You may have noticed a new menu item this morning at your local Starbucks, the flat white. This indeed is a caffeinated beverage — not, as the name implies, two adjectives missing the noun which they describe.
So, what exactly is it?
Before getting into a taste test, here is the description of the flat white from official websites for Starbucks U.K. and Starbucks Australia.
From the United Kingdom: “Expertly steamed whole milk poured over two shots of espresso, topped with microfoam swirled into beautiful latte art.”
Starbucks does credit the Aussies for creating the flat white somewhere in the 1970s or 1980s in either Melbourne or Sydney, depending who is teaching your coffee history.
And so Starbucks Australia explains: “A uniquely Australian coffee, slightly stronger than a latte, with steamed milk.”
Okay, espresso + steamed milk = flat white? Sounds like a latte with an Australian name.
After dutiful Internet research it seems the answer is slightly more nuanced. I read up on what makes a flat white both flat and white, I hit up Method Coffee to see if I could get one when it is not listed on the menu. (Full disclosure: I chose Method simply because it was the the local coffee shop on my route running errands.)
The barista immediately knew what I was asking for and I asked to watch him prepare my drink. He likened the beverage to a mythical creature in the United States because people have heard of it, but aren’t quite sure what it is or how to make one.
He explained that several people had come in to Method and asked for a flat white, but every time the customer had a different explanation of the process. That was until recently when a small group who had lived a considerable amount of time in Australia gave him a detailed description.
So based on my experience at Method and this video from a barista in Australia the basic flat white is prepared as follows:
- Pull a double shot of espresso.
- Steam milk enough to create a microfoam — less milk is used than in lattes and after being steamed there is less foam than in cappuccinos.
- Pour the espresso into a cup; a 6-ounce cappuccino mug is ideal.
- The steamed milk is poured over the espresso with just enough foam to create a small piece of latte art.
Now that we have the basic idea figured out, it is time to see how the coffee behemoth mass produces the flat white. Myself and fellow Dallas Morning News staffer Elizabeth Hamilton conducted a taste test comparing a flat white with a latte and a cappuccino. We’ve also included illustrations to show differences between the three drinks.
For those curious about our existing coffee habits, I generally drink between one and four cups of medium to dark roast coffee per day made with a french press and topped off with a splash of half and half. When I do venture into milk and espresso based drinks, I am a fan of plain lattes, often with an extra shot of espresso because I like the taste of coffee.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, well, she said she is not as sophisticated (some may say pretentious) coffee consumer. It’s plain ol’ black coffee for her, two to three full mugs of medium roast in the morning, then another cup mid-morning, then, oh, you know, a cup or so in the afternoon. She’s also a fan of decaf coffee in the evenings, because, really, she can’t get enough of the black stuff.
Hannah: This is definitely familiar. It has a nice layer of foam and is very milky underneath. Compared to the other drinks I might go so far as to describe the texture as watery.
Elizabeth: Pass the coffee, please. Oh, this is coffee? Are you sure? Well, if you say so…This drink has a respectable amount of thick foam on top, but the drink itself (once you find it) is rather milky and watered-down.
Hannah: Foam! So much foam. I tried a cappuccino a few years ago, but it was definitely drier than this one. After I got past the thick foam layer there was the familiar rich espresso underneath and after tasting the milky latte, the espresso was welcome.
Elizabeth: Ah, the delight of sinking your upper lip into a thick layer of frothy foam and finding a full blend of espresso and milk underneath. I recommend drinking this delight in one of Starbucks’ heavy white mugs, where you can fully relish the fun of foam.
Hannah: Ultimately, I think the flat white is my new favorite espresso-based drink. It is focused more on the espresso than the milk, which I like, but is not as dry and foamy as a cappuccino. It has a velvety texture that mixes the espresso and the milk well. However, the flat white I tried in a to-go cup sort of messed with the balance of the drink, which was sad. I’ll stick to drinking my flat whites in mugs, not to-go cups.
Elizabeth: For those of us who like ‘em strong and flavorful, this is your drink. The espresso is dark and full, the milk, light and creamy, and they blend into a lovely rounded taste that lingers. The foam is slight compared to the other two, which makes it a good to-go drink.
My advice, take a break, grab a book or (gasp) a printed newspaper and sip on a flat white to impress your friends.