What is Dirty Coffee?

If you’ve just discovered the term dirty coffee, you may be wondering what on earth is dirty coffee?  Is it a dirty joke about coffee or coffee from a dirty coffee maker? Dirty coffee might have a dirty name, but it’s nothing like what first comes to your mind.

The short answer, dirty coffee is hot espresso poured over cold milk.  Although people may call other coffee drinks dirty coffee, a true dirty coffee is made by pouring a double shot of espresso over the top of cold milk

Not everyone has heard of dirty coffee, but it’s popping up in coffee shops all over because of its unique presentation and flavor.  Now that you know what dirty coffee is, I am going to tell you more about it.  If you want to know everything there is to know about dirty coffee – the origin of dirty coffee, why they call it dirty coffee, how to make it, and variations of dirty coffee, keep reading.   

Origin of Dirty Coffee

Dirty coffee isn’t a trendy, new-fangled drink created by Starbucks. This interesting coffee drink originated in Tokyo.  Tokyo’s Bear Pond Espresso first created the drink called The Dirty.  Bear  Pond’s espresso is known for being thick, and syrupy, which contributes to the rich creamy flavor of their specialty drink named The Dirty.  

It’s made with only espresso and milk, but the combination makes it taste almost like a sweet ice cream-flavored treat.  Because of its huge popularity in Japan, The Dirty has spread like wildfire over the internet and social media. The Dirty now has a place in American culture and it’s been coined dirty coffee.

Why Is it Called Dirty Coffee?

Now that you know the origin of dirty coffee, the question is, how did it go from a drink called The Dirty to what we now call dirty coffee.  The name dirty coffee is derived from its origin in Tokyo, but it’s also called dirty coffee because of the way it looks. 

Not surprisingly, it’s called dirty coffee because it looks like dirty coffee.  When the hot espresso meets the cold milk, the coffee rests on the top of the milk like a layer of dirt, or mud. It drips down into the milk creating a funky visual experience that looks like dirty coffee over milk.

What Does Dirty CoffeeTaste Like?

Dirty coffee started off in Japan, but now that it’s made its way to the US, how it tastes depends on how it’s made. If you make the original dirty coffee recipe, it consists of milk and espresso. This gives it the rich flavor of espresso, with a cold creamy undertone.  The sensation of hot over cold creates a melt in your mouth flavor when you drink it. 

Because it is a cold coffee, you might assume it tastes like a cold latte or iced coffee.  Iced coffee doesn’t have the same depth of flavor. While dirty coffee has a sweet creamy flavor, it tastes nothing like an iced latte.  It’s not flavored, or sweetened, and doesn’t use cream, or whipped cream.  It also doesn’t use the same ratio of milk to espresso as iced latte, and it’s not served over ice. 

Dirty Coffee vs Dirty Chai Latte

If you’ve heard of dirty coffee, you might have heard of dirty chai latte.  Chai latte is a tea version of a latte.  It’s made in much the same way as an espresso latte, but instead of using espresso, they use Chai tea and steamed milk.  Unlike dirty coffee, it can be served cold or hot. A dirty chai latte is basically a merge of an espresso latte and a Chai latte.  

Making a dirty chai latte is a lot more complicated than making dirty coffee. It also doesn’t create the layer of espresso that floats on the top of the drink making it look dirty.  This is because it’s made with steamed milk instead of cold milk.  

To make a dirty Chai latte, you first need to steep a cup of Chai tea.  Then you have to heat and froth the milk.  Pull one or two shots of espresso and mix it with the tea and spices.  Once the tea and espresso are mixed, you pour the steamed milk over the top of the coffee and tea mixture.

As you can see, they are made very differently. The ingredients are different, but also the milk is poured over the top of the coffee and tea.  This doesn’t cream the combination of a warm and cold flavor, nor does it have the same appearance as dirty coffee.  While they share a similar name, they taste and look very different. 

How to Make Dirty Coffee at Home

If you’ve never tried dirty coffee, this is one you will love to make at home.  Of course, you need an espresso machine to make it, but it’s really easy to make at home.  If you are looking for new ways to make espresso or something interesting to serve to guests, this is a recipe you have to try!  

Dirty Coffee Recipe


1-2 shots of espresso

4-6 oz of milk

To make a dirty coffee at home, you only need to follow two easy steps.

1.  Pour 4-6 oz of milk into a cup.

Full fat milk is best for this recipe, but any milk of your choice can be used.  If you want to capture the look of a dirty coffee use a clear mug. So you can see the espresso as it floats above the milk.

2. Pull 1-2 shots of espresso over the milk using a spoon

You can either fill the spoon with espresso and spoon the espresso into the cup, or you can use a spoon to separate the espresso from the milk as it’s pulled directly into the milk. By using a spoon, you allow a layer of espresso to form over the top of the milk, which gives the drink a more artistic dirty coffee appearance.

Variations of Dirty Coffee

Dirty coffee has taken on new forms in various coffee shops around the country.  Each shop has created its own spin on the original dirty coffee recipe.  It’s served as a shot, in a cup, in a spoon, and with different ratios of milk, espresso, or syrup. Some coffee shops turn it into a dessert by pouring the espresso over cream, condensed milk, whipped cream, or even eggnog. The basic recipe is the same, but the ingredients are often switched up or the coffee is sweetened.   Even if your favorite coffee shop doesn’t have dirty coffee on the menu, they might have an alternative or know how to make it.  

Starbucks Undertow

Starbucks has its own version of dirty coffee called an undertow.  It’s not really a dirty coffee because the recipe is quite different. However, a lot of people refer to it as dirty coffee because it’s created in much the same way, by pouring espresso over syrup and milk.  This is not on Starbucks’ main menu. If you want to try it, it’s on their secret menu. Like much of Starbucks coffees, it’s a sweetened drink, unlike the original dirty coffee recipe.

An undertow is made by adding a few pumps of your choice of Starbucks syrup, a little cold milk, and a shot of espresso. What makes it look like dirty coffee is in the way it is poured.  The espresso is poured over the top of a cold spoon so that the hot espresso doesn’t instantly mix with the milk.  The espresso rests in a layer on top of the milk, creating an artistic coffee shot that mimics dirty coffee. 

French Press Dirty Coffee

People have all kinds of names for coffee that has leftover grounds in it. If you’ve ever spit grounds out of your mouth, when sipping a cup of coffee, you know what I am talking about. Some people call coffee with grounds floating in it or sitting at the bottom of the cup dirty coffee.  This is certainly not the same thing as the drink named dirty coffee, but you can see why people call it dirty.

This happens most often with French Press coffee because of how it’s brewed.  Some people find  French Press the best way to brew coffee, but most do not like their coffee with leftover grounds in it.  If you don’t enjoy a pool of coffee grounds at the bottom of your mug, there are things you can do to make French Press coffee cleaner.

To reduce the number of grounds that end up left in your coffee when making French Press, try using a coarser grind of coffee.  When making it, push the plunger down slowly. This way you don’t create too much pressure that can push the grounds back through the plunger. When you pour the coffee from the French Press into your mug, watch the coffee as you pour, and pour slowly.  If you see grounds entering your coffee as you pour, spoon the top of your cup to remove them.  You can also pour your cup through a strainer or paper filter to ensure your coffee is free of grounds.

Tim S.

Tim loves roasting, brewing, and experimenting with coffee. After years of perfecting this craft, working as a barista, and owning a small coffee service in college, he has decided to share his knowledge with the world.

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