What is a Flat White Coffee?

Back in early 2015, coffee behemoth Starbucks unleashed their latest concoction.

The drink was an espresso-based brew that quickly went on to become the hipster’s coffee of choice.

It was such a hit that there was even talk of the chain phasing out their classic cappuccino. We’re talking, of course, about the Flat White.

  • But what is ‘Flat White’?
  • What are they like?
  • Where do they come from?
  • Did Starbucks invent them?
  • How do you make one?

If you’ve ever wondered about any of these questions and more, please read on. We have all the answers for you.

Where does the Flat White come from?

Where does the Flat White come from
Image: Lucky Belly

Did Starbucks invent the Flat White? No, of course they didn’t. Not even close. There are two countries where people have been enjoying Flat Whites for decades, places where this beverage has been at the heart of a long-established local coffee culture for many years.

The two countries in question are Australia and New Zealand, and to this day a heated debate rages over where the Flat White originated, with both nations laying claim to the genesis of the drink.

There are those who argue that the beverage was first created in Sydney in the early 80s and spread from there; others counter that the drink has its true beginnings in 1970s Melbourne. Either way, the consensus would point to Australia being the birthplace of the Flat White (1).

However, things are never quite that simple.

When the concept of this new drink crossed the Tasmanian Sea and reached New Zealand, baristas in Wellington gave the coffee it’s modern form and elevated it to a new level of perfection. It is widely accepted that some of the finest Flat Whites on the planet are now found in the Kiwi capital.

Australia and New Zealand both seem to have played their part in the development of the drink, and the Flat White is now an integral part of the coffee-drinking tradition of both countries. So, to avoid upsetting anyone, let’s agree to call it a joint effort.

From there, following the large numbers of Australian and New Zealand expats, the Flat White made its way around the globe to the UK, where it has also been available in coffee shops for many years. But before Starbucks got their hands on the drink, it was largely unknown in North America.

Back then, it was only available in a handful of specialist Australian-owned establishments in larger US cities.  For example, Australian actor Hugh Jackman had staff in his New York Laughing Man coffee shop specially trained on how to make an Aussie Flat White (2).

And then in 2015 Starbucks decided to gate-crash the party.

What exactly is a Flat White?

Now we have established where the Flat White comes from, but what is it? It’s just a coffee, so what’s all the fuss about? Let’s look at what makes a Flat White stand out from other espresso-based drinks (3).

As with other popular coffee drinks like cappuccinos or lattes, there are just two basic ingredients in a Flat White: espresso and steamed milk. But it’s not quite that simple; it’s all about the quantities, how you prepare these two ingredients and how you combine them.

If you just take a shot of espresso and a jug of steamed milk and pour them into a cup together, the result will not be a Flat White. There are more art and science to it than that.

A Flat White is traditionally served in a 165ml tulip cup. The dose is usually a double shot of espresso, which goes in first, and the cup is then topped up with the steamed milk. With a Flat White, the result should be a uniformly velvety drink with a strong espresso taste (4).

But wait, that just sounds like a small latte! And in fact, this is exactly what the doubters and detractors would claim. But a cappuccino is different from a latte and a latte is different from a Flat White. So how do Flat Whites differ from the other two? We need to look at that next (5).

The cappuccino

The cappuccino
Image: Lucky Belly

What is a cappuccino? The cappuccino is a classic espresso-based drink that has been with us for over 50 years. In Italy, the land of its birth, it is traditionally consumed as a breakfast drink, and over there, it would be considered a little odd to order one after mid-morning.

The cappuccino starts off with a double shot of espresso. Next, liquid steamed milk is added, after which follows the foam. These three ingredients, espresso, steamed milk, and foam, should be in a ratio of about 1:1:1, so the foam on the top should fill about a third of the cup.

The latte

The latte
Image: Lucky Belly

With a latte, like the cappuccino, you start off with the espresso. To this, you add the steamed milk and the foam, but this time the ratio is different. Much more of the milk should remain as liquid milk, with only a thin layer of foam on the top.

The trick here for the barista is selecting the right amount of milk and then knowing how to steam it. For a cappuccino, you need more foam, for a latte, you need less.

Fewer foam results in a longer, milkier drink; indeed, caffè latte literally means “milk coffee” in Italian. They are traditionally served in a tall glass or cup, rather than the bowl-like cup used for cappuccino, although cappuccino-style cups are also commonly used.

Flat White

Flat White 1
Image: Lucky Belly

When steaming milk for a Flat White, rather than aiming for liquid milk with foam on top, the milk needs to reach a uniform consistency made up entirely of “micro-bubbles” that will mix with the espresso, leaving no foam on top. This gives the Flat White its distinctive texture and mouthfeel.

So, completely different from cappuccinos or lattes!

The other major difference is that since the volume of milk used is less than in a latte, the final beverage has a much more pronounced espresso flavor and is less milky than a latte.

If you still can’t picture it, you might think of a Flat White as being similar to a cappuccino with no foam or you might picture something like a more concentrated latte with less milk and no foam.

But this concept of “micro-bubbles” might seem a little hard to grasp at the moment, so let’s have a look at that part of the Flat White in more detail.

All about foam

Not all foams are the same. Foam is basically milk with bubbles in it, but the consistency can differ depending on the size of the bubbles. If you make a foam that contains larger bubbles, it feels drier and sits on the top of the drink (6).

This is the kind of foam you find on top of your cappuccino or latte.

However, if you make a foam that consists of micro-bubbles, bubbles so small you can no longer see the individual bubbles, you have a foam that blends much more easily with the coffee rather than floating on top. Foam made of micro-bubbles is often called “microfoam”.

When making cappuccinos and lattes, you want to create a certain amount of regular foam with large bubbles that will sit on top of the drink. The amount depends on which one you are preparing.

Using steamed milk that has been entirely converted into microfoam, as opposed to regular foam with larger bubbles, is a major part of what makes a Flat White a Flat White and not just a “small latte”.

When the microfoam is poured into the Espresso, it combines and mixes with the espresso, resulting in the Flat White – with no large-bubbled foam on top.

Stretching the milk

Making steamed milk and foam for espresso drinks is a skill that is learned and perfected over time by baristas. Properly steaming milk is far removed from just throwing a cup of milk in the microwave or boiling it on the stove – and the result is entirely different.

When steaming milk for use in cappuccinos, lattes or Flat Whites, the objective is to “stretch” the milk. Sucking hot air into the milk from the steam wand and injecting those tiny micro-bubbles into the milk causes the volume to increase.

Check out this video on how it’s done.

For the Flat White, the key is to end up with a pitcher of milk that has a uniform texture throughout, not a pitcher containing liquid milk at the bottom and large-bubbled froth at the top. Tapping the pitcher on the counter and swilling it, or “folding” it with a spoon, can help achieve this.

When the milk reaches the required consistency, it is ready to be poured into the espresso, creating a velvety drink with a strong coffee flavor and little or no foam on the top – the Flat White.

How do you make one? A Flat White recipe

So now we can bring all this theory together. We can take all that we’ve learned and use it to make our very own Flat White.

Assuming you have all the necessary equipment at home, first, take your 165ml tulip cup and preheat it. This is necessary because the Flat White is a relatively short drink and will quickly lose heat.

Next, prepare a double espresso shot. If possible, always grind beans just before you use them to make coffee. After grinding, coffee begins to lose its delicious aromatics within a matter of minutes.

When you have drawn the espresso into your cup, take your pitcher and fill it with the required amount of cold milk. Using cold milk will improve the results of the steaming process.

Place the nozzle of the steam wand from your espresso machine just below the surface of the milk and begin to steam. This will create bubbles in the milk; once larger bubbles begin to form, push the nozzle further into the milk to create a whirlpool effect. This will blend the milk and bubbles.

An easy way to judge the correct temperature for the steamed milk is if you hold the pitcher in your bare hand, the milk is ready before the pitcher becomes too hot to hold.

At this point, you will still have some of those undesirable large froth bubbles on the top of the milk. You should tap the pitcher firmly on the counter a few times to burst these larger bubbles.

Swilling the milk around will help ensure the steamed milk has the right texture and consistency you need for your Flat White. You may also try folding the milk with a spoon to make sure it is well mixed.

Finally, when your steamed milk is just the right consistency, pour it into the cup with the espresso. In order to ensure the espresso and the milk mix well, pour from a height of at least a couple of inches.

At this point, you can even try to create latte art on top of your Flat White.

And now, if all has gone according to plan, you should have produced a delicious cup of velvety, light Flat White with a pleasingly strong espresso taste. Congratulations. Enjoy!

Go and try one

Maybe you are addicted to your lattes, perhaps you swear by your morning cappuccino or you might be an espresso purist. Whichever your habitual coffee of choice, next time you might consider giving the Flat White a go. All those hipsters can’t be wrong, can they?

Now you know everything about Flat Whites, you can even test your local barista to see what they say when you ask, “what is a Flat White?” Then you will see if they really know their stuff – or if they think a Flat White is just a small latte!

Which is your favorite coffee drink? Do you think Flat Whites are the height of cool or do you think they’re so 2015? Or maybe you just prefer to opt for a plain old Americano. Whatever your views, we’d love to hear from you. And if you enjoyed our article, please don’t forget to share!

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