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The Flat White Is Basically Meaningless

It’s just espresso and well-foamed milk, but it’s been central to the myth-making of Australia’s coffee culture

An illustration of a person staring into a flat white

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It’s hard to say precisely when the flat white first showed up in America — sometime between Kylie Minogue and the Hemsworths. And if you want to know exactly what one is, you can certainly Google it and enjoy parsing the 3,060,000,000 results, or you could ask some Australian baristas, like I did — which, it turns out, will produce roughly the same number of possible answers.

It was either invented in Australia or New Zealand; it’s maybe “a slightly stronger latte” or “just like a cappuccino”; it’s either, broadly speaking, “consistently served in a 5- to 6-ounce ceramic cup” or it’s, more specifically, “30 to 40 grams of espresso beverage with 180 grams of thinly textured milk.” It’s potentially got “no foam whatsoever” so it lays “‘flat’ across the rim of the cup — hence the name,” or it’s “steamed so that you could easily pour a rosetta or something more complicated.”

There is just one objective truth about a flat white, it seems, and it’s that it contains espresso and hot milk. “Basically it’s just another combination of milk and coffee enjoyed by people who enjoy a small, strong, milky coffee,” says Jenni Bryant, general manager of Melbourne’s Market Lane Coffee.

So maybe, “What is a flat white?” is the wrong question. The better question is, “Why is the flat white?”

However one might define a flat white, its beginnings almost certainly dovetail with the end of World War II, with two developments that were key to its birth: Achille Gaggia, a cafe owner in Milan, pushed the first modern espresso machine — that is, one actually capable of delivering the pressure that produces what we now think of as espresso — into the world, and a wave of Italians immigrated to Australia by the tens of thousands.

An illustration of a flat white coming together

While an espresso-based coffee culture didn’t quite blanket the States until Howard Schultz happened upon espresso bars in Milan in the early 1980s, in Australia, the espresso bar reigned supreme shortly after they began popping up in the 1950s. The emergent Italian-derived, espresso-centric coffee culture was epitomized by Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, which opened on Bourke Street in Melbourne’s Central Business District in 1954, and has been described as “the beginning of Melbourne becoming what it is.”

From Auckland to Sydney to Melbourne, cafes like Pellegrini’s developed a rhythm and a culture that fit seamlessly into Australia and New Zealand’s “no worries” vibe, one that was distinct from the stand-up-and-slug-down-a-shot culture of the original Italian espresso bars or the grab-and-go model that American cafes have adopted — with table service, real food, and most luxurious of all, genuine niceness. “Australian coffee culture is unique in the way it really encompasses the whole of hospitality,” explains Lucy Ward, green-coffee buyer for trail-blazing Melbourne coffee company St. Ali.

Over time, a distinct language, built on local slang and divorced from its Italian cognates, also evolved — instead of ordering “an espresso” or “an Americano,” you’d order a “short black” or a “long black,” respectively (more or less). The more modern “magic” is, as Jordan Michelman put it at Sprudge, “a glorified macchiato with a great big ego,” and then there’s a piccolo — roughly speaking, a cortado, maybe. Which brings us to the flat white.

The notion of a flat white as a wholly unique drink owes itself in part to an antiquated notion of the cappuccino that remains surprisingly sticky — you’ve probably seen it on a dubious if cutesy infographic posted on Pinterest or on the wall at a local coffee shop: equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foam. It was no different in Australia, where cappuccinos were a mainstream drink, albeit in a form with vestigial remnants of its more baroque Viennese ancestors: When Tim Varney, co-founder of the Bureaux Collective roasting facility in Melbourne, was growing up in the ’80s, he recalls that they were frequently topped “with choc dusting and iceberg foam.”

As specialty coffee culture bloomed throughout the ’90s and early aughts, a new generation of coffee professionals across the globe became tired of the “butchered” capps that Varney remembers drinking as a youth. They began honing their steam-wand skills, massaging air into the milk instead of jackhammering it; the resulting texture was no longer a dry, frothy peak that lay on top of the espresso like a cheap, scratchy comforter, but velvety and fully integrated throughout the drink — microfoam, which swept across specialty coffee like a tidal wave of perfectly textured milk.

Whenever, wherever, or however the phrase “flat white” was first uttered, when the old, stacked cappuccino was upgraded, the label ultimately attached itself to the shiny new drink that replaced it in Australia’s progressive cafes. And if you’ve ventured into a coffee shop with a particular pretension of quality nearly anywhere in the developed world in the past 15 years or so and ordered a drink that consists of espresso and at least four ounces of milk, you have probably consumed what many Australians (or New Zealanders) would now consider a “flattie,” whether you knew it or not. It might have been called a “flat white,” a “latte,” or possibly even a “cappuccino,” but they’re all referring to the same thing: an espresso drink with a reasonable volume of milk and a uniform microfoamed texture throughout.

Well, not whatever Starbucks is calling a flat white. But in a modern specialty coffee shop, the only difference between espresso drinks with milk, whether a “cortado” or “cappuccino,” is the amount of milk, not how it’s foamed or it’s integrated with the espresso. Prufrock Coffee in London once famously removed milk drink names from its menu for precisely this reason; customers simply stated what size drink they wanted, in ounces. Still, some people remain attached to labels: Once, at a shop in London, “someone received a flat white, told the server they ordered a capp,” Varney recalls. “So to remedy, the barista came over with the choc shaker, popped it on top the flat white right there on the table and said, ‘There you go, it’s a cappuccino now.’”

An illustration of a cafe

Ultimately, the move away from the hard-hat cappuccino and the emergence of the flat white makes sense in terms of shifting expectations: The rigid definition of the “classic” drink was limiting, and when it comes to true hospitality, service is about saying “yes” and offering the best of what there is — and when the drink in question is open to interpretation, as the flat white may well be, there’s a better chance that every interpretation is the “perfect” one. As St. Ali’s Ward remembers, “Actually, in cafes a lot of the flat white orderers — at least in my time on bar — were the ‘extra-hot, please’ types. So maybe the flat white is the compromise.”

Leon Unglik brought a personal interpretation of Melbourne hospitality to New York City with his Midtown cafe Little Collins. “Australia has this very unique and special coffee culture,” he says, reminiscing about the all-day chill of the shops back home, “and the flat white kind of typifies that coffee culture and what we’re about. It’s not like a cocktail that you can look up a recipe and it’s almost universally the same everywhere.” His voice has the crack of a smile in it. “It’s been really funny being over here seeing this article written so many times, and all these different opinions. I remember reading once that someone claimed you had to pour holding the pitcher in a certain way.”

Perhaps that’s another way of saying that the seemingly endless pursuit of the definitive flat white is missing the ocean for the microfoam, so to speak. The flat white is the first espresso drink to transcend its Italian roots to become something uniquely Antipodean, to defy the kinds of definitions we’re always trying to assign to things. It’s not a recipe you can follow, but the embodiment of an entire coffee culture, one that cares more about how things feel than how they’re supposed to be. The next time someone asks what a flat white is, you can tell them it’s just Australian for “je ne sais quoi.”

Erin Meister has been a specialty-coffee professional and a working journalist for nearly 20 years. She works for the green-coffee importing company Cafe Imports, and has written for the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, and Marketplace, among others. She is the author of New York City Coffee: A Caffeinated History.
Barry Patenaude is a professional illustrator based in Sydney.
Fact checked by Lisa Wong Macabasco
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter