What is a “flat white”?


I visited my local Starbucks yesterday to discover they had just debuted the flat white!

What is a flat white exactly? I excitedly posted the advertisement to my Facebook page and received a flurry of possible definitions. Is it a paint color, a hairstyle, a UFO, or some type of women’s shoe? No, and it’s not a racial insult either. We’re talking Starbucks, so it’s obviously a drink of some kind… you smart arses…

The flat white is an espresso drink developed in the 1980s in Australia and New Zealand, although there’s still a fight over where it originated. (Just like the battle of ownership over the dessert known as the pavlova.) The drink was probably influenced by the cappuccinos of Italian immigrants dating back to the 1950s.

I have been missing this delicious beverage desperately for the entire ten years I’ve been living in the States! My favorite local coffee shops in Denver and a place in Aspen have both heard of the drink and have indulged my penchant for a flat white over the years. I’ve also seen a few coffee shops that offer flat whites in New York. In fact, Aussie actor Hugh Jackman co-owns a NY coffee shop called Laughing Man that features the flat white as its signature drink. Flat whites are also popular in the UK due to the influx of Antipodean expats.

I have to add here too that “coffee” in Australia typically refers to espresso. You can’t get drip/filter coffee in restaurants and coffee shops in Australia. There aren’t any bottomless cups of coffee back in Oz!

I should also note that the name “flat white” arose as a contrastive term to “short black” and “long black”. Again, these aren’t racial terms. A short black is a shot of espresso and a long black is similar to an Americano.


Coffee art

Starbucks describe the flat white as, “Bolder than a latte, smoother than a cappuccino. With a slightly sweeter finish over velvety steamed whole milk.” In store, the drink is described as “A classic espresso with two ristretto shots for a sweeter finish.”  Ristretto is a shot of espresso extracted with the same amount of coffee, but about 50% less water. These are fair descriptions of the drink. But could Starbucks come up with the goods?

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation did a short article about the release of the drink across the country. Aussie musician Red Symons is currently visiting Washington D.C. and road tested an American flat white. As Red said, “In order to get a decent coffee here you have to get a cup and you say ‘I’d like an espresso, and then can you put another espresso in that cup, and then can you pour some milk on top – no that’s enough!'” He tried the drink and said “It’s alright.”

Flat White

My first Starbucks Flat White

I broke my no-coffee during pregnancy rule for just a day and tried one myself. I ordered a flat white and was asked, “What size?”  This is where it all started to go down hill. I asked what size it came in. “We have Tall and the other larger sizes. The drinks just have more shots the larger the drink.” However, the whole point of the flat white is that it’s a much smaller size than a latte. Drinks just don’t come in super-size-me 16 ounce or 20 ounce sizes in Australia. In general, the bigger the espresso drink, the poorer the quality. I asked for the smallest size possible, and they gave me an 8 ounce small cup. A flat white in Oz is probably about 6 ounces or 8-10 ounces for a mug.

How was my flat white? I have to parrot Red Symons and agree, “It’s alright.” My drink was still too foamy and cappuccino-like. I texted a photo of it to my husband who simply wrote back, “Foam” in disappointed sympathy. Moreover, this was a bitter coffee foam (as my friend Hope remarked, flat whites will still be made from “awful Starbucks coffee!” My expat NZ friend Anna joked, “It’s not the same without New Zealand milk!”) A flat white typically has a sweet, creamy, velvety microfoam, not the fluffy foam you get in a cappuccino.

It’s also hard to get past the standard flat white being the Tall 12-ounce size of the drink. Americans just aren’t going to get a taste of a true flat white, in all of it’s creamy glory, in such a large (or larger) size. It’s missing the point and it’s basically a different drink.

Finally, flat whites are known for coffee art; when the steamed milk is expertly poured into a pattern or design on the surface of the drink. My Starbucks flat white had no such art!

When I return to my beloved espresso, I’ll probably drink these instead of the over-sized lattes and cappuccinos, with extra instructions for the barista, but I still can’t wait to get back home and enjoy a flat white at one of my favorite coffee shops along the beach…

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Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist and researcher. She is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic, Would You Believe It? and Haunting America. Her forthcoming book is On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present.

5 Comments on "What is a “flat white”?"

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  1. A Katz says:

    I’ve only been living in Australia for two years now….but I know when I leave I’ll miss flat whites as well! It just seems be a great mix of espresso, steam milk and a smooth bit of foam. Not surprised the starbucks version isn’t that great as it will be tailored to be more like all their other drinks.

  2. I hear you! We’ll have to start our own coffee shop here.

    Starbucks have tailored the flat white to be like their other drinks. Having a flat white in Tall or larger really defeats the purpose! It’s really a different beast altogether…

  3. Ryan Speck says:

    My wife works for Starbucks corporate and she’s heard that you definitely want to get the Short for the right size/milk mixture, but the main problem she’s noticed is the variance in quality between different baristas. Perhaps better training would alleviate some problems, but it sounds like it’s hard to get some people used to properly making the drinks and appropriately steaming and tapping down the milk.

    Perhaps both of you will be able to better figure out the problems once you’re done with your pregnancies. I know she’ll definitely have more workplace tastings of how things are supposed to be made after she’s back to drinking caffeine again.

    • I agree that this may also be due to the difference in training and ability of the baristas. I even notice a difference between lattes and cappuccinos made by different staff. Having said that, the short is the best size for a flat white and the drink style just doesn’t translate to the larger sizes.

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