What is a Flat White? The Official Answer

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Go back even a few decades and the question of what is a flat white would have been all but incomprehensible to most both North Americans and Europeans. The only ones who would have understood the question would have been the Aussies and Kiwis in the great Down Under. 

The Flat White however is now a staple option in both Starbucks as well as specialty coffee shops. So what is this mystery drink? What is a flat white coffee? What is the difference between a flat white and a latte? Is there even a difference? 

What is a Flat White? 

The short answer is that a flat white coffee is an espresso mixed with milk that is crowned with a thin layer of velvety microfoam

Flat White

Typically a flat white has a double shot of espresso with less milk than a latte, and less foam than a cappuccino. The appeal of the flat white is thus a strong espresso-based coffee in which the flavor is not overly diluted with milk. It is stronger than a latte and has a lovely creamy mouthfeel. 

While this has been a staple for decades in the Down Under it only hit the shores of North America following the turn of the millennium. Around 2010 cafes in North America started offering the flat white with Starbucks following suit in 2015. 

The History of the Flat White

As some of you may know there is a highly contested narrative around the birth of the infamous flat white. It either originated in Australia in 1986 or in New Zealand in 1989. Either way, it seems to have been the result of a botched cappuccino with milk that simply wouldn’t froth. ‘I am sorry boss, it came out flat…’ 

The failed drink was reimagined with that typical down-under ingenuity into a whole new drink, the Flat White. 

Unlike North America, for both Australia and New Zealand, espresso-based coffee is the norm while filter coffee is the exception. Even today if you go to almost any cafe in Australia and New Zealand and ask for a coffee, you will be served up an espresso-based coffee, probably in fact a flat white. 

However, the origin story continues to be a point of contention between Kiwis and Aussies ‘across the ditch.’ For what it is worth, I side with the Kiwis on this one. The Aussies have a bit of a reputation for stealing ideas. Pavlova.  

Flat White vs Latte vs Cappuccino 

Perhaps the most difficult question around the topic of the flat white is what is the precise difference between it and a cappuccino and more explicitly, the flat white vs latte

As noted the difference with a Cappuccino is fairly easy to pinpoint. A flat white has significantly less foamy milk than a cappuccino and tends to be smaller.

Flat white vs latte however is a bit more complicated. And the reason that it is complicated is that different cafes make their drinks differently. Historically, a latte is served in a glass and is slightly larger, while a flat white is served in a ceramic cup and has slightly less milk. 

So generally speaking, a cappuccino has the most foam (15mm), then comes the latte (10mm), and the flat white has the least (5mm). It does however still have enough foam to produce latte art which is part and parcel of a good flat white.

Some cafes only use double shots for flat whites while using a single shot for lattes, others use a single or double ristretto for a different mouthfeel. And in some cafe’s the difference between flat white and latte is barely noticeable, in others it is distinct. So the answer really does depend upon your specific local joint. 

However, I would always opt for a flat white over a latte if a cafe offers it. As a generalization, a flat white tends to be stronger and less foamy which is always good when it comes to specialty coffee. 

What is a Flat White? The Takeaway

In summary, the flat white is a long-established espresso-based drink that originated in the great down-under in the 80s and is now a staple all over the world. 

A flat white is a small espresso-based drink with steamed milk and a thin layer of velvety microfoam. It is small, strong, and delicious. If you haven’t tried one then we would highly recommend it!

Smaller than a latte, less foamy than a cappuccino, and more delicious than either. The Flat White.