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Behind the Coffee Drink: The Flat White

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[Photo: Emily Oak]

We've provided a visual glossary to help you know one coffee beverage from another, but aren't some of them just a little more on the confusing side? For those who've lost sleep at night wondering about—or after drinking too many—Flat Whites, we present this first in a series of stories about what makes unique coffee beverages so very unique.

If you've seen a Flat White on a coffee shop menu, odds are very good you were in the Southern Hemisphere. The Australian-born drink is part of a thriving, espresso-focused culture that has enthusiastically exported itself worldwide. In much of the United States, you can't swing a dead cat without running into an Australian-run cafe—though the popularity of their exports have not yet extended to Vegemite.

The Flat White is, as you'd suspect from its name, a milk drink, involving steamed milk and espresso. But to many the issue burns: how—or why—is this any different from a cappuccino? Yes. And no. But mostly yes.

The Flat White, according to expert Australian Emily Oak of St. Ali Coffee Roasters, is best thought of as a stronger, smaller-sized latte: espresso with warm milk steamed with little to no foam. (Cappuccinos, by contrast, feature a more foam-textured milk, and down under, often come sprinkled with chocolate.)

"Historically I think it's been a combination of the Australian obsession with drinking instant coffee&emdash;hot, with milk in it, the Flat White mimicking tea," says Oak, who adds that it's often served just as warm milk added to the espresso. The lack of complex milk texture Oak attributes to the drink's coming into popularity a little earlier—the early '80s cafe revival—than the skill set of microfoaming milk.

As such, latte art on a flat white isn't de rigeur, but it happens. On this side of the equator, you'll find roughly the same definition at specialty cafes, but with maybe a little more milk texture. At New York City's Cafe Grumpy (one of whose co-owners is Australian), you'll find a Flat White on the menu that's prepared just like their latte, but in a smaller cup.

"The milk is steamed to have less texture than the cappuccino. It is thin and silky and incorporates into the espresso nicely," says Grumpy's Caroline Bell (who is not Australian).

And how big, exactly, is this drink? At Grumpy it's the same as the cappuccino—6 ounces—but the true worldwide controversy rests in how large the cup it's served in is, and perhaps, if you're looking for a fight, whether it's okay to use a double shot of espresso versus a single. (That the milk shouldn't be too foamily textured seems to be agreed upon, at least, by all.)

So next time you're in Australia or wish you were, switch your cappuccino order, or downsize your latte, for a Flat White. Give the definition a little wiggle room—but if they put chocolate sprinkles on, they're doing it wrong.


About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently compiling photographs of the best coffee in the world to be published by Presspop this month.

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