Origins of the flat white

The origins of the flat white are hotly contested. Both Australia and New Zealand claim to have coined the term. And while I’ve previously written a summary of the various definitions of the flat white, to really understand the origins of the term, we need to go back in time to the 1980s.

Flat White Definition

My theory is that the origin of the flat white is the humble coffee mug.

I think the flat white was an attempt to get cafes to make the sort of coffee that New Zealanders were used to making at home. To understand why this is, we need to go back to how coffee was made in the home in New Zealand before cafes became a popular place to hang out.

Black and white coffee at home

The basic convention for describing coffee prepared at home in New Zealand is to refer to coffee without milk as black and coffee with milk as white. So a common question you would ask a guest is “Would you like your coffee black or white?”

Blue Bottle coffee

Making plunger coffee at home. (Image from Bluebottle Coffee)

Most coffee at home in New Zealand is made using a french press or as we call it, a plunger. This style of coffee makes for a nice long mug of black coffee or a warm comforting white coffee made with just a splash of milk.

In New Zealand, a shot of espresso is called a short black. Every other coffee name is built on that convention. For example, an espresso topped up with hot water is called a long black.

Born from the clash of cultures

My theory on the origins of the flat white is that it comes from the overlap between customers used to simple plunger coffee at home and the birth of Italian cafes in Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland run by new immigrants from Europe.

Italian Flat White

The flat white was born from the combination of Italian cafe culture and Antipodian casualness.

The Italian proprietors would be used to accepting orders using the Italian naming conventions for coffee. The basics being an espresso and cappuccino. When confronted with customers ordering a “black coffee” or a “white coffee” they would have been thoroughly confused. Those ordering a black coffee could probably mumble through by requesting some additional hot water, but those ordering a coffee with milk would often end up with a cappuccino.

The Italian terms that describe the simple coffee drink that the average customer wanted were probably too hard to pronounce. For example the cortardo, dopio or machiato could all have been perfectly serviceable drinks but the names wouldn’t ben considered simple and there are no easy anglicised terms for these drinks. Instead it came down to a battle between the cappuccino and the latte to be the “white coffee” of the antipodes.

Why not order a cappuccino?

The cappuccino in New Zealand was made with stiff foam and almost no liquid milk and was considered a drink for children because it is usually served with chocolate sprinkles.

Milk in Australia and New Zealand comes only from free range organic cows because that’s all we have in Australia and in New Zealand. When frothed aggressively, New Zealand milk can form an extremely stiff foam with large bubbles. The texture of a cappuccino in New Zealand can be almost like marshmallow.

Ordering a white coffee and then being handed a cappuccino with chocolate sprinkles would not be considered masculine enough for an Australian bloke.

Why not order a latte?

The latte in New Zealand was made with cold milk or heated milk with almost no foam and was considered a weak drink for intellectuals, political liberals and new mothers. The result of ordering a latte in New Zealand can vary wildly from a tall glass of cold milk drowning a lone shot of espresso to a tiny machiatto and all the way back out to a giant slurping bowl. Not a safe bet for the man on the go.

The evolution of the flat white

This leaves a normal Kiwi bloke with no good options for ordering a plain white coffee with milk like they were used to at home. So the evolution of the flat white probably went something like this:

Customer: One ‘white coffee’ please.
Cafe: Hands customer a cappuccino.
Customer: That’s too frothy. Can I have one with plain milk?
Cafe: Hands customer a latte.
Customer: That tastes weak and milky. Could you make something that has more froth than a latte and less froth than a cappuccino?
Cafe: Hands customer an espresso in a mug with a nice even blend of froth and milk.
Customer: Perfect. I’m going to call this a ‘flat’ white.

The reason the individual originator of the term flat white is shrouded the mystery is that the term probably involved from dozens or even hundreds of these small interactions where Italian cafe proprietors gradually began to understand what their customers wanted.

Despite it’s present hipster incarnations in London, New York and Berlin, the flat white began life as an attempt to recreate the comforting builder’s mug of plunger coffee with a dash of milk.

Prufrock has the best flat white in East London.

To make the perfect flat white, just try and recreate a plain white plunger coffee in a mug.

The drink that the term describes his probably evolved since then to become a little smaller and little more frothy than a simple “white coffee” at home. The flat white has come a long way from its humble origins. It’s now one of the greatest cultural exports of Australia and New Zealand.

Buy shares in London’s Best Coffee App

When I first arrived in London I tried using FourSquare and TripAdvisor to find good cafes. But it was too confusing because every search for “coffee” returned so many hits that I couldn’t get a sense for the best places to go.

Blue Crow Media

The London’s Best Coffee App is made by Blue Crow Media.

Luckily I found a couple of iPhone applications that transformed my experience of exploring London to find new cafes. The London Coffee Map and London’s Best Coffee are the two apps I use the most to find new cafes. So you can imagine my excitement when I joined the equity crowdfunding platform Seedrs in January and discovered that the makers of London’s Best Coffee were raising investment for their business through Seedrs.

Blue Crow Media makes a mix of mobile applications for iPhone and Android as well as physical paper maps. The key to their success seems to be choosing the venues selectively enough that people can trust the logic of “if it’s in the coffee app, then it must be good.”

London Coffee Maps

Blue Crow Media also make paper maps.

One of the things I like most about the company is their sense of design. Designer Chris Fraser from Finland worked on the early versions of the apps and Katie Marcus from London (with experience at Makeshift, Poke and Sidekick) worked on the more recent versions.

iPad Coffee App London

London’s Best Coffee App iPad application interface.

Derek from Blue Crow Media is offering 5% of the company for £50,000. So far, he’s had just over 40 investors commit around £14,000. The company is planning to use the funds to create new applications in new cities and new categories. You can check out the Blue Crow Media campaign on Seedrs.

Coffee Orienteering

The reason that I love reviewing cafes isn’t as much the coffee as it is the excuse to explore new parts of London and to go on an adventure. You could pick almost any type of destination and make it into an urban orienteering adventure.

Coffee Walks

Visiting small cafes is a great way of seeing a new city.

Small independent cafes are usually hidden away in interesting neighbourhoods so hunting for good coffee is a good way of hunting for the cultural heart of a city. When I travel I always go searching for a flat white. – Even if I fail, the effort leads me down interesting alleyways in new neighbourhoods.

Last weekend I ran to Sacred Cafe in Caledonia Rd (only an hour from Clerkenwell) but a fun way of breaking up a long run. It got me thinking about cafes as “destinations” for exploring. So I did a little research and thought back on my early days in London when we franticly ran around the city trying to visit as many places as possible.

Tim Chester from NME did a multi-day pilgrimage across London in the Great Flat White Hunt. He had some comments, quite rightly, about Taylor Street Baristas and Dose not being places to linger. But when you are coffee orienteering then it doesn’t matter. Tim also made a Google Map of the cafes he visited.

There are several good routes to take around London. For example, Nick Wade’s Disloyalty Card is a great excuse to explore.

Taylor Street Baristas and Mr Porter

Taylor Street Baristas are one of the sharpest commercial operators in the London coffee scene. Everything from their property investment relationships to the partnership with Tescos speaks to a team that wants to build a serious business. They have also managed to remain serious about their coffee. The Taylor St Baristas pop-up in Shoreditch was my local when I worked for a web design agency back when I first arrived in London.

Mr Porter Taylor St Baristas

Mr Porter have offered to shout people a coffee at Taylor St Baristas

This week Taylor Street Baristas have partnered with online fashion retailer Mr Porter to offer free coffee between 8am and 10am at a few of their locations between 23 September and 27 September. The last one is at Taylor Street Baristas Liverpool Street on 27 September. It’s a fun little marketing stunt that I hope continues on as a long term relationship between the two brands.

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Coffee in the North: Guest review of Baltzersens

I went flat white hunting in Yorkshire in 2012 so I was excited to receive a guest review of Baltzersens in Harrogate from local Northerner Paul Holland: 

When I heard Lord Howell’s pronouncement that there were “large, uninhabited and desolate areas” in the North East of England I dared to hope that the House of Lords had finally begun to address the issue that it’s pretty grim up north for coffee drinkers.

Baltzersens Coffee

Baltzersens cafe in the North of England (Photo from www.baltzersens.co.uk)

Hurrah I thought, no more sour under-extracted shots, no more no-look tamping while they watch a customer eating a bap, yes I said bap, no more spotty teenagers leaving the milk jug under the wand, only to wander off to talk about some celebrity with their workmates. I thought the time for well-crafted coffee had arrived and the honourable Lords were going to bloody well do something about it.

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Best places for coffee in Farringdon

For the last couple of months I’ve been working from the Innovation Warehouse in Farringdon. The Innovation Warehouse provides free filter coffee, 50 pence espresso pods and hot water for members to use in their Aeropress and plungers. Each member has their own coffee routine. One of the startups has a tradition of grinding fresh Monmouth coffee if they have a particularly big day coming up. But sometimes there is no substitute for a flat white or a real espresso.

Dose Cafe in Clerkenwell

Dose Espresso is the perfect place for a meeting in Farringdon/Clerkenwell/Barbican.

I asked some of the other members where they go for coffee in Farringdon and compiled their suggestions into a list based on the things that entrepreneurs most need in a cafe. Continue reading

Best coffee in Copenhagen

We went to Copenhagen especially to go to Noma but discovered a surprisingly evolved coffee culture. Denmark has lots of coffee shops because it’s so cold and dark in Winter. Going out for coffee with friends seems to be a national pastime because it gives you an excuse to get out of the house. When the weather improves, it’s still nice to have coffee in Copenhagen and the city really comes to life.

Flat White Copenhagen

The best flat white in Denmark at Coffee Collective Copenhagen.

Noma was voted as the best restaurant in the world for a few years running. They recently had a food safety issue, but it’s still an amazing restaurant. A real culinary adventure. We thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the creativity was truly inspiring. While in Copenhagen we went exploring to find the best Flat White in Denmark.

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Best flat white in New York

Last year I was in New York for a startup investment tour organised by UKTI and VentureOutNY. I was interested to revisit New York and see how the coffee culture has changed. New York is obviously a big city but has it evolved its own coffee culture?

Flat White in New York

The best flat white I had in New York was from Brooklyn Roasting Company in the creative DUMBO startup district.

The New York Times has been waking up to the growth in small independent cafes. I noticed lots of interesting things in the course of my week exploring the cafes of New York. New York coffee is as good as you can get anywhere else in the world, but they still have a lot to learn.

Cafes spread all over the place

In many cities in the world, the best cafes are clustered together around a certain neighbourhood. In New York the best cafes are spread across different neighbourhoods. The geographical spread makes it more fun to explore New York by hunting out the best cafes. Much like London, New York is great for coffee orienteering. I used the New York’s Best Coffee iPhone application to navigate the city.

Seedrs Coffee App

New York’s Best Coffee Map on iPhone

One of the reasons that the cafes in New York are so spread out is that they are serving such different cultures and groups of people. In many cities in the world high-quality coffee is associated with hipsters and young or creative people. In New York, lots of different demographics including bankers, yummy mummies, hipsters, designers, students and tourists all enjoy high quality coffee.

The price of real estate is also extremely important to how the New York cafes have evolved. In some cities like London, property developers and owners are starting to appreciate the influence of an independent cafe on the local neighbourhood. Therefore, some developers are providing discounted rent to high quality cafes in London. My sense is that in New York this increased property value caused by good coffee not yet been a factor so the New York cafes are paying full market rents and therefore renting much smaller shops in more obscure locations.

Abraco cafe New York

Abraco didn’t technically have a “flat white” on the menu but the small latte made a passable substitute. (Photo by: Abraco)

Most of the New York cafes that I visited were takeaway only or provided only a very small area for seating. This feels normal for New York as, culturally, most New Yorkers are drinking the coffee on the way to or from work. The New Zealand style of sit down cafe for a lingering brunch still exists in New York, but New Yorkers would associate brunch with a full meal instead of with a coffee and a muffin.

Less Tribal

In many cities, hipster grade coffee is associated with particular groups of people and particular lifestyles. In New York everyone drinks coffee. I noticed many people ordering coffee from independent artisanal cafes that you would not expect to see in an independent cafe anywhere else in the world. For example, I waited behind a fire truck load of firemen in one small cafe on a Tuesday morning. Some of this is driven by the American attitude towards service, where anyone that walks in is a good customer. Overall, I found the New York independent cafe scene less cliquey than Berlin, Paris, London, Melbourne and Auckland.

Ninth Street Espresso

Ninth Street Espresso only sells coffee by volume so I took a 3 ounce for the flat white. Although the 6 ounce looked good. (Photo: Brian’s Coffee Spot)

The broader customer demographic does not mean that there is a broader appreciation of high-quality coffee. On the contrary, I found that the clientele of the high-quality cafes did not necessarily appreciate the product they were being served and might have been just as happy with Starbucks.

Quality Culture

The average American coffee consumer has been exposed for years to Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. It is only those who have travelled to Australia, New Zealand or the UK who have experienced modern, high quality coffee. The baristas in the independent cafes are doing their best to provide high quality coffee, but it is hard to keep the quality high when customers don’t appreciate the product. There are an increasing number of discerning customers and I still found some excellent coffee in New York.

Flat White in New York

Bluebird Cafe was casual and friendly. It was next to our AirBnB so it was my local in NYC.

Overall, the cafe scene in New York is vibrant and fast growing. The cafes are widely spread out so you have to travel to get to a good coffee, but then maybe that makes you appreciate it more. Once you find a good coffee, there is nowhere to sit and drink it because the cafes are all too small, but then maybe that makes you get out and explore New York. Even if you find an independent cafe there is no guarantee that the coffee will be high quality, but then maybe that’s part of the New York adventure.

TimberYard Cafe London

TimberYard cafe just opened in Old Street between Shoreditch and Clerkenwell. I’ve been waiting for a casual, friendly cafe with plenty of seating in EC1 for a long time. Look Mum No Hands (next door on Old Street) is great but the coffee isn’t perfect and it often gets far too crowded to be able to relax and think.

Timber Yard Cafe

The Flat White at Timberyard Cafe in Old Street is not as good as it should be.

I’ve been wondering why none of the cafes in Shoreditch have opened up their basements or their un-used first floors. Some days I traipse around Dose at Google Campus, Salvation Jane, Shoreditch Grind, Goswell Rd, Fix and Look Mum No Hands just looking for a place to hang my Macbook.

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Coffee beans from York Coffee Emporium

The North of England seems like an odd place to be roasting coffee but York Coffee Emporium are doing a stunning job of finding interesting coffees from around the world and roasting them for delivery. Ben from The Distance hooked me up with a few bags to try and I’ve been experimenting with them in a pour-over, a french press and an aeropress.

York Coffee

Brewing at home makes a nice change from running in the rain to London cafes.

I tried three varieties and was surprised at just how much difference the beans made to the final taste. This blog is usually about reviewing cafes and espresso based drinks like the Flat White and Latte.

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