A flat white is an espresso based coffee beverage. The beverage is prepared by pouring microfoam (steamed milk consisting of small, fine bubbles with a glossy or velvety consistency) over a shot of espresso. It is somewhat similar to the traditional 140 ml (5 imp fl oz) cappuccino or the latte although smaller in volume, therefore having a higher proportion of coffee to milk, and milk that is more velvety in consistency – allowing the espresso to dominate the flavour, while being supported by the milk.
A flat white is sometimes served in a ceramic 5 oz/140 ml vitrified cup with saucer. Milk is frothed as it would be for a Cappuccino but held back to around 20 mm/1 inch of microfoam, creating a meniscus (distinct textured surface). Key to the beverage is the crema being coaxed into the meniscus resulting in a uniform dark brown colour across the top of the beverage. Allowing the beverage to stand before drinking enhances the experience as the meniscus thickens and adds texture to each sip, resulting in distinct sip rings/tide marks as the beverage is consumed. A flat white traditionally does not incorporate latte art.
According to a survey of industry commentators, a flat white has several defining characteristics, chief among which is a thin layer of velvety microfoam (hence the ‘flat’ in flat white), as opposed to the significantly thicker layer of foam in a traditional cappuccino.
The earliest reference to the beverage dates back to Australia in the early 1980s. The first documented appearance of the flat white is at Moors Espresso Bar in Sydney, where Alan Preston added the beverage to his permanent menu in 1985. Preston subsequently opened six more cafes around Sydney's Chinatown area. Alan Preston had seven cafes around Sydney. Melbourne's claim to substantial influence on the Australian coffee industry follows significant immigration of Italians following the Second World War, and the introduction of espresso coffee machines in the 1950s.
There is also a claim that the flat white originated in Wellington, New Zealand. This claim states that the flat white was invented as a result of a "failed cappuccino" at Cafe Bodega on Willis St in 1989. The Auckland claim from 1984 is attributed to Derek Townsend and Darrell Ahlers of Cafe DKD, as an alternative to the Italian latte.
It is essentially the opposite of a "dry cappuccino", which has dry frothy foam but no liquid milk. A flat white has milk (or microfoam) but no froth. The ‘milk should be velvety rather than fluffy ... therefore "stronger", which requires a shorter, "ristretto" [espresso shot] run to avoid harsh flavours’. The earlier Australian flat white is similar to an original Italian cappuccino, which is a single espresso with microfoam served in a 150–160 ml (5.3–5.6 imp fl oz) cup.
The Spanish café con leche is similar, but uses scalded milk. In a flat white, the milk is steamed without frothing typically to 70–80 °C (150–170 °F). Steaming the milk to this temperature retains the fats and proteins in the milk which retain a sweet flavour, lost when milk is steamed to scalding temperatures. A Café con Leche also lacks the head of microfoam.
The flat white and the latte are also similar, with some people incorrectly suggesting that the only difference between the two drinks is the vessel in which they are presented. In Australia a flat white is served in a ceramic mug, usually of the same volume (200 ml [7.0 imp fl oz]) as a latte glass. However, some Australian cafés will top a latte with extra froth, while others may pour a flat white slightly shorter’. New Zealand flat whites are more commonly served in a tulip shaped cup (165 ml [5.8 imp fl oz]). In both Australia and New Zealand, there is a generally accepted difference between lattes and flat whites in the ratio of milk to coffee and the consistency of the milk due to the way the milk is heated. The milk in a flat white should not be frothed.
A true flat white ought to have the same quantity of extracted coffee as any other beverage on the coffee menu (generally 30 ml [1.1 imp fl oz]) but because it is served in a smaller vessel (175 ml [6.2 imp fl oz]) it has stronger flavour than say a latte which is normally served in a 225 ml (7.9 imp fl oz) vessel and is subsequently milkier. The consistency of the milk is another point of difference between a flat white and a latte – a latte has a creamy, velvety layer of milk on the surface which can vary in depth depending on where you buy your coffee. A flat white has a thinner band of the textured milk, ideally with a shinier surface.
Outside of Australia and New Zealand, the style was exported to the United Kingdom by 2005, and by 2010 was being sold in Starbucks franchises there. By 2013 the flat white was available in Australian cafés in New York City, with Hugh Jackman co-owning one of them and endorsing the product.
With the flat white becoming increasingly well known globally, large coffee shop chains such as Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Caffè Nero, Second Cup and Pret a Manger added flat whites to their menus, with Starbucks releasing the flat white to American stores on 6 January 2015. The style also inspired the name of a popular café and bistro in Durham.
The phrase flat white economy has been used to describe London's network of internet, media and creative businesses.
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