June 1, 2022

What is a flat white & where did it come from?


Across the world, milk-based coffee beverages are popular with an overwhelming number of consumers. In 2018, research from the BBC found that lattes and cappuccinos were the two most popular coffee drinks in the UK.

This was the same year that the flat white also became more popular in the same country. Sales increased by a staggering 56% on 2017. But how did it become so popular? And where did it come from?

Once a unique beverage served in both Australia and New Zealand, the flat white can now be found in coffee shops around the world. To learn more, I spoke with two coffee professionals who told me about the flat white’s journey. Read on to find out what they said.

You might also like our article on white coffee around the world.

coffee grinder knob

A brief history of the flat white

The exact origins of the flat white are somewhat contentious, especially when compared to other popular milk-based coffee beverages.

Charles Skadiang is the Director of the Melbourne Coffee Academy.

“I wouldn’t be able to say whether the flat white originated in Australia or New Zealand,” he says. “It’s a debate that will likely go back and forth for a long time.”

One of the numerous claims to the invention of the flat white comes from Australian barista Alan Preston. He says he was the first coffee shop owner to permanently have the term “flat white” on his menu in the mid-1980s. 

Upon opening a coffee shop in Sydney, Alan found that many customers ordered a “white coffee – flat”: an espresso served with steamed milk. After noticing its popularity among local consumers, Alan then referred to this drink as a flat white.

Alan’s original recipe used a double ristretto shot and steamed milk with little foam. The drink was poured without latte art and served in a ceramic cup.

However, New Zealander Fraser McInnes challenges Alan’s claim. According to Fraser, the flat white was invented when he tried to make a cappuccino for a customer while working as a barista.

He says the milk he used had very low fat content, which made it impossible to create a good amount of microfoam. Fraser claims he presented the drink to a customer saying: “Sorry, it’s a flat white!”

Whether the drink was invented in Australia or New Zealand, one thing is for sure: in the years since, it has steadily become more popular around the world. Over the last few decades, the drink has spread across Europe, Asia, and North America as more and more specialty coffee shops have opened.

Charles believes that the emergence of latte art in the early 2000s helped to boost the flat white’s popularity.

“Baristas were looking for cups that had wider surface areas so it would be easier to pour latte art,” he explains. “I think the flat white steadily became more popular because of this.

“People started ordering it to have a milk-based espresso beverage with less foam than a cappuccino, but still with a smooth and silky texture,” he adds.

portafilter with coffee

What are its characteristics?

As the specialty coffee sector has evolved, so have the characteristics of the flat white.

While the Specialty Coffee Association and the World Barista Championships define the cappuccino as having “a minimum of 1cm of foam depth”, the flat white usually has around 0.5cm of foam. 

Technically, this makes the milk more suitable for pouring latte art as there is less microfoam, meaning the milk is less rigid. This allows skilled baristas to pour more intricate and detailed latte art patterns.

Evangelos Koulougousidis is the lead barista at WatchHouse in London. He tells me that the definition of a flat white can depend on where you are; however, he believes that the drink should always allow the characteristics of the coffee to shine through.

“The flat white is a beverage that highlights the nuances of coffee, such as the origin or roast profile,” he says. “When I dial in espresso for a flat white, the flavours of the coffee need to stand out against the milk.”

Evangelos explains his own flat white recipe begins with a dose of 18g and a yield of 36g.

“The 1:2 ratio usually works with the majority of coffees,” he says. “After initially using this ratio, I taste the drink and play around with the grind size before changing the dose, or the yield.”

He tells me which flavour attributes work best in a flat white.

“For a delicious flat white, we don’t rely on the sweetness of the espresso. Instead, we rely on the acidity of the espresso to allow all those flavour characteristics to cut through the milk,” he notes. “A balanced espresso doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have a balanced flat white when you add the milk – there’s so much more to it than that.”

Charles says that the customer’s preference for how intense they want their coffee to taste often dictates whether they should order a single or double shot flat white.

“I personally like my flat whites with a single shot of espresso in a smaller 150ml cup,” he says. “I typically use a recipe with a 20g dose and 40g yield, extracted in 28 seconds. 

“I then split that shot between two flat whites and top them up with steamed milk,” he adds.

coffee takeaway cup

Tips for perfecting the flat white

For baristas who are new to the specialty coffee industry, perfecting a flat white can take some time.

Although the drink is generally smaller than lattes and cappuccinos, a flat white is still generally around two-thirds milk. As such, milk is a crucial ingredient and it’s important for baristas to pay attention to how they steam and pour milk when preparing one.

“It should have a harmonious balance of espresso and textured milk,” Evangelos explains. The milk will compliment the nuances of the espresso, creating a harmonious beverage that will highlight all those flavours that made this coffee special.”

Coffees roasted for espresso (typically a medium roast profile or darker) tend to work best in milk-based beverages. This has led some roasters to develop “milk-based blends”, (notably ONA Coffee in Australia), which are complementary to the sweetness and creaminess of milk.

“I prefer using a medium roast blend that is strong enough to cut through the milk, but also has minimal bitterness,” Charles explains. “Make sure to use high-quality coffee and perfect your steaming technique to create silky microfoam with minimal froth.”

To create microfoam, baristas need to steam cold milk by incorporating air into the liquid as it heats. It is recommended that baristas fully aerate milk before 38°C (100°F) to ensure that the microfoam is as smooth as possible. During this process, small air bubbles are trapped in the liquid by milk proteins.

“Banging” and “swirling” milk after steaming also helps to break down any larger air bubbles that can negatively affect the mouthfeel of a flat white. The smaller the air bubbles are, the smoother the texture will be – resulting in a better experience for the consumer.

However, this can all depend on the type of milk you use. Steaming and pouring techniques can vary based on whether you prefer cow’s milk or plant milks. For example, soy milk foams much more easily than cow’s milk, so baristas need to be more mindful when steaming it.

specialty coffee beans

Can you make a flat white at home?

As more and more consumers show interest in making their own café-quality beverages at home, the flat white naturally enters the conversation. But is this possible?

For starters, we need to consider that it takes a considerable amount of time for baristas to learn technical skills, such as steaming and pouring well-textured milk. Most baristas receive weeks or months of training to prepare high-quality coffee using commercial coffee shop equipment, which is inaccessible for the majority of consumers.

However, the market for home and prosumer espresso machines is evolving to meet the growing demands of home coffee consumers. Now more than ever, there are more high-quality and accessible machine options that can steam milk well enough to create a flat white. 

“In the end, coffee is all about taste preferences,” Evangelos concludes. “If you invest in the right equipment at home, you will be able to explore a wider variety of coffees at your own pace.”

While it may take home consumers longer to perfect their milk steaming techniques than professional baristas, with plenty of practice and patience, making a high-quality flat white at home is possible. 

But it should be noted that there are a number of factors to consider beyond the espresso machine and the steam wand – including the milk jug you’re using and the type of milk that you prefer.

pouring a flat white

Many milk-based espresso drinks are prepared differently around the world, and the same can be said for the flat white. 

Over the years, the drink has become one of the go-to beverages in many international specialty coffee shops. No matter where it was invented, who came up with it, or how it was originally prepared, one thing is for sure: the flat white will certainly be around for many more years to come.

Enjoyed this? Then check out our article on cappuccino variations around the world.

Photo credits: Matthew Deyn, Eli Kubikova

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