What Is 'Flat White' Coffee?

The coffee drink hailing from Down Under puts a spin on the conventional cappuccino.

Flat white coffee is a relatively recent addition to coffee menus.
Flat white coffee is a relatively recent addition to coffee menus. / Sean Gallup/GettyImages

Coffee menus can sometimes appear impenetrable, especially if you’re looking for a caffeine boost at a Starbucks rather than an education in bean variety or milk content. One increasingly popular addition to beverage options is the flat white coffee. What is it, where did it come from, and should it have you reconsidering your regular order?

Flat White vs. Latte vs. Cappuccino

Coffee Type


Flat White

Steamed milk, espresso


Foamed milk, steamed milk, espresso


Foamed milk, steamed milk, espresso

The flat white is a kind of hybrid choice between a latte and cappuccino. Like those two drinks, it combines espresso (either a single or double shot) with steamed and aerated milk. The difference is that a flat white minimizes the bigger bubbles of the milk foam, replacing the bubbly texture of a cappuccino with a creamier taste. The top microfoam is ‘flat’ relative to frothier drinks, hence the name “flat white.”

Will you notice a difference in taste? Most likely. Sipping a flat white will lean heavier on the espresso, rather than it being an undercurrent of a frothy alternative. Lattes, in comparison, contain considerably more milk, diluting the espresso.

Making a flat white is slightly tricky for baristas, who need to steam the milk in such a way that air is introduced slowly to reduce the foam seen in cappuccinos or lattes. But it’s also an easier canvas for artists, who can use the microfoam layer for artistic designs.

Because the foam needs to be controlled, flat whites tend to be smaller than other drinks—roughly 5 to 6 ounces. Looking at them side-by-side, you’ll probably notice a cappuccino has a thick and creamy top layer, while a white flat is, well, flatter.

The Origin of Flat White Coffee

The flat white was likely developed in Australia or New Zealand—or both—in the 1980s. (Both countries take credit.) It’s possible it was a case of communal thinking, with coffee enthusiasts each working toward a similar end result.

One possibly apocryphal story has a New Zealand barista apologizing to a customer after a cappuccino failed to foam up properly, leading to a “flat white” drink.

The flat white subsequently made its way to the States in the early 2010s, and it’s now a common sight on coffee menus. There’s some debate whether larger chains can prepare a proper flat white, as some coffee purists advocate for a premium espresso bean that makes for a creamier texture and milk that’s heated but not steamed.

Australian actor Hugh Jackman, who operated cafes in downtown Manhattan in 2015, said that Starbucks offering a flat white was a “compliment” but suggested customers try a presumably more authentic version from his shop.

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[h/t Food & Wine]