While the flat white has become popular enough in the US to be considered mainstream — yes, you can order one at Starbucks — the Australian coffee drink hasn’t lost any of its edge in the almost ten years since it first appeared stateside. Smaller and creamier than a latte and a smidge larger than a cappuccino, the flat white lives in that delightful, liminal space between the two iconic drinks. A flat white is an undeniably pleasurable coffee experience, and if you’ve never had one, head to your local coffee shop to get your hands on one ASAP. In the meantime, here’s everything you need to know about this iconic coffee preparation.
What is a flat white?
Made with espresso and steamed milk, the flat white’s identity is formed with the milk steamer. “A flat white is a delicious to-the-point option for all coffee lovers,” says Rod Johnson, co-founder of BLK & Bold, a Black-owned coffee roasting company. “It’s where comfort meets intensity, and it allows the coffee drinker to truly taste the espresso with a creamy mouthfeel of steamed milk.” To make a flat white, creamy steamed milk is poured over a single or double shot of espresso, depending on the size of the drink you are making. It is a smaller coffee drink compared to others, about 5-6 ounces total, and can be served in a ceramic coffee cup or a heat-proof glass cup.
Like many classic drinks, the origin of the flat white is heavily contested, though it is certain it came from “Down Under”. Both Australia and New Zealand claim to have invented the flat white — Aussies in 1986, and Kiwis in 1989 — but both countries have been instrumental in globalising quality coffee culture. This simple coffee drink is emblematic of Antipodean coffee culture, known for an emphasis on quality ingredients.
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The flat white made its way into coffee shops in the US in the early 2010s when new-wave coffee ushered in a more global outlook on caffeinated drinks. “In my opinion, a properly made flat white is a wonderful drink,” says Paige Chamberlain, former barista at Coffee By Design in Portland, ME. “It has a higher coffee concentration than milk, which is so delicious.” Pernell Cezar, Johnson’s co-founder at BLK & Bold agrees: “The star of the show is the espresso and everyone knows it with this drink.”
What’s the difference between a flat white, cappuccino, latte, and cortado?
A flat white is all about the quantity and texture of the steamed milk used. “A flat white is distinct from drinks like a cappuccino and latte because of its volume and velvety milk texture,” says Cary Wong, director of coffee for Partners Coffee, a buzzy Brooklyn-based coffee roaster. A flat white is less frothy than a traditional cappuccino, has less milk than an American-style latte, and has more milk and froth than a tiny cortado. The drink got its name from the layer of flat, white microfoam that forms between the milky espresso and top of the drink. Microfoam, compared to regular milk foam, has tiny bubbles that can’t be felt by an individual on the palate, but rather give an ultra-creamy sensation. “The microfoam of the milk can easily blend in with the espresso crema,” continues Wong, “resulting in a wonderfully rich tactile sensation.”
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The precise microfoam for the flat white can be tricky to achieve for newbies, and techniques vary depending on what type of milk you are using, as well as the espresso machine. “You have to steam the milk gently so that the air incorporates more slowly and there is less foam,” says Chamberlain, who prefers using whole milk, which is able to capture small bubbles due to its higher concentration of fat. The microfoam forms a meniscus (that’s a layer on top of a liquid that creates surface tension, if you’re like me and didn’t pay enough attention to 7th-grade science), which creates a flat surface for the microfoam to lay on top of. “Flat whites are one of baristas’ favourite drinks to make, primarily because of the texture of the milk,” says Cary Wong. “Plus, it’s a fantastic way for baristas to showcase their latte art.”
Size Does Matter
American coffee culture loves to super-size, no matter the consequences of consuming oodles of caffeine. But when it comes to the flat white, the flavour and texture of the drink is key to its success and depend on its size. “While you can order a 20-ounce ‘Venti’ flat white at Starbucks, that isn’t really a flat white anymore,” says Chamberlain. “It’s an Americanized version of the drink seriously that leans into latte territory.” To achieve the signature layering effect of silky steamed milk, espresso and microfoam, keeping the drink to a small controlled size is key. Plus, it makes for easy sipping. “My favourite thing about a flat white is how the drink’s volume is perfectly portioned for a slow drinking experience,” says Wong. “It has enough volume for an individual to sit down and enjoy during a conversation, but not too diluted with milk masking the wonderful espresso flavours.”
This story first appeared on www.foodandwine.com
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