The story behind Instagram's favorite orange-and-black layered drink
EC: Why Is Phoenix Obsessed with Mixing Orange Juice and Espresso?
Photo by Michal Mason
| Credit: Photo by Michal Mason

You've probably only ever mixed orange juice with coffee after accidentally spilling both glasses at brunch. But in Phoenix, Arizona, orange juice topped with espresso is its own special drink that has a cult following. For the past few years, the bold swill has been available at coffee shops in Phoenix, all over the city, albeit under different names. At the vegan pastry shop Nami, it's known as the OJ Express; at the café Vovomeena, it's called Good Morning, Vietnam; and at Jobot Coffee, it's the simple Sunrise. But the premise of the drink is the same all-round: a tall glass of cold orange juice topped with a floater of hot espresso. Coffee is gently poured into the cup, giving the drink a distinctive layered look—neon orange on the bottom, chocolatey brown on top—as if a third grader had prepared it as part of a science experiment on viscosity.

Damon Brash, owner of Nami, says the café has been serving the drink since they opened, back in 2011. "We're always trying to be innovative, mix stuff together, and come up with new stuff," Brash says. "One of our baristas brought it up and I was like, 'No, it sounds super gross.' But we tried it and I was very surprised how complex and good it was."

The espresso and orange juice combo quickly became a social media darling for its dramatic appearance. Brash also suspects it grew in popularity because the weather is so hot in Phoenix. Plus, the state grows a lot of citrus fruits, so orange juice is prevalent. "I really don't know how it caught on," he says. "I don't want to take credit for it in case we weren't the ones who started it. But I will say that I've never seen this outside of Arizona."

There is actually a precedent for pairing citrus juice with coffee. In Italy, espresso is often served with a lemon or orange peel on the side. You can drop it right into the cup or squeeze it over the surface to brighten the coffee's flavor and counteract any bitterness. This lends the drink a citrus scent rather than citrus flavor.

So to Brash, the orange juice and coffee pairing makes sense and feels familiar. "People are always a little bit wary when we explain it to them," he says. "I've offered it to people who have told me, 'I want something sweet and I want something cold and I want something different' and then they say no. I'll say, 'Look, let me make it for you and if you don't like it, I'll make you something else on the house.' And every time I've done that people have been like, 'Yeah, OK, I'm into it.'"

But not everyone feels the same way. DJ Fernandes, owner of Vovomeena, says he could never quite figure out the drink's appeal. "It doesn't taste great to me," he says. "It's just like taking two things and chucking them together." He offered his version, the Good Morning, Vietnam, as a featured drink on the menu for a while, because people kept asking for it, but he has since removed it. In addition to not personally liking the way it tastes, he thinks the public lost interest. "It was kind of like Pokémon Go!," Fernandes says. "It was very popular for a very short period of time."

Vovomeena will still make the drink if a customer asks for it, but Fernandes says no one ever does once they've tried it. Love or hate. One and done.

Fernandes would rather serve people his custom cold brew that's infused with orange peels and ginger. "It's more of an aromatic drink," he says. "You get more wine characteristics, citrus notes. I'm not clunking you over the head with orange juice. At the end of the day, we want it to taste like you're drinking coffee."