Deep Dive: What Is a Flat White Coffee?

Deep Dive: What Is a Flat White Coffee?

It comes from a land down under.
by Kayla Baird | March 11, 2024

Grab your wetsuits, we're taking a deep dive into some of our favorite coffee recipes. 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 Coffee?

Croissant on a plate next to a flat white with a flower design in the foam.Simply put, a flat white is an espresso diluted with steamed milk. For the most part, the main components for espresso coffee drinks on a café menu consist of espresso and milk. From a macchiato to a 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 drink 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.

How it’s Made

Although the two essential ingredients are espresso and milk (such as 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. So what is a cappuccino? This is 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 microfoam milk, it’s important to integrate air into 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 espresso 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. Having the proper coffee temperature is key to a quality beverage.

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 coffee flavor than something like a latte. The addition of foamed milk 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 the 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

Curious about how to make coffee 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 Chocolaty-sweet with plenty of ripe stone fruit juiciness, Atomic's Space Cadet shines through milk. 

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 foamed milk, which is why the Kenya Kanguya AB from Broadcast shines with its satisfying dense sweetness and balanced blackcurrant and lime juiciness.

When it comes to finding the best coffee recipes and brews for you, Trade has you covered. Take our coffee quiz to discover all types of coffee flavor profiles.

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