(MONEY Magazine) – When drinkers of decaffeinated coffee ordered the beverage in a restaurant just a few years ago, they were served a cup of hot water, a packet of instant brew -- and often a disdainful look. No longer. More likely than not, the jitterless java today comes from whole beans, freshly ground just minutes before their rendezvous with water, or from rich, new ground-roast blends stored and sold in pouches or tins. Beyond that, the appeal of decaf is different too. Says Nancy Siegel, advertising director of Starbucks, a Seattle-area chain of gourmet coffee stores that carry six varieties of decaffeinated beans: ''The taste is getting better and better.'' Decaf is hot stuff. It is one of the few rising market segments of the coffee business. Americans, who consume a fifth of the world's 6.5-million-ton annual production, have cut back from a per capita average of 3.12 cups a day in 1962 to 1.83 in 1985. But according to the National Coffee Association, a manufacturers' group in New York City, almost 23% of the 135 billion cups Americans drank last year were decaf, up from only 3% in 1962. At least a dozen major brands of ground-roast decaf now crowd supermarket shelves; whole- bean designer blends like vanilla almond mocha are available in specialty shops; and restaurants from the exclusive Four Seasons in New York City to McDonald's serve it. Why the boom in sleepytime brew? For one thing, caffeine makes many people jumpy or otherwise irritable. (For a fuller discussion of caffeine and health, see the box on page 96.) This health consciousness, plus the demographic weight of a large postwar generation possessed of notoriously pretentious palates, has translated into demand for a better decaf. That, in turn, has inspired manufacturers to upgrade their products. General Foods' 80- year-old Sanka brand (from the French sans caffeine), the first U.S. decaf and still the leading instant, now claims 2.5% of the country's $3 billion annual market for ground-roast coffees and has, like other labels, improved its blend and updated its image. (Folgers is the best-selling ground decaf, with 3% of the total ground market.) Added to the coffee mixture are more high-quality arabica beans. Meanwhile, gone from television commercials is avuncular actor Robert Young, whose cautions about so-called caffeine jitters seemed geared largely to senior citizens. Now, ice skater Dorothy Hamill, 30, and tennis great John Newcombe, 42, robustly announce, ''I love my Sanka, 'cause I love me.'' But which of the new brews are the best bets for flavor, for health and -- at $6 to $9 a pound, compared with $4 to $5 for regular coffee -- for value? Then too, given all the new choices among brands and beans, are decaf coffees as flavorful as their caffeine-rich cousins? To answer these questions, Money assembled a panel of seven tasters to rate decaf coffees. The panel included two professional coffee roasters, two restaurateurs, a chef and two gourmet food shop owners. Only three were regular decaf drinkers. The group sampled 10 decafs -- seven national brands and three freshly ground whole-bean blends from specialty stores. (See the box on the facing page for the cup-by-cup results.) Too weak to please Overall, the tasters complained that the samples, which were brewed according to manufacturers' directions, were too weak to be satisfying. Only one of the coffees, Zabar's Gourmet Decaffe from the New York City emporium of the same name, scored as high as 3.1 on an ascending numerical scale of quality from 1 to 5. Roland Saurage, a third-generation owner of Community Coffee, a Baton Rouge gourmet coffee bean roaster, observed that none of the decafs' aromas were nearly as good as those of nondecaffeinated brews. Andrew Balducci, owner of the renowned specialty food shop that bears his name in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, noted: ''Caffeine seems to be to coffee what fat is to beef -- a necessity for the best flavor.'' So it would seem. The processes by which caffeine is taken out of the green coffee beans may be more responsible, however, for the coffees' lack of flavor than the absence of caffeine itself. Ever since Ludwig Roselius, a chemist in Bremen, Germany, first produced decaffeinated coffee back in 1900 by soaking the beans in benzine, a solvent for fats, roasters have looked for less harsh methods. For example, Nestle, a maker of only instant decaf, uses fatty triglycerides that occur naturally in coffee. In the most common decaffeination process, however, the stimulant is extracted by steam heating the coffee beans and soaking them in a methylene chloride solution, used as an industrial solvent in a less pure form. After the chemical absorbs the caffeine, the beans are repeatedly blasted with dry heat until the solution has evaporated and 97% to 98% of the caffeine has been removed. This method, which is used by Brown Gold and Medaglia d'Oro, is controversial because minute amounts of methylene chloride -- usually less than one part per million -- can remain in the beans. (General Foods, the maker not only of Sanka but also of Brim, Maxwell House and Yuban, uses a different method that employs the chemical.) The substance was banned by the Food and Drug Administration last year from use in products such as hair sprays, because inhaling it in amounts up to 4,000 parts per million caused cancer in some laboratory animals. At the same time, however, the FDA ruled that the decaffeinating process was safe. The agency allows up to 10 parts per million of methylene chloride in ground coffee. Says Money taste panelist Donald Schoenholt, president of Gillies Coffee Co., a gourmet bean shop and wholesaler in New York City: ''We regularly have samples of beans decaffeinated with methylene chloride analyzed; they have never contained more than two parts per million. When you pour hot water over the coffee, you further evaporate that amount. The result is that there is almost no chemical in your cup.'' Still, opinions are divided on the issue. In June two consumer groups, Public Citizen and the Consumer Federation of America, filed suit in Federal District Court in Washington, D.C. to have methylene chloride banned from use in decaffeinating coffee. Says consumerist Michael Jacobson: ''There's no sense adding even minuscule amounts of a dangerous chemical.'' In reply, Richard Collins of General Foods says: ''We are convinced the process is safe and so is the FDA. For the present, we will continue to use it because we think it makes for the best-tasting coffees.'' Maybe so. But an increasing number of wary consumers are willing to spend an average of $1.50 to $4 more a pound -- or 30% to 40% more -- for the security of beans decaffeinated another way -- the chemical-free so-called European water process. In this method, which was perfected in the late '70s in Switzerland and is now done in several European countries, coffee beans are first soaked in warm water. This causes the caffeine to seep out of the beans. The resulting solution is next filtered through activated charcoal to remove the caffeine. Then the liquid is steamed back into the beans to restore some flavor. (No domestic canned brands are decaffeinated this way. To locate imported water-process coffees, see the box on page 95.) No matter which decaf you buy, keep several factors in mind while shopping. Since this year's Brazilian coffee crop has by some accounts been nearly halved by a severe drought, prices are unpredictable. Lately, however, most nationally available canned decaf was selling for about $6 or so a pound. One pricing standard is that the higher the cost, the less caffeine the coffee contains. More costly arabica coffees, which come only from trees that grow above 2,500 feet, contain about 1.1% caffeine by weight. Cheaper and less flavorful robustas, which thrive in the lowlands, have about twice as much caffeine. Although 97% caffeine-free, some commercial canned coffees can contain 25% to 30% robusta, leaving significantly more of the stimulant in the blend. Pure arabica blends include Colombian Brown Gold and Yuban. Whole beans stay fresher longer than ground roast, and unblended varieties, such as Colombian Excelso and Hawaiian Kona -- America's only native coffee -- have more distinctive but not necessarily superior tastes than do blends. In general, say coffee cognoscenti, darker, stronger roasts such as French, Italian and Viennese most resemble the tastes of their nondecaffeinated cousins. Look for beans that are stored in closed containers instead of artfully displayed in open burlap bags. Coffee stays fresher -- and more flavorful -- when kept from the air. Brewing the perfect cup of decaf is no different from making regular coffee. Members of our tasting panel recommend the filter method, using pots such as those made by Chemex ($21.95) or Melitta ($10.99), or automatic-drip machines like those by Braun, Mr. Coffee and Toshiba ($22 to $210). Percolators tend to reboil coffee, producing a bitter taste. Pouring boiling water over the grounds -- the drip method -- doesn't. If you drink regular coffee but want to switch to decaf, do so slowly. Abrupt withdrawal can cause headaches and extreme sleepiness. Personal-health author Jane Brody weaned her husband off the strong stuff by secretly mixing increasing portions of decaf into the morning pot. He's now a knowing convert. Or you might try New Orleans-style coffee that contains chicory; the distinctive-tasting herb's bulk lowers the caffeine content in the cup. However you may choose to make the switch, you're sure to get the kick out of it -- while gaining a good night's sleep.