A flat white is a coffee beverage that originated around the 1970s-1980s in Australia and later in New Zealand. It is prepared by pouring microfoam (steamed milk consisting of small, fine bubbles with a glossy or velvety consistency) over a single or double shot of espresso. It is somewhat similar to the traditional 5 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.
The beverage is typically served in a small 150–160 mL ceramic cup. Microfoam is used, and loosely frothed milk from the top of the steaming vessel is typically discarded or held back in the vessel while the creamy milk from the bottom of the vessel is folded into the coffee, resulting in a smooth and velvety texture. A flat white traditionally incorporates 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 relatively thicker layer of stiffer foam in a dry cappuccino.
There are claims dating from the 2010s that the style of beverage was invented in Auckland or Wellington, New Zealand in 1984, but is claimed to have been invented in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia as well. The Melbourne claim follows significant immigration of Italians following the Second World War, and the introduction of espresso coffee machines in the 1950s. The Wellington claim tells the story of the flat white being invented as a result of a "failed cappuccino" at Cafe Bodega on Willis St in 1989. The Auckland claim is attributed variously to Derek Townsend and Darrell Ahlers of Cafe DKD, developed in around 1984 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" run to avoid harsh flavours’. A flat white is similar to an original Italian cappuccino, which is a single espresso with microfoam served in a 150—160 mL cup.
The Spanish café con leche is similar, but uses scalded milk. In a flat white, the milk is steamed without frothing to 60—70 °C (typically 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're presented. A flat white is served in a ceramic cup, usually of the same volume (200 mL) as a latte glass. However, some cafés will top a latte with extra froth, while others may pour a flat white slightly shorter’. 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) but because it is served in a smaller vessel (175 mL) it has stronger flavour than say a latte which is normally served in a 225 mL 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 and Pret a Manger added flat whites to their menus, with Starbucks releasing the flat white to American stores on 6 January 2015.
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