Today's guest post comes from Stephen Proctor, who writes at Illuminate.us about visual worship, but also happens to actually know what a 'flat white' is. And in light of Starbucks' adoption of this international drink, we needed an expert to explain it to us. How else are we supposed to know if they're doing it right? Below is Stephen's breakdown of the 'flat white,' which he actually experienced in New Zealand, so you know it's legit. (This post and its corresponding photos originally appeared on Illuminate, and have been republished with Stephen's permission.)
It was winter in July in the year 2010. I was experiencing New Zealand in all its glory for the very first time. And one of the many great delights of this adventure was discovering a renewed love for coffee.
The coffee shops in Middle Earth contained a strange drink name listed on the menu, nestled subtly in between “cappuccino” & “latte”. It was called the “flat white”. My curiosity was peaked. I inquired. And to my delight, I found what would become my new favorite coffee drink.
SO WHAT IS IT?
Well, I’ll tell you this. It’s not your typical cappuccino. And it’s not a latte either.
Simply put, a “flat white” is a smooth, velvety cappuccino.
Think of it as being between a capp & a latte. A small yet strong latte… or a “wet” cappuccino.
There are a few characteristics that make a flat white unique:
• 2 shots of espresso with a good layer of natural crema; a lighter roast (which has more flavor) is used instead of a dark, bitter roast most commonly found in modern espressos.
• (traditionally) served in a 5-6oz ceramic mug; it’s defined by it’s size & the vessel it’s served in. If it’s served in a much larger vessel, then you’re stepping into latte world.
• micro-foam milk: creamier than steamed milk, yet thinner than regular foam… the goal is to steam & lightly foam the milk in a whirlpool fashion so that the milk & foam folds into a smooth, velvety cream with micro-bubbles that are the same size as the micro-bubbles of the crema (the top layer of your espresso). i.e., no big dollops of airy foam that you’ll typically find on most cappuccinos.
So there you have it. Two shots of espresso wrapped in creamy, velvety micro-foamed milk… where the coffee & foam are one. The top layer is “flat” & melts with the crema, allowing the opportunity for latte art.
HISTORY OF THE FLAT WHITE
Some say that flat white originated in New Zealand, while others claim Australia. Here’s a breakdown of the history, from what I’ve been able to piece together (so far):
• a flat white is really a true, traditional Italian cappuccino (what America knows as a cappuccino these days is a grossly burnt alteration from the Second Wave Coffee movement of the American Northwest in the 80s).
• after WWII, many Italians sought to start a new life in New Zealand & Australia. As espresso machines grew in popularity in the 1950s, this smooth, velvety version of the cappuccino was requested.
• in 1980 (the year I was born!), the term “flat white” was coined (along with other coffee names like “long black”); cafes in NZ & Oz started carrying it on their menus.
• starting in 2005, the flat white makes its way out of Oceania into the cafes of the UK; and then it starts to spread. By 2010, it’s introduced & marketed as an exciting new coffee drink in cafes around Europe, the Middle East & Asia.
As is the way with everything, there are multiple interpretations of the flat white. I’ve had it served many different ways & in many different sizes. I welcome the variety, & I enjoy the conversations with the baristas I meet along the way.
There are some true artists out there.
But my favorite flat whites have been served in New Zealand. Not only do Kiwis & Aussies care for coffee like a curator cares for their gallery, but the dairy found down there is nothing like the white stuff you’ll find in America. And their thick creamy cow juice is perfect for creating velvety smooth coffee drinks.
WHERE CAN I GET A FLAT WHITE?
While its been all the rage overseas, it’s taken quite a while for the flat white to reach the States.
I’ve come across very few coffee shops in America that have even heard of this drink, & even fewer that have carried it. The nicer (aka Aussie-owned) coffee shops in Brooklyn have been serving it. But for the rest of America, it’s been a rare treat to find. The closest thing I’ve found is a good Cortado.
But I’ve suspected for some time that this drink will finally catch on in America. And it looks like it finally has. Sort of…
STARBUCKS' FLAT WHITE
On January 6th, 2015, Starbucks across the U.S. began a new marketing campaign introducing the “Flat White”. (This is exactly what other chain coffee shops across the world have been doing in years past.) It’s been comical the number of messages, tweets & Facebook posts I’ve received about the announcement. I guess I branded myself as everyone’s flat white genius. Whoops! haha
I figured I would see what all the hype is about & gave it a try. Like my experience with the flat white at Starbucks overseas, I found it to be a gross & underwhelming interpretation. Their beans continue to be over-roasted & bitter. Most of their baristas still do not get the concept of “micro-foam”. And they actually let you order it in different sizes. I’m sorry, but a “venti flat white” is nothing more than a latte.
Part of me rolls my eyes & dismisses the whole thing, concluding that it’s all hype & marketing gimmicks. It irks me that they’ve taken the signature drink of the 3rd-wave/artisan coffee movement & botched it up. It definitely serves as a horrible first impression to Americans curious about a drink that heralds superb taste & handcrafted artistry.
But the other part of me wants to give them the benefit of the doubt. I wonder if Starbucks is trying their best to adapt. I’m sure there are people in Seattle who really do care about coffee & want the mega-chain to embrace a higher quality. At least they’re taking cues from the Kiwis & Aussies. Still, they have a very long way to go. Perhaps they shouldn’t even try if they can’t do it right.
For now, I’ll let the dust settle & hope for the best. But if you’re going to Starbucks, don’t get your hopes up. And good luck getting that cute little “latte dot art”, too. #wuahwuah
Have any of you run across a flat white? If so, what was your experience? Do you think it’ll catch on in the States, as it has in other parts of the world?
Remember to tip your barista!