What Does Dirty Mean In Coffee? • Bean Ground


It’s not often I get down and dirty on this coffee blog, but today I’m pulling back the veil on a particular espresso based drink that has been gaining traction in recent years.

Called “dirty coffee,” this strange sounding drink has been popping up on coffee shop menus around Asia, and trendy pics of this coffee based elixir have been taking over Instagram feeds.

But what does dirty coffee mean? And where does it originate from?

Those questions and more are answered in this article. So If you want to know the ins and outs of dirty coffee, I suggest you stick around.

What Is Dirty Coffee?

So what is the meaning of dirty coffee? Don’t worry, it’s not a bad thing, and it has nothing to do with cleanliness, so get the idea of dirty cups and rancid water out of your mind.

The name “dirty coffee” actually describes how the drink looks and how it’s prepared. If you’ve not tried it, it’s a coffee that looks fantastic and has a beautiful silky mouthfeel.

A classic dirty coffee is actually a relatively simple drink to make and essentially involves pouring hot espresso over the top of cold milk. Yep, that’s basically it.

Sorry if the name was a bit of a letdown; maybe it is not so dirty after all.

Dirty Coffee Origin

Dirty coffee is believed to have originated from Bear Pond Espresso coffee shop in Tokyo, Japan. Today it’s found on menus across other parts of SouthEast Asia.

Although this coffeehouse was the birthplace of this drink, I wouldn’t recommend stopping by next time your hanging out in Tokyo because the owner Katsuyuki Tanaka isn’t particularly friendly toward foreigners – and most Tripadvisor reviews agree!

Bear Pond Espresso

Each coffeehouse has its own take on the original dirty coffee recipe, and you’ll be hard pushed to find two cafes serving the same identical drink.

For example, some will use half and half, fresh milk, or a combination of milk and whipped cream.

Dirty coffee hasn’t really made its way to the western part of the world, and you will more than likely struggle to find it on any menu in coffee shops throughout the USA.

However, if you’ve ever had the opportunity to order from the Starbucks secret menu, a similar drink to dirty coffee goes by another name – the Undertow.

How Do You Make A Dirty Coffee?

By now, I’m sure you’ve got a rough idea of how dirty coffee is made, but here’s the lowdown.

Dirty coffee is prepared by pulling a regular shot of espresso and then, while it’s still hot, slowly pouring it over cold milk; with the aid of the back of a spoon or without.

The hot espresso floats on top of the cold milk and slowly seeps through the milk creating a messy and perceived “dirty” appearance.

It’s typically served in a clear pre-chilled glass so the customer can watch as the espresso slowly permeates through.

How Do You Make A Dirty Coffee

How Do You Drink A Dirty Coffee?

That’s easy. However, you like. There are no set rules on how to drink a dirty coffee, but the preferred method is not to stir and enjoy it unmixed.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t mix if you choose, but you’ll get a completely different tasting drink once the espresso and milk have been combined.

Drinking a dirty coffee without mixing it is a unique experience. As you sip, you’ll experience the rich warm espresso and cold milk, which blend and combine in your mouth.

It’s a strange contrast of flavors and mouthfeel that is like nothing else.

What Does Dirty Coffee Taste Like?

What Does Dirty Coffee Taste Like

The classic dirty coffee recipe calls for a freshly pulled dark shot of espresso, which is then poured over cold or almost frozen milk.

Following the dirty coffee recipe, you can expect all of the toasty, bitter goodness from the espresso shot, and the cool rich milk will coat your tongue, canceling out some of the bitterness – like yin and yang!

Is A Dirty Coffee Different From Iced Latte?

These two drinks have the same essential ingredients. Although they are often mistaken for one another, both drinks are combined together very differently.

The traditional way to make an iced latte is to pull a double shot of espresso, add ice, and then froth milk with a steam wand and pour it over the ice and espresso.

An iced latte is often stirred to combine the espresso and the milk. So you don’t have the dirty look of the coffee penetrating through the milk or any distinct layers – plus, the uniform temperature of the drink is the same.

On the other hand, a dirty coffee is made with great care and a steady hand to ensure that the layers of milk and espresso stay separated. A back of a spoon is often used when pouring the coffee over the milk.

With each sip of a dirty coffee, you get a distinct taste of espresso and milk rather than the combined taste of an iced latte.

Dirty Coffee vs. Dirty Chai Latte

How does a dirty coffee differ from a dirty chai latte? The most significant difference is that one is made primarily from tea and the other espresso.

The recipe for a dirty chai latte calls for a blend of espresso and chai tea.

Hot steamed milk is added to the tea and espresso without the finesse used when preparing a dirty coffee, so there aren’t any distinct, noticeable layers.

Unlike a dirty coffee with a strong bitter coffee taste combined with silky smooth milk, the chai tea latte has a strong taste of spiced tea with a hint of coffee flavor.

Both drinks look noticeably different, with the chai latte being light brown in color and with no noticeable layers or marbling that dirty coffee is renowned for.

💡 Fun Fact: Rumour has it that the origin of the Dirty Chai dates back to England in the ’90s when a barista made a chai latte for a traveler. The barista accidentally poured a shot of espresso into the tea-based drink. The curious traveler wanted to try the strange mishap, and much to everyone’s surprise, the ‘dirty’ chai was a hit.

Dirty Coffee vs. Starbucks Undertow

Isn’t the Starbucks Undertow just a different name for a dirty coffee? They look identical, but there is a slight difference to the Starbucks secret menu favorite.

The Undertow recipe combines sweet sugary syrup with cold milk and espresso, which is slowly layered in the cup.

The Undertow looks just like dirty coffee. However, a classic dirty coffee isn’t sweet and uses slightly different proportions of espresso coffee and milk. But they are both equally delicious.


So there you have it. Dirty coffee is far more delicious than the name suggests, and it’s a drink that any coffee lover should try at least once – your tastebuds will thank you!

Dirty coffee is big business in Asia, but not so much in the western part of the world. So you may struggle to find one at your local café, but don’t be afraid to ask the barista behind the counter if they can make one for you.

And don’t forget you can always pop into Starbucks and ask for an Undertow!


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