What is a Flat White coffee and how is it prepared?

A Flat White is an espresso-based coffee beverage with finely steamed milk. A double espresso is prepared in a 6-ounce cup, and a bright, delicate, and very fine foam is poured over it. Flat White can be topped with a latte art drawing.

History of the Flat White

It all started in Australia in the 1960s. Espresso bars were already very popular in the country, so much so that Australia had the third largest number of espresso machines by the end of the decade, behind Italy and Spain.

This boom was due to the number of Italian immigrants who arrived to cultivate sugar cane in the fields of northwestern Australia. With their culture and love for espresso coffee, together with the wealth they generated from sugar cane cultivation, they financed many of these espresso bars.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Northwest Australian (Queensland) version of espresso was a cross-cultural hybrid. Menus at that time were divided into black coffee and white coffee, where black coffee could be long or short, while white coffee could be:

  • Cappuccino, which was coffee, milk, and lots of foam.
  • Flat, which was coffee, milk, and very little foam.
  • Vienna, which was coffee with cream

Since Australians are famous for abbreviating their words, naturally, something similar happened with coffee, originating in Short Black and Long Black.

Who invented the Flat White?

Alan Preston, an espresso enthusiast who frequented these North Queensland espresso bars, transformed the white coffee flat into a Flat White by shortening the words of his own espresso bar.

This “new drink” was placed second on the coffee menu, making this the debut of the Flat White in 1985 (photo below).

Moor coffee shop espresso bar 1985
Moor coffee shop espresso bar 1985

Alan Preston’s espresso bar became very popular, and over the next five years, he opened six other coffee shops in Sydney with Flat White on the menu. By the late 1980s, the term was on the menus of every coffee shop in the city.

Does Flat White come from Australia or New Zealand?

Although it is widely believed that the Flat White comes from Australia, New Zealand has a big controversy, as they claim that it was invented there. They say that a barista named Fraser McInnes accidentally invented it after failing to froth milk.

He couldn’t froth the milk for a cappuccino, poured it into the cup anyway, and said: “Sorry, it’s a Flat White,” supposedly after this, the drink became very popular. Whatever the story, both countries underwent very similar cultural changes, so Flat White evolved naturally.

The drink was exported to the UK around 2005 and became increasingly well-known worldwide. Major U.S. chains like Starbucks added it to their menu in 2015. But why was the Flat White so popular?

In Australia, at that time, cappuccino was prepared with tremendous foam, exceeding about 5 centimeters from the cup’s rim. The flat white was the only option to order without so much foam and with a texture a little more similar to what we know today.

Foam of an original cappuccino
Foam of an original cappuccino

Over time, other options, such as latte and other different sizes, emerged to obtain more personalized varieties.

How is Flat White coffee prepared?

Over the years, the flat white has been modified and evolved to the point that in every coffee shop, it is prepared differently, but this happens with all coffee drinks. For me, a good flat white should consist of:

  • Size: Medium. It’s bigger than a piccolo or macchiato but smaller than a latte.
  • Foam: Silky, shiny micro-foam rather than stiff foam.
  • Coffee: A double espresso so that the coffee takes center stage.

Keys to making a good Flat White

As with all coffees, the secret of flat white lies in the quality of the beans used for the espresso base and the barista’s skills to make the most of it. It is very important to choose a coffee that complements the milk, that rises with it but does not mask the flavors.

It is also necessary to achieve a perfect texturization of the milk, add a small natural sweetness, obtain a creamy consistency in the mouth, and be careful with the temperature, which should not exceed 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

It is easy to taste a Flat White and not like it because it is unbalanced or the espresso is not well calibrated. A good Flat White is all about packing as much flavor as possible into a small size.

My recipe for Flat White

I use a (6-ounce) cup to put a double espresso (a 38-gram doppio). To this double espresso, I add about 120 milliliters of milk, but remember that when steaming it, its volume rises a little (although it will not rise too much since we want a silky and fine texture).

Importance of the silky foam in Flat White
Importance of the silky foam in Flat White

The key is, therefore, to have a quality double espresso over which we pour a very fine, bright, and delicate foam. You can finish with latte art, as I do in the image above.

Note: Never measure the espresso with milliliters, as its amount of cream affects the volume; always use a scale.

To drink it, I recommend stirring a little to mix the espresso cream that remains on the surface and usually has a slightly astringent taste. By doing this, we also incorporate the microfoam with the liquid again, and we feel a homogeneous taste when we drink the flat white.