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What Does Dirty Mean in Coffee Drinks? The Surprising Answer

a cup of dirty coffee on a saucer

You may have heard the term “dirty coffee” used in conversation or seen it on the menu of the trendy new café that just opened around the corner. The beverage is quickly becoming more popular, but when you first hear the name, it might not sound particularly appealing.

But don’t worry, dirty coffee has nothing to do with the cleanliness of the drink or the glass it’s served in. Dirty coffee refers to the way the drink is made, which involves hot espresso poured on top of cold milk.

It’s a delicious, multi-layered flavor sensation. We’ll break down all the variations of dirty coffee, where it came from, and why people love it so much.

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What is Dirty Coffee?

Dirty coffee is a beverage formed by a bottom layer of cold milk or cream with hot espresso shots poured on top. The espresso drifts down through the milk and creates the “dirty” appearance that gives the drink its name.

The first dirty coffee appeared in a coffee shop in Tokyo called Bear Pond Espresso. The composition of the Dirty, as it’s called on their menu, is so important that only the owner, Katsu, is allowed to make it.

Katsu emphasizes that the texture of the espresso shot is the most crucial part of a dirty coffee. The shot needs to be thick and creamy so that it can be suspended on top of the cold milk instead of instantly mixing with it.

dirty latte espresso layered on top of milk
Image credit: Isaac Chou, Unsplash

What Does Dirty Coffee Taste Like?

You get the hot espresso when you first sip it, followed by the surprising contrast of the cold milk, which tastes all the sweeter in comparison.

You can customize your dirty coffee any way you’d like. Baristas typically recommend using a darker roast for the espresso shots to get that intense flavor. They might also recommend using a ristretto shot for a richer texture.

You can use any milk you want, as long as it’s cold—and the colder, the better, as long as there’s no ice! And if you’ve got a sweet tooth, you can always get a shot of simple or flavored syrup at the bottom, adding a third dimension to the experience.

What Does Dirty Mean in a Latte?

You might be wondering what the difference is between a dirty coffee and a latte, especially an iced latte. After all, they share the same ingredients: espresso shots and milk. It’s the preparation that differentiates these two beverages.

A hot latte is made with espresso shots topped with steamed milk. When the milk is poured directly into the espresso, it mixes the liquids together, avoiding the layered effect of dirty coffee. The same is true of an iced latte: only cold milk is poured on top of the espresso shots, followed by ice.

With a latte, the drink will taste the same all the way through. With dirty coffee, every sip is a new experience, and the beverage is a journey through the different layers.

dirty latte with espresso and milk layers
Image credit: Pariwat Pannium, Unsplash

What is a Dirty Chai?

Coffee isn’t the only drink that can be made dirty. A dirty chai is made by preparing a chai latte and pouring one or more espresso shots on top. The espresso is what makes the chai “dirty.”

Any non-coffee beverage can be made dirty by adding espresso shots to it. Drinks served dirty may not always adhere to the standards of true “dirty coffee” and may instead mix the espresso into the drink.

How to Make Dirty Coffee at Home

Dirty coffee is simple to prepare, requiring only two ingredients and minimal equipment. If you love dirty coffee, it is super easy to make it at home!

Ideally, you’ll need an espresso machine to brew the shots. If you do not have an espresso maker, you can always substitute brewed coffee, though it may not have the same creamy texture.

All you have to do is pour cold milk into a clear glass and top it with espresso shots or coffee. That’s it!

If you want to up your dirty coffee game, here are a few tips that might help:

  • Use a clear mug or glass to see the layering effect that gives dirty coffee its name.
  • Refrigerate the glass you’re going to use first. That way, you get the full temperature-changing experience!
  • Use a spoon to pour the espresso shot slowly over the milk. This will keep it from mixing into the milk.
  • Drink it immediately after you’ve prepared it!

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Dirty coffee is far more delicious than its name suggests. It is worth trying at least once so that you can experience the unique taste, texture, and temperature combination that made this drink from Tokyo an international sensation!

Featured Image Credit: Chananthorn Angkapichit, Shutterstock


Caroline Bonin

Caroline is a former barista who loves to search for the perfect cup of coffee to sip while she writes. She lives in the mountains of western North Carolina with her partner and their three cats. A fantasy novelist, gamer, and avid HGTV viewer, she is equally at home working in the garden or at her keyboard.

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