Wait, What Exactly Is a Flat White? And How Is It Different From a Latte?

updated Mar 12, 2024
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Unless you work in specialty coffee — or come from or have spent time in New Zealand or Australia — I will bet that a few years ago, you had never heard of a flat white. Our friends Down Under have been drinking flat whites for years, but even within the coffee world there tends to be some confusion as to what “exactly” they really are.

I figured the best way to find out exactly what a flat white is, and why all the Antipodeans love them so much, was to talk to the people who know them best: a coffee lover from Australia and a coffee lover from New Zealand.

Quick Overview

What Is a Flat White

A flat white is a coffee drink made by pouring steamed milk over espresso. It has a smaller foam than than a either a latte or a cappuccino.

As far as proportions go, a flat white coffee is 1/3 double shot espresso to 2/3 milk, plus that tiny layer of micro foam on top.

What’s the difference between a flat white and a latte?

A flat white has steamed milk and espresso — doesn’t that just make it a latte? Yes? No? Sort of?

The difference between a flat white and a latte has a lot to do with the foam, according to Eileen P. Kenny. She’s a barista, coffee writer, and the creator of Birds of Unusual Vitality, a publication about specialty coffee. She broke down the stunning differences between the two for us:

  • Foam size: “Typically, in the specialty coffee world, a flat white has just a little bit less micro foam than a latte, and often less volume, but is still creamy milk over the same amount of espresso,” says Kenny.
  • Strength: A flat white has more coffee relative to milk than a latte, so it’s stronger.
  • Size: A latte will be around around 8 ounces while a flat white is smaller, at around 5.5 ounces.

Where did the flat white originally come from?

There is a lot of dispute over whether the flat white originated in Australia or New Zealand, but Al Keating from New Zealand’s coffee brand Coffee Supreme assures me it was a Kiwi thing. “The creator of the Flat White is commonly known in New Zealand to be none other than Derek Townsend. As legend would have it, he could steam 3 jugs of milk in one hand, make more than 1500 flat whites in an hour, and could grind coffee to the correct particle size using nothing but his bare fists. Not surprisingly, his first cafe was called ‘Cafe Xtreme’,” says Keating.

(If there’s one reason that I like people from New Zealand and Australia, besides their good coffee: it’s their sense of humor.)

How popular are flat whites in Australia and New Zealand?

I asked both Kenny and Keating to rank the flat white’s spot on the coffee-ordering hierarchy. Keating says that for him, it’s always flat whites in the #1 spot, and lattes comes in second. Kenny says that in her experience in Australia, flat whites and lattes are about the same — both are at the top of the list.

However, she points out that she is of the belief that “people often order a flat white in lieu of a latte because they think it’s a less ‘fussy’ drink, when in reality, it’s pretty much all the same thing.”

What Do People Love About a Flat White?

Go to an Aussie- or Kiwi-owned cafe abroad and you will certainly find a flat white on the menu. I can’t count the number of Australians that I have met traveling that say, “That place serves a great flat white!” as their baseline for ranking a good cafe. So what is it that makes the flat white the pumpkin spice latte of the Southern Hemisphere?

“I think part of the enthusiasm about flat whites comes from some odd sense of patriotism: Australians have taken ownership of the drink as something that is uniquely theirs, just like the lamington or pavlova, whether or not the origins are actually Australian,” says Kenny.

Keating pointed out an interesting thing about coffee in New Zealand: “That guy who orders ‘just a coffee’ pretty much always gets delivered a flat white.”

Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that the drink reminds them of home.

Who drinks a flat white?

Now here’s where we can easily get into the moderately wonky specialty coffee discussion.

“Coffee purists, aficionados, and men with well-groomed beards and soft hands might argue that milk blemishes or sullies the coffee, disrespecting the tireless work of producers and coffee roasters, but that is a story for another time perhaps,” says Keating.

Rest assured, though — flat whites are popular because they are crowd-pleasers. Keating sums it up by telling me about who exactly is drinking flat whites:

“Everyone you know: that woman next to you on the bus, Brian down the hall in accounts payable, your mum (trim milk though). Even the barista at your second-favourite cafe. The barista at your favourite cafe has a well-groomed beard.”