Flat White

Since the flat white has now reached mainstream America status (Starbucks started serving them January 6th, 2015), I thought I’d look into where they came from.

Laughing Man on Duane Street (Tribeca, NYC)
Laughing Man on Duane Street (Tribeca, NYC)

The first place I tried a flat white was at Aussie Hugh Jackman’s Manhattan coffee shop, Laughing Man.  Not having terribly sophisticated taste buds, I thought it was a great latte that had perhaps a bit less milk then normally used, thus it was delicious tasting (its the same milk ratio I use on my own home brewed filtered coffees).  Or perhaps it it tasted like a cortado without the foam art.  I couldn’t quite tell them apart without doing some research.

Firstly, lets review the mainstream American Starbucks-approved espresso + milk beverages (there are many more from all around the world, these are just the most common here):

  • Latte = 1/3 espresso + 1/2 steamed milk + apx. 1/6 milk foam
  • Mocha = latte + chocolate (+ whipped cream)
  • Cappuccino = 1/3 espresso + 1/3 steamed milk + 1/3 milk foam (+ cinnamon powder)
  • Macchiato = espresso shot + milk foam on top
Image via Coffee Tov
Image via Coffee Tov
  • Cortado = 1/2 espresso + 1/2 warm milk
  • Flat White = espresso + small amount of frothed milk (I can’t find the exact ratio)

The main difference between these beverages is the milk.  Warm or steamed milk has little to no air bubbles and has a warm/hot temperature.  Milk foam has large air bubbles and is often created by steaming milk so that the warm milk and bubbles separate.  ‘Frothed’ milk is steamed just to the point before the large-bubbled foam separates from the milk, so it that has a solid consistency of tiny foamy bubbles throughout.  (I think I made up ‘frothed’ but I like it better than the commonly used ‘microfoam‘ since froth implies bubbly consistency throughout, while foam implies bubbly consistency just on the top.)

Steamed milk
Steaming Milk via WikiCommons

But who served the first flat white?  Like most cultural phenomena, it is hard to pin down exactly where and when the flat white came from.  There was is no universally acknowledged story of Barista Betty fiddling around in the back of the shop one day and emerging with the first fully formed flat white.  However, most agree that the drink came from the Australia/New Zealand part of the world in the 1980s.

Australia & New Zealand (by John Pinkerton in 1818)
A cool map of Australasia! (New Holland/Australia & New Zealand) by John Pinkerton in 1818

Nothing I’ve read makes me definitively believe the beverage came from one or the other of the Antipodes, but it has been interesting to learn about how the post World War II immigration of Greeks and Italians to Australia has built up the current coffee culture there.

(Side note: this small slice of history has reaffirmed some cliches about these countries: The Greeks fled to escape poverty, taking advantage of Australia’s “Populate or Perish” immigration policy.  Australia yet again served as a penal destination, taking in many Italians as prisoners of war.)

“Ok,” you ask, “so the flat white came from somewhere the Antipodes, but why is it called a flat white?”  Good question!

In Australia and New Zealand, the basic espresso is called a ‘short black,’ and an Americano made water first is called a ‘long black.’  It’s not too much of a leap from there to get ‘white’ for a milky coffee.  Since there is no foam, the top of these concoctions is pretty ‘flat.’  Thus you have the ‘flat white.’

A flat white
A flat white

What is your favorite way to drink coffee?

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Some Origin Stories

Bree is a 20-something from New York City, working and living in the town she loves.

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