Who really invented the flat white?
April 14, 2024 8:22 PM   Subscribe

It's now loved all over the world, but who really invented the flat white? This is the little-known story of how Italian sugar growers in the Sunshine State are said to have inspired the invention of the flat white (a type of coffee) — a drink that would go on to become a global sensation
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries (52 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Who really invented the flat white?

Sherwin Williams? Benjamin Moore? Behr? Some name forgotten to history?

It's the bastard who invented eggshell to compete with flat white who TRULY needs to pay!
posted by hippybear at 8:48 PM on April 14 [15 favorites]

"At the end of the day, all these drinks are just slight variations on flavor and temperature"
posted by straight at 9:02 PM on April 14 [4 favorites]

It's coffee. With milk in it.

Or milk. With coffee in it.

posted by JustSayNoDawg at 9:05 PM on April 14 [7 favorites]


The milk is textured differently from lattes or capuccinos. The foam is denser, and the overall effect is different enough that if I got a flat white instead of either of those I'd be surprised. Soft serve ice cream is "just" ice cream, but it's really different!
posted by BungaDunga at 9:20 PM on April 14 [22 favorites]

I'll say that the Flat White is my preferred coffee drink over all others, but also that, ordering it in the states, I'm never sure how often the barista is just going like, "yeah, sure, here's your cappuccino by another name, hipster." And they're never quite as good here, which makes me wonder how much my love for them is really just about Australian coffee generally being better than in the States.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:25 PM on April 14 [13 favorites]

This thread has just inspired me to go clean my grinder and run the flush on my espresso machine. I'll return with a coffee to sit and watch the rest of the comments. That said, I am Team Flat White, but it's hot here today so I'm having an iced coffee instead.
posted by ninazer0 at 9:28 PM on April 14 [2 favorites]

You can easily get a pretty great flat white in Hawaii, at least to my USian tastes. Bit of a long way to go for a coffee though.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:30 PM on April 14

I believe that. And I live in Portland - a city with a pretty major coffee culture itself! But it's just not the same as Melbourne.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:35 PM on April 14


So people can order it. What do you want, lines of people playing charades at each coffee shop? Smoke signals? Semaphore?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:10 PM on April 14 [13 favorites]

Without the thicker foam of a latte or cappuccino, or the distraction of chocolate sprinkled on top, the flat white delivers a stronger coffee flavour with a unified creamy texture.

This reminds me how annoying it is to get surprise chocolate on a cappuccino, or worse- surprise cinnamon. Thankfully the latter has only happened in Europe, and I haven't been there in a long time.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:11 PM on April 14 [2 favorites]

This is going to upset a lot of New Zealanders who are pretty sure it was invented here....
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:18 PM on April 14 [3 favorites]

Seems to be a drink similar to what we in Seattle call a cortado?

I read the whole article to understand why it's called a "flat white" when it looks to be neither flat nor white.

All I got is that it's called "white" because it has milk in it, and it's called "flat" because???

More confused than ever.
posted by splitpeasoup at 10:31 PM on April 14 [1 favorite]

It's "flat" because it doesn't have all the fluffy foam on it that a cappuccino does. Less milk than a latte, less foam than a cappuccino.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:37 PM on April 14 [1 favorite]

A flat white is far and away my choice of caffeinated beverages. The denser foam gives it a lot more body, otherwise you're just drinking bubbles. The only place I've found outside Australasia where anyone has even heard of a flat white is Hawaii.

This is going to upset a lot of New Zealanders who are pretty sure it was invented here....
Along with Pavlova, Split Enz, ANZAC Biscuits and Russell Crowe, just to name a few. if there's one thing Australians are good at, it's stealing the credit for things that have their true origin in New Zealand.
posted by dg at 11:02 PM on April 14 [7 favorites]

Also, Starbucks has been mostly a failure in Australia because their coffee sucks.
posted by dg at 11:04 PM on April 14 [2 favorites]

It's not just because their coffee sucks (though it does). The other reason why Starbucks has been a failure in Australia is because our economy of retail commercial rent is incredibly marginal, especially in the centre of our [few] major cities, and have been since the early 1990s. The rents are extraordinarily high, and commercial landlords are generally willing to accept vacancy over lowering rent, especially in centres of high pedestrian traffic like the centre of Melbourne, the eastern suburbs and inner wests of Sydney and Brisbane, and in shopping centres (in sharp distinction to residential landlords, who during the 2020-2021 lockdowns, genuinely did accept rent reductions and were prepared to negotiate with tenants, where the alternative was vacancy).

The Starbucks model depends on relatively low retail rent, allowing many overlapping franchises close to each other which reinforce the brand, and accepts customers who linger, so long as they buy relatively expensive, complicated drinks. But high rents make that unviable. Australian coffee shops instead respond with low-margin sales, extremely high turnover with fast service, a small range of drinks, and there is an expectation that customers will order, pay, be served immediately, eat and drink, then leave; and the effect is shown in the landscape of coffee shops. I buy takeaway coffee near my office from a shop that's a literal window in a wall. On weekends, if you want to have your coffee and stay for a while over a breakfast, you'll pay a high price for the privilege, with a surcharge on Sundays and public holidays. Starbucks is just not in a position to compete, outside tourist streets and the airport.

There are few really successful chains, which notably only really succeed in the outer suburbs and country towns, instead there are many small operators competing on price and location, and selling higher-margin extras (pre-made snacks like biscuits and cakes). There are low wages, few and sometimes no tables, which are always small, there's ferocious competition, and a constant high turnover of businesses. All of them largely sell coffee and a limited menu of dishes that have few ingredients and steps, but maximise the coffee-ness of the drink---which brings us to the flat white, which is undisputed King of this mode of serving coffee.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 11:46 PM on April 14 [17 favorites]

dg, Aussies introduced them to the UK in the 2000s (when there were a lot more Aussies here) and now they’re a thing here too. Quality is generally good, too.
posted by rory at 12:00 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

splitpeasoup as far as I can get from Internet randos, the pretty consistent difference seems to be that if somebody makes both, their flat white has more milk than their cortado, like 2:1 instead of 1:1.

Flat white might be ristretto, cortado might be less foamed, depending who's making it.
posted by away for regrooving at 12:07 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]

Yeah, when I was working daily in the Brisbane CBD, you literally couldn't walk 50m without going past a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop that opened early, closed early and sold nothing but coffee and maybe a few biscuits or cake slices. I don't know what's happened to all those places since COVID drove everyone out, then default remote work kept all the public servants out of the city and in their converted bedroom home offices (I wonder if they all miss, as I do, that delicious early morning brew). I bet there are nowhere near as many, given the costs of CBD properties keep profits in a place that demands huge turnover. There aren't many things I miss about that daily commute, but a great flat white at the end of it is one of them.

The only place I see chain outlets like Starbucks are in the shopping centres where they also function as places you can buy some kind of overpriced meal. Also, of course, airports, where rents are also high but prices are higher and it's always time for coffee.
posted by dg at 12:12 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

Poland seems to have taken to the flat white, it's even an option in conbini coffee machines. Personally I appreciate the proportion of milk to espresso it comes with, kick enough but not eating into my stomach lining. Still a lottery especially in smaller shops, and what Starbucks makes of the flat white isn't worth mentioning. (Cafe Nero, on the other hand, manages a passable one.)
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:35 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]

Feels like they started to be a thing in NYC about 12 years ago or so, which slightly preceded an explosion of Australian cafes and restaurants in general (especially breakfast-y places). Did anywhere else get this big influx of Aussie food culture along with the flat white?
posted by theory at 12:51 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

I also prefer a cortado, if the person at the counter has heard of it -- but a flat white is also very nice. My thanks to whoever invented it!
posted by wenestvedt at 3:02 AM on April 15

My opinion of Gails, a chain of UK bakeries and coffee shops, was formed when I went into one about fifteen years ago and asked for a flat white, and was told "we can give you a latte with an extra shot in it."

Fifteen years later I figured they might have improved so I went into one down the street from my old apartment, bought a black Americano (acceptable) and a cinnamon roll (decent), sat down at a table, and five minutes later there was a loud crash as a large rat fell out of an air-conditioning duct a few feet away.

I have had enough Gails for a lifetime.
posted by Hogshead at 3:54 AM on April 15 [6 favorites]

I'll order a cortado if it's on the menu. I'd hate to be the counter person dealing with a customer who insists on finicky differences between cortado, flat white, macchiato, what have you. I just want a milk-and-coffee drink where delicious coffee flavor is part of the experience. I'm not going to measure the bubbles in the foam or anything.
posted by gimonca at 3:55 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]

> Gails

The owner is a delightful individual, in case you needed further reason to stay away.

Flat whites are pretty ubiquitous in the UK - hell, McDonald's will sell you something in a cup involving coffee beans, water and milk with that name - but the number of places that will actually make them distinct from a latte or cappuccino is rather smaller.
posted by parm at 4:28 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

I'm never sure how often the barista is just going like, "yeah, sure, here's your cappuccino by another name, hipster."

I figure if anyone is an expert on who is or isn't a hipster, it's a barista. I imagine a whole hipster ranking system. Just ordering a flat white off the menu probably doesn't move the needle that much.
posted by Foosnark at 4:38 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]

When my local third-wave joint first opened, they made fussy pour-over and a small menu of espresso drinks and nothing else. Their espresso was excellent, served with a sidecar of seltzer and an orange wedge, and the milky drinks were basically limited to cappuccino and caffe latte and served in the appropriate glassware and with precise proportions. They wouldn't even make you an iced espresso; if you wanted a cold drink, it was cold brew or pound sand.

They've since realized that's no way to stay in business. The menu has expanded and now they'll serve you a flavored latte (all of which are really good; the house-made syrups are fantastic), cortado, macchiato, flat white, and probably some other espresso-to-milk proportions that I'm forgetting, and everything is available on ice. But they're still very serious about the proportions and glassware, and I appreciate it.

Frankly I usually prefer a cortado; a flat white seems like too much milk to me when I mostly want coffee. That said, I was amused and pleased to find "flat white" as one of the button-press options on the coffee machine at a Premier Inn we stayed at.
posted by uncleozzy at 4:44 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

This seems like the kind of beverage I used to make when I had a (not great) espresso machine. I could not often get the milk to foam up "properly" (or what I was aiming for) and instead would end up with very hot, thickened milk from micro-bubbles, poured over espresso. It was good, but it never seemed like what I was aiming for.

I guess I didn't realize I was drinking pure gold!
posted by SoberHighland at 4:51 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

...but then where does a macchiato/noisette fit into this schema?

With the various 'varieties' the real issue is whether or not the 'barista' knows what they are doing or if they just have the motions down. There's a couple 'better' coffee places nearby and some days a macchiato is source of small joy and other days it's a bitter, sloppy mess. Cortado has going for it... no, wait, I'm thinking of the Galao... and it's here I give up...
posted by From Bklyn at 4:56 AM on April 15

The only place I've found outside Australasia where anyone has even heard of a flat white is Hawaii.


Because I don't even drink coffee and I know that Flat White is on the menu at Starbucks because they advertised it extensively when they first started offering it. And if Starbucks sells it, I assume a lot of people have heard of it.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:31 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

I have repeatedly attempted to find anywhere in the States that makes a decent flat white, as I still dream about the ones I had years ago in Melbourne. So far, they have all been uniformly terrible, with either a misunderstanding about the ratio of milk/coffee or about the texture and amount of foam.

So while you can often order a flat white in the States, its relationship to a real one is tenuous at best.
posted by griffey at 5:41 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]

When I first had a flat white I thought “oh man, this is like a cappuccino from 1995. I love it.”

Like a fax being like getting an email from 1985. But tasty.
posted by Skrubly at 7:43 AM on April 15 [6 favorites]

Am I the only American who read this and thought "wait, there are Italian sugar growers in Florida?"
posted by madcaptenor at 7:57 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]

It's the bastard who invented eggshell to compete with flat white who TRULY needs to pay!

not long ago, spouse and i bought a (mostly-white) flat after many years of renting, so, drunk on the power of being able to drill holes in walls without negotiating with a dingus, i got some of those chonky steel brackets and some pieces of wood and hung some shelves and put some books and plants on them. the aesthetic effect is: you look at the wall with the shelves and you cannot help but hear inoffensive ai-sounding lofi beats and visualise bare light bulbs and a bunch of the sort of people who admittedly constitute my own demographic, taking a break from gentrifying something in order to type content in a cafe full of other such people (possibly with bicycles or parts thereof incorporated in the decor), or vice versa. spouse took one look at my rustic shelves and suggested i order a flat white. the point is that interior decoration gets way more flat white than flat white.
posted by busted_crayons at 8:06 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]

No, but chariots pulled by cassowaries' posts are almost always Australia related, so if you check the username, things become clearer.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:06 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]

this is your obligatory reminder that the word “hipster” hasn’t been contemporary since like 2014 so like unwax your mustaches and set your watches forward ten years please
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 8:10 AM on April 15 [6 favorites]

2014 was not ten...
posted by From Bklyn at 8:21 AM on April 15 [13 favorites]

Ooo, I bet I would like that! I don't like milk in perked coffee or pour-over and I don't like cappuccinos because IMO milk is a pointless adulterant that can't stand up to coffee. It just makes everything gray and watery and sad, and, if you're dumping it in and not heating it, cold. So it's still bitter but now it has some pallid cold watery crap in it or some gritty froth on top for no reason. Either I drink coffee black or I dump whipping cream in. In my 20s when I used to get coffee from baristas like I was a god damn millionaire, I'd get breves, which is a cappuccino but they use half-and-half. Those are okay; half-and-half alone is still too watery, but with the frothing, it somehow works. If Australia and New Zealand have a special milk procedure that works like with a breve, where the milk gets thick enough to really marry with the coffee and make it a slurpable caramelly delight, well, okay!
posted by Don Pepino at 9:04 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

this is your obligatory reminder that the word “hipster” hasn’t been contemporary since like 2014 so like unwax your mustaches and set your watches forward ten years please

Obligatory reminder that hipster originated in the 1940s, so unless you're snapping both hands to some bebop in your zoot suit, you're not a real hipster.
posted by signal at 9:22 AM on April 15 [7 favorites]

Who really invented the flat white?

Though we don't really accept anybody as having 'invented' something unless they're European or of European descent and recorded in what Europeans consider a valid form, I'm guessing somebody in Kiva Han, the world's first known coffee shop in Constantinopla, probably did some experimenting with putting milk into it around 1475 or so, 1480 at the very latest.
posted by signal at 9:53 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]

I mean, there are lots of ways to say “I don't care about espresso-milk drinks” but yeah, I guess pretending that the first coffee house in Europe is being ignored because Europeans don't care about it is one way to do it. The fact that a traditional Turkish coffee is simply incompatible with milk, and only arrived in the Ottoman capital after centuries of coffee-making in Arabia, Persia, Egypt and Yemen, probably in the 16th century, isn't important. What's important is making sure that the people who care about relatively small distinctions in milk texture and strength in their coffee drinks don't get to talk about it with someone insinuating they're being far too parochial.
posted by ambrosen at 1:41 PM on April 15 [6 favorites]

A lot of the flat whites I get here in the UK seem to "cappuccino in a smaller cup but costing the same".
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 2:14 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]

As evinced by a lot of these comments, tastes vary a lot. In our family we've always found it amusing that I love bitter stout but can't stomach black coffee, while daughter drinks unsweetened double espressos but can't stand stout. Two bitter black liquids, two different opinions.
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 2:21 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]

Meanwhile, I am unsure how cafe au lait fits into this whole schema. Google results offer varying info about which kinds of milk-infused coffee drinks use a brewed/drip/pour-over coffee base, and which use espresso; on the rare occasions I'm in a coffee shop, I'll drink whichever's available. (At home I fill a cup 1/3 with cold brew concentrate, 2/3 with milk, and give it two minutes in the microwave. Works fine for this unhip old lady.)
posted by Kat Allison at 4:33 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]

Cafe au lait is sometimes flavored with chicory.

Because people like suffering and remembering what war rationing was like

Regardless, I am in favor of your cold brew "coffee with milk"
posted by eustatic at 5:06 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]

So far, they have all been uniformly terrible, with either a misunderstanding about the ratio of milk/coffee or about the texture and amount of foam.

This is true of 90% of cappuccinos in the US too, and they've been around much longer.

Meanwhile, I am unsure how cafe au lait fits into this whole schema.

Cafe au lait is brewed coffee, 50/50 with hot milk.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:09 PM on April 15

At home I fill a cup 1/3 with cold brew concentrate, 2/3 with milk, and give it two minutes in the microwave.

^coffee best practices^
posted by busted_crayons at 5:57 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]

My own coffee preferences run toward pretty dark heavy coffee brew, usually french press with a pretty fine grind so it might be a bit grainy, with heavy cream poured into the cup of hot coffee in a steady pour until it blooms up to be visible from the bottom of the mug and the STOP! Stirring is not required.

I like the mouthfeel of the heavy cream better than milk, and I really like the darker more acidic coffees but do find the cream necessary to help cut the acidity.

Honestly I have maybe 4 cups of coffee a year at this point, but I do have an opinion about how I enjoy it.
posted by hippybear at 6:30 PM on April 15

Long blacks for me, every time. Coffee and hot water, as nature intended.

Only dilettantes, grifters, or perverts add cow juice to the Sacred Bean Brew.

I'm really fun at parties.
posted by Pouteria at 2:49 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]

Look this is the official origin of the flat white and I am in no way biased.
posted by piyushnz at 5:01 AM on April 16 [3 favorites]

My general coffee drink is just pour over, black, but if adding milk, my favorite was the coffee I had on Puerto Rico, I think just called cafe con leche. That shit was so good
posted by Carillon at 8:54 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]

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