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Deep Dive: What Is a Flat White?

It comes from a land down under.

by Kayla Baird | June 23, 2020

Grab your wetsuits, we're taking a deep dive into some of our favorite café drinks. This time out, we’re going in on a trip down under to investigate the flat white.

Key Facts

Definition: A drink consisting of espresso and microfoam-textured milk

First known usage: Sydney, Australia in the '80s

What Is a Flat White?

Simply put, a flat white is an espresso diluted with steamed milk. For the most part, the main components for espresso drinks on a café menu consist of drinks made from espresso and milk. From macchiato to latte, the main difference is the ratio of espresso to milk, which almost always ranges from one part espresso to one to four parts milk. A flat white falls somewhere between a one to two or one to three ratio of espresso to milk.

The flat white, then, is a "strong" espresso and milk beverage with a seamless, integrated texture and a smooth glossy finish. In addition to texture, the milk is steamed to 130 to 135 Fahrenheit to maintain ideal sweetness.

History of the Flat White

In Australia, if you order a “white coffee” at a coffee shop, it is used to describe a coffee with steamed milk. The first known appearance of a flat white on a menu was in the 1980s in Sydney, Australia (though if you ask anyone in New Zealand, they'll happily debate that point). Italian-style coffee and cafés became more popular around the country, so “flat” was the adjective used to describe an espresso beverage that is not overly foamy.

In traditional Italian cappuccinos and lattes, there is a distinct separation between hot milk and stiff foam, but the Australians discovered a new decadent way of drinking espresso and milk together via the flat white.

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How it’s Made

Although the two essential ingredients are espresso and milk (such like a cappuccino or latte), there are a few variables that can be adjusted to create distinctly different beverages: temperature, texture, and ratio of coffee to milk.

A flat white utilizes microfoam to create a unique texture and flavor profile. Microfoam is steamed milk that has small, fine bubbles with a glossy finish. The milk and foam should be fully integrated, and as poured should seamlessly integrate with the espresso. This is contrary to drinks like the classic Italian cappuccino — a drink that utilizes hot milk, foam, and espresso. There are distinct layers, and the foam is stiff rather than silky. In a flat white, everything is integrated and there isn’t a stiff foam at the top.

To create microfoamed milk, it’s important to integrate air to the milk while it's cool and the proteins are more malleable (similar to the idea of scrambling eggs while they are cool as opposed to on a hot pan). Doing so creates a silky body that has an integrated texture throughout. This velvety microfoam is essential, as it allows the finished drink to have a creamy texture throughout the drinking experience.

The milk shouldn’t be steamed above 135 Fahrenheit, as sugars break down beyond this temperature. Whole milk is at its peak sweetness between 130 to 135 Fahrenheit, which allows the flat white to be pleasantly sweet without any added sugar.

Flavor Profile

It’s important to note the flavor profile of a flat white coffee drink and how it differentiates from traditional Italian-style espresso drinks.

Since the ratio of espresso to milk ranges from one to two or one to three, the flat white has a stronger espresso flavor than something like a latte. The addition of microfoam that’s steamed to 130 to 135 Fahrenheit adds a pleasant sweetness to support the espresso, rather than simply a tool of dilution.

Similar Drinks

Many specialty coffee cafés around the world have adopted the microfoam technique, so if you can’t find a flat white on the menu, you’re likely safe with a cortado (one to two parts espresso to milk) or an eight ounce latte (one to three parts espresso to milk) — it all just depends on how much milk to espresso you’d prefer, which in turn determines the caffeine strength and overall strength of your beverage.

How to Make it At Home

Pull your favorite espresso shot, steam your best microfoam, and dilute the espresso with frothed milk, not exceeding a one to three espresso to milk ratio in your cup.

Pro tip: focus on incorporating small sips of air with the steam wand at the beginning of the steaming process, while the liquid milk is still cool, in order to create a uniform texture.

Coffee Recommendations

For a versatile flat white Full and round with molasses sweetness and a gentle ripe berry acidity, Madcap’s Rivera is the perfect choice for a household or coffee lover that drinks coffee with or without milk, espresso or filter coffee.

For a traditional flat white For an exceptional take on a traditional flat white, Panther’s East Coast Espresso is creamy and chocolaty with a lingering sweetness of sugarcane and ripe cherry.

For a decaf flat white Dune's Presidio Decaf is full bodied with comforting milk chocolate and brown sugar sweetness and just a hint of citrus acidity that’s a flavorful pairing with milk.

For a surprising flat white One of the great joys of drinking a flat white is the ability to taste the coffee clearly amongst the milk, which is why the naturally processed Gamatui Community from Blueprint shines in milk with its satisfying dense sweetness and balanced tropical acidity.