The Flat White: America's Hot New Coffee Drink

Photo: Market Lane Coffee, Facebook

In January, Starbucks introduced the “flat white,” a coffee drink made with espresso and steamed milk that sounds suspiciously like a cappuccino or a small latte. It isn’t a new invention. The flat white first appeared in New Zealand in the 1980s, or maybe in Australia at about the same time (it depends on who you ask), but to understand what sets the drink apart you need to fire up the Wayback Machine and look at the frothy espresso and milk concoctions popular in that era.

Espresso drinks were a novelty then - Starbucks served its first latte in 1984 - and when it came to steamed milk, bigger was better: A proper cappuccino was topped with a dome of milk as fluffy as the frill on a prom dress. The flat white was different. The milk was supple and silky, the texture more a “microfoam” (to use a barista term) than aerated to stiff peaks. When you looked at the drink in profile, you’d see that the steamed milk didn’t stand in a mound. It was flat. The name fit.


When in Paris, you can find a flat white at the Holybelly Cafe. Photo: holybellycafe

The flat white became a standard drink in Australia and New Zealand, then it leapt to the other side of the globe when Aussie and Kiwi baristas jump-started the London coffee scene. It took a while, but London caught on. By 2010, the flat white had became hyper-fashionable—what you ordered if you knew what you were doing.

The drink surfaced in the United States at about the same time - Aussies and Kiwis get around - but it never really took hold. In part, the baristas here were already changing how they steamed milk. Fluff was out, microfoam was in. There was no need to draw a distinction between a cappuccino and a more serious drink such as a flat white because the cappuccino was becoming a serious drink. Still, the flat white has a certain appeal, a secret handshake within the world of coffee. You order it when you come across it. Look at the menus of some of the coolest coffee shops in Paris, Berlin, or Tokyo and you’ll see a flat white.


Flat whites are on offer at Little Nap Coffee Stand in Tokyo. Photo: Little Nap Coffee Stand

Starbucks first introduced the flat white to its Australian shops in 2009, then brought it to the United Kingdom shortly after. The drink arrived in the United States earlier this year because we’re ready for it. “It felt like the right time in terms of where folks are in their coffee journey,” said Katie Seawell, senior vice president overseeing the coffee category at Starbucks. Americans are more curious, and more knowledgeable. “It’s clear that customers are becoming more engaged with coffee, and I see a higher level of sophistication: They want to know where it’s from, how it’s roasted, what are the brewing methods. We always try to meet customers where they are.”


A diagram of how the flat white is made at Starbucks. Photo: Starbucks

The Starbucks flat white is two ristretto shots topped with steamed milk. (A ristretto is a syrupy espresso made with less water than a standard shot: “ristretto” means restricted in Italian.) You can get a flat white in any size, but the eight-ounce “small” is closest to the spirit of the original. Seawell calls it an “espresso-forward” drink balanced by the “sweetness of the velvety, dense” milk. “It’s hailed for its simplicity,” Seawell said. “But it takes a lot of craft to pull off a flat white.”

And it takes a little bit of explaining to understand what makes it different. Now that you know, order with confidence.

Starbucks is heavily promoting its newest drink, the flat white. Photo: FieryDragonLord

Coffee obsessed? You’ll want to read these stories:

Coconut Milk, Soy Milk, Almond Milk? All of Starbucks’s Non-Dairy Options

The Right Way to Make French Press Coffee

Oliver Strand Reviews the Lay’s Cappuccino Potato Chips