Explained! What Exactly is a Flat White Coffee? HINT: It’s not Latte

The semi-mythical beverage that has been made an undying legacy by the hot takes in media cover stories, and hushed adulations are the ‘flat white’ coffee. The flat white is simply the combination of milk, espresso shots and three dozen other complications that make it the talk of the town, in fact, the entire world.

For starters, let us tell you that the US coffee chain giants ‘Starbucks’ has no part to play in its history or its creation. However, for many people, it’s still a version of a latte, but only a smaller version. Absolutely wrong! We are here to unravel the journey of this mystical beverage.


Ask any coffee enthusiast or an ardent devotee of coffee what is the difference between a flat white and a latte. The chances are that you would find yourself witnessing some flares flying around and heated arguments that make you regret the very decision to ask them the question in the first place.

What is a flat white coffee?

Go to any world-class café and order a flat white; the chances are that you may taste a different beverage at every place. That is because, for different cafés around the globe, the flat white has different meanings, a milky coffee for some and a small latte for many.

First of all, a flat white coffee is absolutely not a small version of latte; they are two very different drinks. In fact, you are being bluffed by being served a small latte as a passable substitute drink when a flat white is not available.

For countries where the concept of a flat white is new, the debate is still raw and fresh with arguments flying across the cafés and with baristas around the streets of the UK, the US, France, and Germany.

However, to purists, the meaning of ‘flat white’ is like a legislative rule on its own. For them, the perfect flat white is nothing but:

  • No stiff-foam, only velvet-soft milk micro-foam.
  • Freely poured milk to fold the foam throughout the beverage.
  • No discernible layers between the foam and liquid coffee.
  • Two shots of espresso for a rich taste.
  • A medium size serving. (Bigger than a macchiato but smaller than a latte.)

How is it different from a ‘latte’?

Heating the milk in the correct way can taste differently in your mouth. When the same procedures are followed in making a flat white and latte, the two beverages will feel and taste differently to your taste-buds.
In a flat white, there are a couple of shots of espresso and textured milk that makes the beverage velvety, creamy and smooth with a dominating flavor of the espresso. A latte is just one shot of espresso with hot milk that is usually topped with around ½” layer of milk micro-foam.

The flat white derives its name from the fact that only a very fine layer of micro-foam is visible on the top along with the crema of the espresso. A latte tends to be more even in texture, be less velvety, taste milkier, and have the lesser flavor of the espresso in the beverage.

Where did ‘Flat White’ Originate?

Thanks to Starbucks the flat white is the talk of the town in the US and UK, but it is still fairly a new ‘kid-on-the-block’ unlike being the traditional and almost mythical beverage around Oceania. It was and still is the most dominant style of coffee in New Zealand and Australia.

The origin of the flat white can be accredited to the antipodeans to the US (opposite end of the US- New Zealand and Australia). It is believed to be first come into practice in the early 1980s and gradually started to pick up the pace with different people coming up with different recipes in these countries.

How to heat milk perfectly for a flat white?

Heating, preparing, and pouring milk is what gives a flat white its characteristic taste. It’s no surprise as milk is the secret hidden ingredient in every coffee that has been perfectly disguised. Whilst heating the milk in a pitcher, and after using a steam wand to froth the milk, you get three distinctive layers.

  • Heated Milk: The liquid milk at the bottom of the pitcher.
  • The Velvet Micro-foam: The tiny bubbles and the velvety-creamy milk in the middle.
  • The Stiff Froth: These are comprised of the larger bubbles/froth of the milk at the top.

And what’s missing is the process of stretching the milk that no barista wants you to know. The key is to stretch the milk by swirling, folding, and frothing to obtain the velvety-creamy micro-foam layer by perfectly blending the larger bubbles with the liquid milk. Even when you feel that the cup/pitcher has nothing but the liquid milk, still tap and swirl it to obtain all of it.

The craft of making a perfect flat white also lies in frothing the milk properly, which can be done by placing the steam wand just at the surface of the milk. The frothing technique used by the baristas, and you have a big difference and required more precision than what meets the eye.

The next checkpoint is to be aware when the milk has frothed completely and is ready to be poured. Also, for great frothing, do not forget to tap and swirl the heated milk in order to obtain a pitcher of milk that is rich in velvety-creamy soft micro-foam.

Parting thoughts: Mystery Explained! Make your perfect cup at home.

At least the next time someone says that latte and flat white are the same things, you can give them more than a raised eyebrow. With the origin of flat white, the difference from latte, different techniques of preparation, and a flawless recipe for making a flat white explained, you’ve got a lot under your belt.

Now, that the talking is done and we’ve discussed the creamy-velvety micro-foam that melts in your mouth, it’s time to make a fresh cup of flat white and put our findings into practice.