Wait, What Exactly Is a Flat White? We Asked an Aussie and a Kiwi

updated Aug 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Russell James Smith)

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.

But then, of course, Starbucks started serving one. As Derek Thompson so aptly posted on Twitter, “At a little coffee shop in East Village and ~everybody~ is ordering a flat white. The Starbucks effect.”

He’s right. While our friends Down Under have been drinking flat whites for years, it required the move of the global coffee giant to make us take notice. Just look at the spike in “flat white” searches recently.

But actually, customers were so confused about what in the world a flat white actually was, that Starbucks had to change their messaging to educate them about the drink. I’ve enjoyed a few flat whites in the last couple of years, both in Australia and abroad, but even within the coffee world there tends to be some confusion as to what “exactly” they really are. Sprudge, a specialty coffee website, even launched a poll to get to the scientific bottom of the question.

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.

(Image credit: FieryDragonLord)

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 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.)

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:

“Typically, in the specialty coffee world, a flat white has just a little bit less microfoam than a latte, and often less volume, but is still creamy milk over the same amount of espresso,” says Kenny.

“The other difference is that a latte is generally served in a glass — though this differs from cafe to cafe — while a flat white is served in ceramic, also often in a smaller ceramic than a cappuccino, but again, this varies place to place.”

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.”

(Image credit: Evan Goldberg)

Why are all these Antipodeans so excited about a milk-coffee drink?

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.”