A flat white is a coffee drink consisting of espresso with microfoam (steamed milk with small, fine bubbles and a glossy or velvety consistency). It is comparable to a latte, but smaller in volume and with less microfoam, therefore having a higher proportion of coffee to milk, and milk that is more velvety in consistency – allowing the espresso to dominate the flavour, while being supported by the milk.
A flat white is generally served in a ceramic cup with saucer. Milk is frothed and foamy as it would be for a latte but held back to around 20 mm (0.8 in) of microfoam, creating a meniscus. Differences in the size of the foam layer differ between regions, with some preferring as little as 1 mm (0.04 in). Key to the beverage is the crema being coaxed into the meniscus resulting in a uniform dark brown colour across the top of the beverage. Allowing the beverage to stand before drinking enhances the experience as the meniscus thickens and adds texture to each sip, resulting in distinct sip rings/tide marks as the beverage is consumed.
According to a survey of industry commentators a flat white has several defining characteristics, chief among which is a thin layer of velvety microfoam (hence the 'flat' in flat white), as opposed to the significantly thicker layer of foam in a traditional cappuccino.
"Flat white" coffee has been recorded since at least the 1960s. In Peter Shaffer's play The Private Ear (1962) a character says that he took a woman to an espresso bar in South Kensington (London). Another character asks, "And held hands over two flat whites?"
There are references to the beverage in Australia in the 1980s. A review of the Sydney café Miller's Treat in May 1983 refers to their "flat white coffee". Another Sydney newspaper article in April 1984 satirised a vogue for caffè latte, stating that: "cafe latte translates as flat white."
At Moors Espresso Bar in Sydney, Alan Preston added the beverage to his permanent menu in 1985. Preston claimed he had imported the idea to Sydney from his native Queensland, where cafés in the 1960s and 1970s had frequently offered "White Coffee – flat". Other documented references include the Parliament House cafeteria in Canberra putting up a sign in January 1985 saying "flat white only" during a seasonal problem with milk cows that prevented the milk froth from forming.
However, the origins of the flat white are contentious, with New Zealand also claiming its invention. One New Zealand claim originates in Auckland, by Derek Townsend and Darrell Ahlers of Cafe DKD, as an alternative to the Italian latte, and a second New Zealand claim originates from Wellington as a result of a "failed cappuccino" at Bar Bodega on Willis St in 1989. Craig Miller, author of Coffee Houses of Wellington 1939 to 1979, claims to have prepared a flat white in Auckland in the mid-1980s.
A flat white is essentially the opposite of a "dry cappuccino", which has dry frothy foam but no liquid milk. It has milk (or microfoam) but no froth. The milk should be velvety rather than fluffy and therefore stronger, which requires a shorter, ristretto espresso shot to avoid harsh flavours. The flat white is similar to an original Italian cappuccino, which is a single espresso with microfoam served in a 150–160 ml (5.3–5.6 imp fl oz) cup.
The Spanish café con leche is similar, but uses scalded milk. In a flat white, the milk is steamed without frothing approximately to 54 °C (129 °F). Steaming the milk to this temperature retains the fats and proteins in the milk which retain a sweet flavour, lost when milk is steamed to scalding temperatures. A café con leche also lacks the head of microfoam.
The flat white and the latte are also similar, with some people incorrectly suggesting that the only difference between the two drinks is the vessel in which they are presented. In Australia a flat white is served in a ceramic mug, usually of the same volume (200 ml, 7.0 imp fl oz) as a latte glass. However, some Australian cafés will top a latte with extra froth, while others may pour a flat white slightly shorter. New Zealand flat whites are more commonly served in a tulip shaped cup (165 ml, 5.8 imp fl oz). In both Australia and New Zealand, there is a generally accepted difference between lattes and flat whites in the ratio of milk to coffee and the consistency of the milk due to the way the milk is heated.
A true flat white ought to have the same quantity of extracted coffee as any other beverage on the coffee menu (generally 30 ml, 1.1 imp fl oz) but because it is served in a smaller vessel (175 ml, 6.2 imp fl oz) it has stronger flavour than say a latte which is normally served in a 225 ml (7.9 imp fl oz) vessel and is subsequently milkier. The consistency of the milk is another point of difference between a flat white and a latte – a latte has a creamy, velvety layer of milk on the surface which can vary in depth depending on where you buy your coffee. A flat white has a thinner band of the textured milk, ideally with a shinier surface.
The coffee style was exported to the United Kingdom by 2005, and by 2010 was being sold in Starbucks franchises there. By 2013 the flat white was available in Australian cafés in New York City, with Hugh Jackman co-owning one of them and endorsing the product. With the flat white becoming increasingly well known globally, large coffee shop chains such as Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Caffè Nero, Cafe Coffee Day, and Pret a Manger added flat whites to their menus. Starbucks debuted the flat white in American stores on 6 January 2015.
In the UK, the phrase flat white economy has been used to describe London's network of internet, media and creative businesses.