The Unexpectedly Complicated History of the Flat White
What is a flat white, anyway?
These days, flat whites are hip. They’re listed on chalkboards of many local coffee shops alongside lattes, cortados, and cappuccinos. Even Vogue has dubbed the drink their “latest coffee obsession.” But there always seems to be confusion: what is a flat white, exactly? There are some commonly agreed upon facts, to be sure. A flat white is made with espresso and milk that’s been steamed, and ideally, that milk is delicately poured into the shape of a fern or a leaf. The flat white looks like a cappuccino, but it’s not a cappuccino—and if asked to elaborate on the difference, most Americans would freeze with confusion.
But what most Americans do know about flat whites is that they’re now served in Starbucks, in addition to their local or artisanal coffee shop. Around the world, Google searches for “flat white” spiked in January 2015, after Starbucks announced it would be adding the drink to American menus—a move that would, “Honor Coffee Artistry and Espresso Craft with New Flat White,” according to the headline of the press release.
But to call the flat white “new” is a huge overstatement. Even though it’s only recently appeared on American menus, it’s been a staple in Australian and New Zealand cafes since the 1980s, and really, folks shouldn’t be embarrassed about being confused by this espresso-based beverage because it seems like every barista from New York to Sydney has their own interpretation of how to make a flat white. Even the origins of the flat white are deeply disputed and generally confusing.
“There is much debate on this subject, and it’s shrouded in mystery and speculation from both sides of the Tasman Sea,” explains Andrew Smart, founder of the Espresso Workshop in Auckland, New Zealand. “I can’t really profess to know who started serving the flat white first, but I am a New Zealander, so I will say…for sure it was created in New Zealand!” There’s some compelling evidence to support his assertion, to be fair.” Derek Townsend, a New Zealander who owned the now-defunct cafe DKD in Auckland, claims to have made the first flat white in 1986—though he does admit to having stolen the name “flat white” from a cafe in Melbourne, Australia. But another New Zealand man, Fraser McInnes, who used to work at a cafe in Wellington, also claims to have “accidentally” invented the flat white in 1989. As he explained in a video shot and published by New Zealand news outlet Stuff, he was trying to make a cappuccino but failed to “get [the milk] to fluff, so in the end, I went up to the lady and said, ‘Look, I’m sorry. But it’s a flat white.”
There’s evidence to support the other point of view, too. A few months after McInnes went to Stuff, Alan Preston maintains that he named and created the flat white at Moors Espresso Bar in Sydney, Australia in 1985. “I'm telling you I was the first one to name it,” Preston told Stuff. "Everybody who has flat white on the menu had it [after we started]."
The debate about which country lays claim to the flat white rages, and the answer really seems to depend on folks’ personal alliances. “Wars have been started over less!” jokes Jai Lott, coffee director at Bluestone Lane, an Australian-inspired coffee. But he adds, “I have read some pretty convincing statements on its New Zealand origins, however, I’ve also read equally firm stories of its Australian beginnings. I’m obviously siding with Australia on this...” Hugh Kelly the current Australian Barista Champion and head trainer at ONA Coffee in Melbourne also believes that the flat white comes from his homeland: “I believe the flat white was invented in Australia because the first time from my understanding this was seen in public was at a café in Sydney.”
Seemingly fed up with this debate, Australian food historian Michael Symons put his foot down in a 2012 essay: “As an Australian food historian, I declare that it started in Australia, where it often remains weak, murky, fluffy and under-appreciated. It was then perfected in New Zealand, more particularly, in Wellington.” He adds, “It's impossible to find a better morning coffee anywhere. I know, because I've tried.” (Symons did not, however, fully identify the true originator of the drink, for what it's worth.)
Even with that argument momentarily settled, there’s still debate about what makes a good flat white—not to mention the firestorm that’s bound to start by pitting the Australian flat white against that from New Zealand. And just as each barista had their own understanding of the history of the flat white, each also had their own definition of the drink. Starbucks, it should be noted, has a description of what makes a flat white: “Bold ristretto shots of espresso get the perfect amount of steamed whole milk to create a not too strong, not too creamy, just right flavor.” But that definition far from canonical, least of all because Starbucks didn’t start serving flat white at their Australian stores until 2009, decades after the flat white was presumably invented and a nearly a decade after the American company opened its first store on the continent. (It should also be noted here that Australians don’t tend to like Starbucks, least of all because there are tens of thousands of independently owned cafes across the country.)
Symons, the food historian, says the flat white is, “emphatically a coffee drink with a double shot and a smaller cup (typically a ‘tulip’ of 160mls). Yet the milk remains a feature, providing a sweet and velvety platform by being merely stretched, without fluffiness.”
That stretching rather than fluffing or frothing is what makes the so-called microfoam that’s become the hallmark of a good flat white. “The flat white milk is stretched with less expansion in the top of the jug therefore the ‘microfoam’ is more tight knit, and there is a more consistent milk texture throughout the beverage,” explains Smart of New Zealand’s Espresso Workshop.
At Bluestone Lane in New York City, two shots of espresso are topped with a thin layer of this microfoam. “It’s enough to seal in the surface of the drink, but not so much that it can be lifted in spoonfuls,” explains Lott. “Short version? More coffee and milk than in a cordato, less foam and milk than a cappuccino.”
Still, most Americans would compare a flat white to a cappuccino—and though that comparison isn’t totally wrong in the American context, it would make most Australians balk because down under, cappuccinos are dusted with chocolate powder. The flat white, meanwhile, is left plain, and Kelly, the Australian Barista Champion, even goes as far as to identify this as one of the biggest differences between the otherwise similar drinks: “The chocolate found on top of most cappuccinos today is the main difference between cappuccino and flat white.”
Despite the fussiness of its creation and the messiness of its origin story, flat whites are still beloved. So why is it the flat white so popular? Despite the fussiness of its preparation and the messiness of its origin story, it’s an ultimately unfussy drink, and, as all three baristas pointed out, it needs to be balanced. “What makes a great flat white is a good balance between the coffee and the milk, in addition to the milk that has been stretched with a nice tight knit microfoam,” says Smart.
Kelly adds, “Flat whites are so popular because they are the most basic coffee without the fluff. Some see lattes as pretentious or weak, some see cappuccinos as sacrilege due to the chocolate powder covering up the flavors of the coffee.”
There’s also something distinctly antipodean about the flat white that inspires some sense of pride in both Australians and New Zealanders. “There is something to be said about a drink ‘invented at home,’” says Kelly. “Germans have beer, Spanish have sangria, we have our flat white.” So that interest in flat whites might be the clearest sign that Americans are finally catching up to Australian and New Zealand coffee culture.