Dirty Coffee: What It Is and How To Make It

If you've never tried dirty coffee before, you're in for a treat. Here's how you can make this special drink at home.

Glass of dirty coffee on tray

Last Updated on December 3, 2023

Dirty coffee is a delicious beverage born in Asia and is building a following among coffee enthusiasts around the world.

This amazing coffee drink is a tasty and photogenic pairing of hot coffee over chilled milk.

It’s flavorful on its own, versatile with the right toppings, and easy to make.

Espresso machine making dirty coffee

What Is Dirty Coffee?

A dirty coffee is a shot of dark espresso or ristretto poured gently over cold milk or cream. Espresso has enough body and intense flavor to stand up to the large volume of milk. The milk should be as cold as possible to create the drink’s signature, layered look.

The basic dirty coffee recipe is simple. But it can be tricky to get the details right. Let’s take a closer look at where this trendy drink came from and what you can do with it.

Where Did Dirty Coffee Originate?

Some sources claim it was first invented by coffee shops in Tokyo, Japan, so of course we went with a haiku. Others say it originated in South Korea, the birthplace of Dalgona coffee. This little cup of coffee has since traveled around the world. Each brewer puts their own twist on the drink.

Why Is It Called Dirty Coffee?

Dirty coffee has a striking look. A beautiful layer of hot, dark espresso floats over a pool of cold milk. In between the two, you’ll see gentle marbling and drips of coffee. This is a neat visual trick that comes from the different temperatures of the liquids. At first the milk is too cold for the coffee to dissolve into it. As the milk heats, the layers combine into a lukewarm drink. Your coffee cup will get more and more dirty-looking over time.

How Does Dirty Coffee Compare to Other Drinks?

The name and the pictures you’ve seen on social media may remind you of other popular coffee drinks, but dirty coffee has a unique look and taste. Let’s see how it compares.

Dirty Coffee vs Iced Latte

These two drinks have the same basic ingredients, but they’re combined very differently. The iced latte uses hot, steamed milk that is poured over a glass of espresso and ice cubes. The whole thing may be lightly stirred.

Meanwhile, in dirty coffee, great care is used to keep the hot coffee layer and cold layer of milk separated. With every sip, you get distinct flavors of espresso and cream instead of the combined taste experience of an iced latte.

Glass of dirty coffee

Dirty Coffee vs Dirty Chai Latte

A dirty chai latte starts with a combination of espresso shots and spicy chai tea. Steamed milk is poured on top. The layers will mostly blend during pouring.

The chai latte tastes strongly of tea and spice, while dirty coffee is just espresso. The drinks look quite different, too. That chai latte will be light brown, with minimal separation of the layers and none of dirty coffee’s signature marbling.

Dirty Coffee vs French Press

French press coffee tends to have a bit of grit lingering in the cup. That sediment is bits of coffee grounds that have escaped the filter screen. Most of a cup of French press brew tastes like regular coffee, but the cup may look dirty after you’re done.

Meanwhile, the dirty coffee we’re talking about here is made with espresso coffee. The espresso shot will have a more intense and fragrant flavor. There won’t be any grinds in sight.

Dirty Coffee vs. Starbucks Undertow

The undertow is a drink on Starbucks’ secret menu. It’s a sweet drink that combines syrup, cold milk, and a shot of espresso. These are carefully drizzled and layered in the cup, creating a beverage that looks a bit like dirty coffee. Traditional dirty coffee, however, is unsweetened and uses different proportions of milk and espresso coffee.

How Do You Drink Dirty Coffee?

Dirty coffee is best served in a clear glass so you can see that beautiful marbled color. The glass is often chilled along with the milk. This helps to keep the layers separated. If they’re too separated and you want a little more marbling, you can give the drink a quick stir with a spoon or straw.

Like all espressos, this drink is meant to be sipped and savored. If the coffee is too hot, give it a minute, but don’t wait too long. As the hot coffee and cold milk even out to room temperature, the drink will muddy up. You’ll lose the contrast in flavors as you sip it.

What Does Dirty Coffee Taste Like?

This depends on how it’s made. The basic recipe calls for dark espresso over rich milk. You’ll experience the toasty, bitter, fragrant notes of the espresso shot. The cool milk will coat your tongue, alleviating some bitterness. This can bring the espresso’s more delicate notes and aromas to the forefront.

How Do You Make Dirty Coffee at Home?

A basic dirty coffee doesn’t need any special ingredients. You probably already have what you need in the fridge. The only tricky part is pouring the layer of espresso. Work slowly and use steady hands.

Make Dirty Coffee in 5 Easy Steps:

  1. Start by pouring 4-6 oz of milk into a clear cup. Take care not to slop milk around the sides.
  2. Put the cup in the freezer for 10-15 minutes.
  3. When you’re ready to make the drink, pull a single or double shot of espresso with your espresso machine. Use about 18 grams of coffee grinds for the double.
  4. Hold a spoon over the surface of the chilled milk.
  5. Pour the hot espresso into the spoon. Let it gently spill onto the surface of the milk and form a defined, beautiful layer of coffee. Enjoy your delicious drink!

Glass of dirty coffee on tray

Dirty Coffee Variations

Once you’ve got the basic recipe down, you may want to add your own twist to this drink. One way is to lean into the milky flavors and top it with whipped cream. This creates a double-marbling effect from top to bottom. These drinks will have a more pronounced creamy flavor, with espresso as an afterthought.

You can also play off the notes of the espresso itself and add liquid caramel, hazelnut syrup, or chocolate sauce. Try drizzling these in at the end of the drink and stir very gently so you keep the layers separate.

For a drink that’s a little extra, go all out with toppings. People have sprinkled crumbled cookies, walnuts, powdered cinnamon, honey, or shaved chocolate curls on top.

If you prefer a simpler beverage, play around with the basic ingredients. Try out alternative milk options. You can swap in half and half or cream, or use plant-based milk for the bottom layer. Try to pick plant milks that have a bit of fat to them, like nut milks. These hold their cold temperature better.

Espresso is traditionally made with dark roast coffee beans, but you can easily swap in other types of coffee bean roasts and see if you like how it turns out.

Final Thoughts

Dirty coffee is a coffee drink of delicious balance. Heat collides with cold. Dark espresso meets bright white milk. The concentrated pure coffee flavor contrasts with simple cream. It’s tasty, accessible, and has high enough caffeine levels to be a great pick-me-up for coffee enthusiasts. Try one today—your taste buds will thank you! (It might even become your favorite beverage.)


Dark espresso falls,
Over chilled milk, layers form,
Art in a cup swirls.

About the Author