My barista swears he doesn’t use TikTok. “That’s, like, the social media thing, right?” he asks when I query him about the impetus behind his new drink special, the Espresso Orange. Surely the fact that the wacky-sounding combination has been trending on the app since March had something to do with its sudden appearance at the Polish-Italian café on my street? But no, if the bearded gentleman behind the counter is to be believed, his decision to slosh everyone’s two favorite breakfast beverages together occurred completely independently.
“I just thought it sounded refreshing,” he says as he plunks a couple of ice cubes into a glass. I watch skeptically as he fills it partway with fresh orange juice and floats a mahogany-colored, caffeinated layer on top. While I love both coffee and OJ on their own, the idea of blending the two makes me flash back to early childhood, when I’d fill a cup with a little bit of every liquid in my parents’ fridge and dare my brother to drink it.
Still, every article I’ve read about the mixture tells me it’s “not as bad as it sounds.” And thousands of TikTok testimonials can’t be wrong... or can they?
The phenomenon of adding citrus to one’s morning brew is nothing new. Every few years, the internet rediscovers coffee lemonade, aka mazagran, an Arnold Palmer–like concoction that has its roots in 19th-century Algeria. It has since spread everywhere from Portugal to Sweden (where it’s called kaffelemonad) to Starbucks in the United States, where brave drinkers may order it as an off-menu special.
Espresso and straight-up lemon juice, meanwhile, has long been touted as a miracle cure for everything from hangovers to obesity. While there’s some evidence that caffeine and citric acid can help ease some kinds of headaches, the weight loss claim is, predictably, bunk, unless you’re so nauseated by the combination that you skip the rest of your meal.
As for coffee and orange juice? Anecdotally, creative breakfasters have been blending the drinks for ages, but cafés only began to take notice in the past decade. In Phoenix, Arizona, the combo—called an “OJ Express” or “Espresso Sunrise”—has enjoyed regional popularity since at least 2011, picking up steam as Instagram took off and baristas realized how eye-catching the brown and orange color gradient could be. Outside of the Southwest, though, it remained a mere curiosity. Or at least, it did until this spring.
The current espresso-orange juice craze can be traced to a post by @bundaddy, a TikToker with nearly 800,000 followers who uses her channel as an outlet for her thoughts on everything from Roe v. Wade to shoe-tying strategies.
“I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Put espresso in your orange juice!” she enthused on March 1, 2022. “I haven’t seen one person who likes espresso and orange juice not like them together. You think that you won’t, but you will.”
App users took it from there, with coffee snobs, Italian nonnas, and, inevitably, orange juice brand representatives all offering their own verdicts on the beverage combo. Did it win everyone over, as Bundaddy predicted? Of course not, but the sheer novelty and the vast range of reactions provoked enough curiosity that TikTok user after TikTok user jumped on the bandwagon.
Coffee blogs and Buzzfeed had no choice but to report on the trend, and from then on, it was only a matter of time before the viral drink reached cafés—even social-media-agnostic ones. At the moment, the espresso orange seems to be on the same track as the espresso tonic before it: from kooky acquired taste to summertime staple.
Does it deserve that status, though? Back at the Polish-Italian café, I photograph the gorgeous layers of my own espresso orange before stirring it all into a muddy ochre sludge. “Tag us if you post the photo!” the barista calls out to me. I promise him I will, but change my mind when I take a sip.
Reader, mixing espresso and orange juice is a terrible idea. For me, at least, it brings out the worst qualities in each component, making the coffee unpalatably acidic and the juice unpalatably bitter. Add in the fact that this version was made with pulp, and honestly, if I threw up in my mouth while I was drinking it, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the fluids.
I’m sure there are ways to make the drink taste good. Another café in my city has its own version made with orange blossom syrup instead of juice, and the so-called Spritzy Americano, espresso and soda water with just a splash of orange juice, looks promising, but these both require finesse on the barista’s part. Simply following TikTok’s lead and dumping a shot of espresso into a glass of OJ isn’t going to cut it.
Unless, maybe, it is? After all, when I told my friends about my espresso orange experience, every last one wanted to try it for themselves, vomit comparisons notwithstanding. As price hikes and COVID-induced staff shortages continue to ravage the hospitality industry, you can’t fault cafés for offering a summer special that’s cheap, easy to make, and hotly in demand. Even if, like me, most customers will probably only order it just once before going back to sipping their coffee and orange juice as the breakfast gods intended: individually.