Muddy Waters: What Is a Dirty Chai Latte?

I love a steaming hot chai tea latte as much as the next home barista. Still, sometimes you need something with a little more kick to it, like a dirty chai latte. Maybe you’ve heard someone order it at a coffee shop, or maybe you’ve seen it on a cafe menu … but what is a dirty chai latte?

I love a steaming hot chai tea latte as much as the next home barista. Still, sometimes you need something with a little more kick to it, like a dirty chai latte. Maybe you’ve heard someone order it at a coffee shop, or maybe you’ve seen it on a cafe menu … but what is a dirty chai latte?

Despite how risque the name sounds,  you can make it for grandma without any raised eyebrows. Whether it’s dirty chai, filthy chai or something in between, I’m here to give you the complete rundown on this awesome beverage.

What Is a Dirty Chai Latte?

The makeup of a dirty chai tea latte is simple: Masala chai (spiced black tea), steamed milk and a shot of espresso.

Adding an espresso shot is where this popular drink gets its name. Once you add coffee to rich tea, the fragrance and color change, giving it the appearance of being “dirty.” For a “filthy” chai latte, you’ll want to use two shots of espresso. In short, the dirty chai latte strikes the perfect balance between spiced, milky tea and strong coffee.

As for its history, the origin of this beverage is a little ambiguous. Rumor has it that a traveler passing through England in the 1990s asked a local barista to make them a chai latte. The barista added a shot of espresso by accident, but the traveler wasn’t upset. Far from it – they tried the beverage and found it to be delicious. So much so that the dirty chai became their go-to drink whenever they traveled to new cafes.

Although the dirty chai found its way into many independent cafes, the popularity of this drink can still be credited to Starbucks. The company added dirty chai to its menu, which transformed it from an underground secret to a coffee shop staple.

These days, most baristas can whip up a dirty chai latte without thinking twice. Even if the invention of the dirty chai might’ve been a mistake, I think most people would consider it to be a happy accident!

What Does a Dirty Chai Latte Taste Like?

Jars of spices used to make chai.

So, now we’ve answered the question of what a dirty chai latte actually is. But what does it taste like? 

Well, I consider the dirty chai latte to be a reliable choice for anyone who wants a caffeinated kick but doesn’t love the strong taste of coffee.

Like any chai latte, you’ll get a full range of Masala chai spices like cardamom, ginger, cinnamon and cloves. Combine that with the milky texture of tea and a mild coffee flavor, and you’ve got a dirty chai. As I said, it’s a coffee drink for people who don’t like the taste of coffee that much.

For an extra punch – and a stronger coffee taste – you can always add two shots of espresso. Either way, you can serve the dirty chai iced or hot, depending on your preference. Some coffee shops like to add their own sweeteners to the latte. So, be warned that some variations of this beverage may be more sugary than others.

How Much Caffeine Is in a Dirty Chai Latte?

I’ve talked a lot about how much caffeine is really in your coffee, and I’ve also looked into the caffeine levels in chai latte. Although caffeine content can vary depending on the preparation method, even regular chai lattes boast their fair share of caffeine. For example, the medium Starbucks dirty chai latte contains around 170 milligrams.

Using a single shot of espresso, a dirty chai latte typically contains anywhere from 140 milligrams to 170 milligrams of caffeine. A filthy chai latte could easily land over 200 milligrams thanks to that extra shot of espresso. So, if you thought this tea-based beverage might not give you a buzz, you were dead wrong!

How To Make a Dirty Chai Latte

Overhead view of the ingredients for a dirty chai latte.

Now that you’ve got a handle on what’s involved with a dirty chai latte, let’s discuss how to whip up this spiced tea and espresso drink!

Here’s what you’ll need: 

  • An espresso shot 
  • 1 cup milk 
  • Chai tea mix, chai syrup, chai concentrate or a homemade spice blend 

While traditional dirty chai tea lattes use a homemade spice blend, you can easily substitute concentrate or chai powder. You also don’t need to use cow’s milk if you’d like to make this a vegan drink. There are plenty of non-dairy milks you can use for frothing, including oat milk, almond milk or soy milk. Any of those will make this latte taste just as good.

First things first, you’ll want to make an espresso shot with your home espresso machine or super automatic. Espresso shots are ideal since this is a chai espresso latte, but you can always sub strong coffee from an AeroPress or French Press.

While you pull the shot, you don’t want to forget about the frothed milk or Masala tea. Make sure you’re steaming the appropriate amount of milk and preparing the chai mixture according to the directions.

If you’re using chai syrup, it may be as simple as adding a few pumps to the bottom of your cup. Chai powder or homemade spice blends may need to be simmered over the stove with water.

Once you’ve frothed milk, pulled an espresso shot and prepared your chai, it’s time to mix it all together! Combine the chai mixture and espresso shot, top with the milk foam and serve!

Oh, and chocolate, biscuits and most scones pair perfectly with this spiced tea concoction. Just sayin’!

How To Make an Iced Dirty Chai Latte

An iced chai latte.

Some people enjoy their lattes cold enough to keep their teeth chattering. That’s why I’m going to tell you how to make an iced dirty chai latte. There aren’t a ton of changes to the recipe – besides the fact that you’ll be serving the latte over ice.

Once again, you can always sub the espresso shot for strongly brewed coffee, but I’d chill it this time. Give your coffee a couple of hours in the fridge before you add it to the latte. Make sure your cup is full of ice before you add the espresso, frothed milk and chai mixture.

The ice should bring the temperature of the espresso down. After a few minutes, you should have an iced dirty chai latte on your hands.

Other Variations of the Dirty Chai Latte

Technically, the dirty chai latte is already a variation, but here are some of my favorite tweaks to make to it:

  • Faux dirty chai latte: If chai just isn’t your cup of tea – pun intended – you can always order the spiced tea of your choice with milk and espresso. The taste should be similar, but you’ll avoid some of the chai flavorings. 
  • Green tea dirty chai latte: For all my green tea fans, you can sub green tea in place of spiced black tea. 
  • Vegan dirty chai latte: I’ve already mentioned it, but if you want to keep the dirty chai vegan, stick to dairy-free milk. Traditional lattes may use whole milk because it froths better, but you’ll still get similar results with nut or plant-based milk.

The Bottom Line

So, what is a dirty chai latte? Also called espresso chai or java chai, the dirty chai latte has come a long way since its accidental invention in an English coffee shop. Nowadays, ordering it at your favorite coffee shop is as simple as giving the name. Or, if you’d rather skip the line, there are several variations you can make without leaving your house.

Either way, this beverage packs all the flavor of Masala chai and all the caffeine content of espresso. Just don’t drink it too quickly unless you’re looking for a really strong buzz!

FAQ: What Is a Dirty Chai Latte?

A regular chai latte doesn’t include espresso or coffee, while a dirty chai does.

While the method of preparation can impact how healthy this drink is, the black tea in a dirty chai latte can help regulate blood pressure.

Adding espresso to the milky tea makes this drink look “dirty,” hence its name.

Regular coffee tends to have less fat than chai lattes, but healthiness can depend on how much sugar you use in your latte or coffee.

A dirty chai can be made without any sugar at all. However, a little sweetener can really help enhance the flavors of all the spices.

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