Starbucks recently announced that its U.S. stores will offer a flat white, an Antipodean coffee drink, come Jan. 6. Many digital outlets are trying to explain what a flat white is: Bon Appetit, Quartz, Newser, Vox… The style magazine for The New York Times covered it back in 2010.
What is a flat white?
The only way I can explain it without causing a fight: It’s coffee and milk that has been prepared in a certain way.
My own take: It’s like a latte. On my first jaunt to New Zealand in 2010, I didn’t see lattes on cafe menus and was directed towards the flat white. It’s what I ordered this morning from the local cafe (see above).
A Vox reporter had an interesting interchange with a barista from one of the coffeehouses I would visit when working back in DC:
I asked Ben, a worker at Filter, a Washington, DC, coffeehouse that has served flat whites for years now, if he could differentiate the differences between a latte, a cappuccino, and a flat white. There was no way for him to give the exact recipe differences between a flat white or a latte or a cappuccino — “we don’t really have defined proportions for everything” — but he said the flat white is a lot like a latte but smaller and stronger, because it has less milk. He also said they use hotter milk in lattes and flat whites than in cappuccinos.
“You get a smaller, stronger latte overall and a more defined espresso taste,” he says.
Here are some thoughts and questions:
Australia and New Zealand lay claim to the flat white.
Every story I’ve read credits the flat white to the Aussies. But Kiwis claim credit to making it popular, according to a 2012 New Zealand Herald article.
At least one Aussie outlet is snarking on this development.
From Google searches of “what is a flat white starbucks”: News.com.au has its article with the search title “Starbucks to finally serve coffee”. The article, with a different title on the page, has some interesting back story about Starbucks in Australia:
Starbucks lost its 14-year battle with Australian coffee snobs last year, with the global chain selling its 24 remaining stores to 7-Eleven operator Withers Group.
Its failure in the Australian market was put down to trying to open too many stores too quickly, and trying to impose its weak, syrupy products in a market that prefers strong, espresso-based coffees.
In 2008, losses to the tune of $143 million forced Starbucks to close 61 of its stores — two thirds of its outlets — sacking 685 staff in the process.
Flat whites are good.
It’s a nice drink. Try it. Maybe you will like a smaller, stronger drink. If not, go back to a latte, which seems thinner to me.
Ordering a flat white at Starbucks just seems wrong to me.
This is because I associate flat whites with independent cafe culture. I’ve only ever ordered one any number of times at New Zealand cafe, at Filter in DC, or once at breakfast while in Melbourne. I associate it with sitting down and sipping it slowly because it is really strong.
People do congregate at Starbucks to use free wi-fi and to meet up with friends, so it does serve as a cafe and meeting spot for its community. But Starbucks in America also often acts more like a coffee takeaway. I just cannot imagine ordering a flat white from a Starbucks drive thru.
For whatever it’s worth, New Zealand Starbucks offer a flat white. I’ve never tried one.
Is it feasible to order a pumpkin spice flat white?
I can’t tell if a pumpkin spice flat white would be genius or blasphemy. Americans like their pumpkin spice. I don’t see why you feasibly couldn’t add pumpkin spice, but I think the Antipodeans would find it offensive to the art of the drink.
Does this mean Starbucks will introduce long blacks as well?
Long black: espresso with hot water. Another Antipodean coffee drink, akin to an Americano.
Is the flat white going to blow Americans’ minds?
I doubt it. But hey, it’s a little piece of Aussie and Kiwi culture soon to be widespread in the States. Try it out. See if you can tell a difference between a flat white and a latte.