If you (like me!) love coffee, you’ve probably got your go-to brew that you order from every coffee shop. I love a rich, black coffee first thing in the morning but by lunchtime or early afternoon, you can’t beat a creamy, specialty coffee.
Of course, there’s all manner of sugar-laden, seasonal spiced lattes out there but what about the days when you just need something plain, simple yet fulfilling on its own?
The flat white is a humble coffee that has been gaining popularity in recent years. I’ve taken to ordering one most afternoons to get me through the after lunch sleepiness I always struggle with. I had been enjoying this drink for many years before I realized that not everyone is familiar with it.
I’ve decided to clear up, once and for all what exactly is a flat white and why you should consider ordering one next time you visit your local coffee shop.
It’s All About The Milk
To sum it up in a few words, a flat white is a double shot of espresso topped with steamed, microfoamed milk only.
This is similar to a latte but the flat white contains less milk and the double shot espresso makes for a richer flavor. No foam layer is added to a flat white either so it’s a richer, creamier drink.
The warm drink has a velvety texture and a pronounced coffee flavor and makes for the perfect early morning or mid-afternoon beverage.
There’s a lot of information out there that states a flat white has to be a certain volume to officially be called a flat white. Some people claim it has to be between 150-160ml; others say it must fall between 160ml – 180ml. I’ve heard people say 200ml is correct and to round it off, Starbucks serves a flat white with a volume of 236ml.
The most common volume that I have seen repeated is 160ml so this seems to be a good place to start. However, everyone has their preferred way to brew this lovely drink so I don’t feel there’s a right or wrong answer to this.
The Origins Of The Flat White
As with most drinks containing coffee, my first thought goes to Italy, where the Espresso originates. Surprisingly, however, the flat white does not share these historical routes. The first recorded reference to a flat white actually originates in Sydney Australia around the mid 1980s. A review of the cafe Miller’s Treat from 1983 refers to a flat white coffee.
The drink remained down under until it found its way into coffee shops in the UK around 2005. It didn’t make it to the States until 2013 where it first started popping up in Australian coffee shops around New York City.
The flat white has come a long way and it’s gained so much popularity in recent years that all major coffee shop chains (Starbucks, Costa, Cafe Nero etc) have added it to their menus.
Flat White vs Cappuccino
The flat white is a specialty coffee very similar to the cappuccino. They are both made from espresso and steamed milk. The difference comes in the layers.
Where the flat white is a double shot espresso topped with steamed milk the cappuccino starts out very similar. Typically just a single shot of espresso is used and this is topped with a layer of steamed milk and finished with a layer of milk foam on top. The balance between steamed milk and milk foam can vary but usually, the ratio is roughly 50:50. The whole cappuccino is layered ⅓ espresso to ⅓ steamed milk to ⅓ milk foam.
The total volume of both drinks are very similar with the flat white being slightly larger. The cappuccino is a similar drink in flavor but the texture differs due to a dryer foamy layer on top.
Flat White vs Latte
We’ve already thoroughly covered the layers of a flat white so what makes a latte different?
Well, a latte is a single shot of espresso topped with twice the volume of steamed milk and finished with a small layer of foam.
It’s larger in volume when compared to a flat white and the coffee flavor is less concentrated. A latte is much creamier and a more smooth drink compared to the rich and velvety flat white.
Everyone Does It Slightly Differently
Real coffee snobs will insist that there’s a correct way to brew each drink and anyone who deviates from it has ruined the drink.
This would be all good and well except for the fact that there’s no manual out there that instructs on the holy grail of coffee making. There are guidelines and techniques and vague parameters that help inform the barista on what makes the specialty coffee special.
In reality, everyone has a favorite way to brew coffee, a unique twist that they can add, and a flavor combination and ratio that suits them best.
That’s why I’ve kept this article deliberately away from strict instruction. The combination of steamed milk and espresso is simple enough, it’s up to you to make it your own.
How To Steam Milk
Whilst there’s no one single way to brew a flat white, if you do want to give it a go at home then you will need steamed milk and espresso coffee. You will also need some particular equipment to get you started. A steamer wand is needed and these often come as standard with espresso machines but there are also stovetop models as well.
The milk needs stretching in the pitcher to get that thick, creamy texture. Fill the jug to about ⅓ full or just below the spout mark. Purge your steamer before you introduce it to the milk to clear out water and make sure steam is all you’re getting.
Hold the jug at around a 45-degree angle. Introduce the tip of the steam wand into the milk and open the steamer valve. Keep the wand submerged until the milk temperature has risen to about 20-30 degrees celsius or noticeably warmer to the touch.
Now move the steamer so that it’s near that surface of the milk until it makes a “kissing” sound. This allows more air to be introduced. Swirl the milk and keep heating it until you reach 60-70 degrees or just too hot to hold.
Tap the milk jig firmly on the counter to remove any large air bubbles and there you have beautifully steamed milk. Don’t forget to purge any milk residue out of the steamer wand and give it a good clean before you move to pour your flat white.
Pour this over your espresso to the desired ratio and volume and enjoy!
If this all sounds too confusing, an easier way to enjoy a flat white is to order one at your local coffee shop so you can just sit back, relax, and enjoy the taste.