What Is A Flat White?

There are dozens and dozens of coffee varieties out there these days.

But one which can cause a lot of confusion and debate is the old Flat White. We say ‘old’ as an endearing term because it has actually only recently become a new phenomenon.

Cemented as part of the Third Wave coffee world, it was designed to be strong yet velvety and creamy.

“A bit like a latte, then?” you may ask. Oh no.

The History Of The Flat White

The earliest record of a flat white is in Australia in the mid-1980s. This is the scene which a lot of modern-day coffees were born.

The first record of such a coffee existing was when Sydney café Miller’s Treat was reviewed in May 1983 by Liz Doyle and Brett Wright of the Sydney Morning Herald, with commentary on their ‘flat white coffee’.

Alan Preston of Moors Espresso Bar in Sydney then added it to his menu in 1985, claiming to have imported it from his native Queensland where cafes were making a ‘White Coffee – Flat’ as far back as the 1960s. Parliament House cafe in Canberra offered “flat white only” in January 1985, during a seasonal problem with cows milk that prevented the froth from forming.

But as with every invention, there are contentions. Rivals New Zealand claim they were the originals, with the flat white being the result of an alternative to the Italian latte, and a failed cappuccino.

Flat White Coffee In The UK

Either way, it came over to the UK within the past decade. It really took off when McDonald’s started serving it in 2018, along with a tongue-in-cheek ‘Flat What?’ advert trying to explain to us newbies what on earth it is.

Mcdonalds Flat White

What about now? Well, it is one of the most ordered coffees in cafes across the country. 

Peter Hall (Aussie), and James Gurnsey and Cameron McClure (New Zealanders), were the first to bring it to our shores as it was nigh impossible to get a decent cup anywhere.

They opened up a coffee shop in Soho in 2005 (imaginatively named “Flat White Soho”). Starbucks followed a few years later, serving them in London from 2010, then Costa Coffee put them on the menu just a few weeks later in all of their UK chains.

The flat white is expected to now be a huge chunk of the annual coffee market and offers something very different to the dominant creamy, luxurious and often complicated US-founded coffees which have emerged in the past few decades.

Making a Flat White

A flat white should be served in a small, regular cup, around 160ml.

It is topped by a very thin, ‘flat’ (hence the name) layer of steamed milk, and nothing else. No frothy milk mound or cream or chocolate sprinkles. Just steamed milk.

But ‘steamed milk’ doesn’t do it enough justice. It should actually be called a layer of microfoam, which is much more velvety and glossy than your average milk pour. The frothing is limited and held back to around 20 mm (0.79 in), unlike the much thicker layer such as in a cappuccino.

The microfoam remains a slightly brownish colour as opposed to the vivid white normally found on frothy coffees and will create a tide effect as the drink is consumed. It will also thicken upon standing for a more texturous result.

There is a reason behind this method, too – it allows the espresso to still be the most prominent taste, instead ensuring the milk just complements it in the background.

What Is The Difference Between a Flat White & a Latte?

To anybody not that fussed about coffee, Flat White is just another complicated name to add to the cafe boards. There is nothing to distinguish it from a latte.

Don’t listen to those people, and don’t be like them.

Yes, it is most closely compared to a latte but there are a few distinguishing features. Firstly, a latte is usually around 240ml but a flat white is usually 160ml. This can change depending on your country or where you buy it, but it is a rule of thumb. Essentially, lattes are tall and flat whites are not.

They still have the same amount of espresso in them however, so the flat white is much stronger because of the coffee:milk proportion.

But lattes will have a milk foam on the top.

Difference between a latte and flat white
Pictured: Flat White with espresso and microfoam vs. Latte with espresso, microfoam and frothed milk

Modern Day Flat White and Alternatives

What is the perk of a coffee requiring less milk, and less of a froth too?

Well, if you like to avoid cows milk, it is one of the best options. Alternative mylks are notoriously not fab for frothing, but the low milk content doesn’t make this obvious.

It is also great for any coffee drinkers who are trying to cut down on dairy consumption, or indeed on coffee consumption. The smaller cup size and stronger concentrate mean you get more of a ‘kick’ in less liquid.

The rules are also pretty basic to follow, so wherever you order a flat white from, you will likely get the same great taste.

Therefore, it is the most consistent and safe bet for anyone wanting a regular small coffee to wake them up after that post-lunch slump.

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