquid used for decaffeination may be water, a chemical solvent (i.e. ethyl acetate, methylene chloride, carbon dioxide), or a combination of the two (i.e. water extracts the caffeine from the beans, and then the solvent is used to extract the caffeine for the water before the water is reused). In cases where the chemical solvent has direct contact with the beans, the beans are often soaked in hot water or steam to soften them before the solvent is applied.

The Pesach issues with these processes are that (a) ethyl acetate may be derived from chametz and (b) the water used in the process is sometimes purified (hot) on a carbon bed, which is in turn purified with hot ethyl alcohol, which may be derived from chametz.2 Due to these concerns, decaffeinated coffee is only recommended on Pesach if it bears a reliable kosher certification, which guarantees that the decaffeination process has no traces of chametz or kitnios.

As noted, instant coffee is brewed in the factory and then the liquid coffee is “dried” into particles which the consumer reconstitutes with hot water. The roasting,3 brewing, and drying equipment used for coffee is generally assumed to be dedicated to processing pure coffee and therefore there is no real concern that it had been used for chametz.

A few years ago it was discovered that some companies add maltodextrin to the liquid coffee before they dry it, and they are not required to list that additive on the ingredient panel. Maltodextrin may be chametz (or kitnios or innocuous), and therefore the discovery that it may be in coffee made people assume that all instant coffee requires Pesach hashgachah. However, after more careful analysis, it became clear that this restriction could be modified somewhat, based on the two methods of drying instant coffee – spray drying and freeze-drying.

Spray-drying is a straightforward process where tiny particles of liquid coffee are sprayed into a chamber which is so hot that all of the water instantly boils out of the coffee. Spray-drying is used in many industries and is relatively cheap and simple. On the other hand, freeze-drying is an expensive and time-consuming process which slowly removes moisture from frozen coffee under vacuum using “sublimation” which allows the liquid to go from being frozen to vapor without ever being in a liquid form.

So, why would anyone spend so much money and take 24 hours to freeze-dry their coffee if they can just spray-dry it? The answer is that freeze-dried coffee has more of the original flavor and hydrates more quickly than spray-dried coffee. As relates to Pesach there is also another difference; maltodextrin is useful in preparing spray-dried coffee but would not be used in freeze-dried coffee. Therefore, we can clarify the restriction noted above to be that spray-dried instant coffee should not be used without Pesach hashgachah.

Is there any way to know whether a particular brand of instant coffee is spray-dried or freeze-dried? The surprising answer is that it’s actually quite simple. As can be seen in the pictures, freeze-dried coffee comes out of the drier in (small) chunks while spray-dried coffee is a powder. Many companies use a second process known as agglomeration on the spray-dried coffee to get the particles to clump together (so they will look more like expensive freeze-dried chunks and so they will hydrate faster), but if one squeezes the agglomerated clump between their fingers the clumps will immediately return to their powdered form. As such, anyone who experiments with a few samples of coffee can easily learn to distinguish between freeze-dried instant coffee (which does not pose a Pesach concern) and spray-dried (which should only be used with Pesach certification).

A fair amount of flavor is lost when the coffee beans are decaffeinated, roasted, brewed, and dried. For decades, coffee companies have made special efforts to capture the escaping flavor and reintroduce it to the finished product, and in that sense, just about all coffee is “flavored”. However, this type of flavoring is assumed not to pose a Pesach concern, since we assume that the companies are just producing coffee and nothing else of significance.

On the other hand, in recent years, the concept of (truly) flavored coffee has become more popular, and one can purchase coffee flavored to taste like cinnamon, almonds, pumpkin, hazelnut and even Vienna Strudel! The flavor is typically added just before packaging and may be found in all varieties of coffee including regular, decaffeinated, freshly ground, and instant.

A general rule in kashrus is that any item which is flavored requires kosher certification whether the flavor is labeled as natural or artificial, and flavored coffee is no exception to the rule.

To illustrate this, I looked at the formulas for French Vanilla coffee flavor made by two different flavor companies. One company had a relatively simple formula which consists of just two ingredients, one of which has a carrier which may well be chametz but would not be an issue b’dieved, and the other which is almost certainly not chametz. The second company’s formula contained 12 ingredients as well as sub-formula which contained 26 ingredients and a sub-sub-formula which contained an additional 12 ingredients! Of the 50 ingredients in this formula, I identified 9 that contribute flavor and might be fermented from wheat, a whisky byproduct, or produced from grain alcohol.

The chart at right summarizes the three issues one must consider before using a coffee for Pesach.

Tea for Pesach
Black, green, white, yellow, oolong, and jasmine tea are all inherently kosher for Pesach, but the issues of decaffeination and flavoring apply to tea in the same way that they apply to coffee. For that reason all decaffeinated tea and all flavored tea (which includes most herbal teas) should only be used on Pesach if they bear an appropriate Pesach certification.


1 See Sha’arei Teshuvah 453:1 (citing Responsa Shvus Yaakov II:5) and Pri Megadim (M.Z.) 453:1 which state that coffee beans and tea leaves are not kitnios.

2 In truth, the concern that ethyl acetate used in decaffeination might render the beans forbidden for Pesach use on a b’dieved level is not at all clear, as follows: Ethyl acetate is unusual in that it is toxic at the levels used for decaffeination but when it is used in tiny amounts (parts per million) it is safe and is a relatively common flavor component which qualifies as a milsah d’avidah lit’amah. Due to the danger (and taste) of ethyl acetate, the coffee company makes sure to remove all traces of it from the beans. As such, when the ethyl acetate is at high proportions it is inedible/poison and cannot cause the beans to be forbidden. The Pesach concern is that the company may have merely removed enough ethyl acetate to avoid danger but left enough to be nosein ta’am in the beans. The reasons to not be concerned with this are that (a) the companies have a strong incentive to remove all ethyl acetate and claim to do just that, (b) even a milsah d’avidah lit’amah can be batel if it is so diluted as to not be nosein ta’am, which is quite likely in our case where it is mixed into coffee (which is very flavorful), and (c) it is just a safek if the ethyl acetate is chametz.
Ethyl alcohol is not dangerous and therefore the companies do not have the strong incentive to remove all traces of it from the beans (or water), but in practice the companies are careful to remove all traces from the finished product (which is a relatively simple process). As such, the reasons noted above regarding ethyl acetate would appear to apply to ethyl alcohol as well. There is also the additional factor that in tiny proportions ethyl alcohol is not an avidah lit’amah and can be batel b’shishim.
On the other hand, Rav Schachter points out that there is a reason to be machmir regarding beans that had direct contact with the ethyl acetate (or ethyl alcohol) based on Magen Avraham 447:38 who suggests that food which absorbed chametz should l’chatchilah not be eaten on Pesach even if all the absorbed chametz is removed (and even though there is no ChaNaN on chametz before Pesach). It is not clear if Magen Avraham applies in our case where (a) there is likely just a fleeting second when the beans have absorbed exactly the amount of ethyl acetate which is safe and nosein ta’am simultaneously, and (b) the ethyl acetate is merely safek chametz. [See also Mishnah Berurah 447:89 who does not wholeheartedly accept Magen Avraham].
In spite of the questions raised as to whether the decaffeination process causes the coffee to become forbidden, the text states that one should not use decaffeinated coffee without Pesach supervision, as it is best to avoid any possibility of chametz being in one’s Pesach food.

3 We have seen that there are Pesach issues with decaffeinated coffee beans, and a question has been raised as to why the roasting equipment is assumed to never be used for chametz, if it is used for roasting those beans. One answer suggested is that all ethyl acetate has been removed from the beans before they reach the roaster, such that it might be proper not to use the decaffeinated beans themselves, but the beans cannot possibly cause the roaster itself to become forbidden. However, this answer may not be correct, as it appears that it is the heat of the roasting which evaporates the ethyl acetate out of the beans, such that the beans come into the roaster laden with ethyl acetate and only lose the ethyl acetate when the roaster gets hotter than 170° F. [Yet this answer may be justified based on the rationales outlined in the previous footnote as to why even the decaffeinated coffee itself may be permitted on Pesach].
Rabbi Mordechai Kuber suggested a simpler answer – that the coffee beans are not inherently chametz but have merely absorbed chametz (i.e. ethyl acetate), and there is a principle that absorbed tastes cannot transfer from a food to a utensil without a liquid medium between the food and utensil (אין הבלוע יוצא מאוכל לכלי בלי רוטב ) (see Taz 105:16 and others). Therefore, in our case where the decaffeinated beans are dry-roasted, there is no way for the absorbed chametz to transfer into the roaster.