Flat White vs Latte

A flat white is not just a small latte. They are very different drinks. If you’re caught in a cafe that doesn’t serve a flat white, then a small latte might be a passable substitute, but they’re not the same drink. The flat white vs latte debate is common in the UK and USA where the Flat White is still new.

Flat White and Latte

Flat white and a Latte from Climpson & Sons in Shoreditch. The flat white looks like a small latte, but there’s more to it.

I drink flat whites and my girlfriend drinks lattes so I’ve seen the difference between the two drinks in cafes across England, France, Spain, Denmark, USA, New Zealand and Australia. I’ve had a lot of discussions with baristas and it’s time to shine some light on the common debate about “What is a flat white?

How can a small latte, a flat white and a small cappuccino all use the same shot of espresso and be served in the same cup but still be different drinks?

How much coffee is there in your coffee?

We can hold the preparation of the espresso as a constant. You can have a double shot or a single shot in a flat white or in a latte. Some people would say that a single shot flat white isn’t really a flat white, but that’s a bit too purist and there are plenty of cafes in New Zealand and Australia that do serve singles.

It’s not the size of the cup, it’s what you do with it

In most cafes, a flat white is smaller than a latte. But that doesn’t mean that a flat white is a small latte. It’s a bit like saying that a shed is just a smaller house. Sure, most sheds are smaller than most houses, but size isn’t the decisive factor. If a barista has been un-trained (or over-trained) then they may think that size is the only difference between a flat white and a latte. I like asking those baristas what the difference is between a cappuccino vs a latte because they have to fall back on the real differences (beyond just size).

Milk is the forgotten ingredient in a latte

If we hold the espresso as a constant, then what makes a flat white versus a latte or a flat white versus a cappuccino is the milk. Milk is the hidden ingredient in a modern coffee. Most people forget how important milk is to a good coffee. When milk is frothed with a steam wand there are three layers that form:

  • Heated liquid milk at the bottom of the pitcher
  • Velvet microfoam in the middle of the pitcher (these are very small bubbles)
  • Stiff froth (these are larger bubbles)

The important process of “stretching” the milk by frothing, folding and swirling it is done to maximise the amount of velvet microfoam by blending the large bubbles and the liquid milk. Without swirling and tapping there would still have some microfoam but you’d never know it in the cup because it would be lost in the liquid and/or the froth.

Flat White Milk at Flat White Cafe

Pouring a Flat White at Flat White cafe in Soho. The key to a Flat White vs a Latte is the way the milk is poured.

The art of frothing milk is to keep the steam wand at the surface of the milk (that pleasing steamy sound you hear in busy cafes). Most baristas learn to froth milk pretty fast because it’s obvious when it works or doesn’t. The main differences between drinks and between baristas arise when the steaming is finished and it’s time to pour the drink. – A good barista will swirl the steamed milk around to fold the froth back into the liquid and create a seamless pitcher of velvet microfoam. Some might tap the pitcher on the counter to pop the worst of the big bubbles on top (as part of folding the milk). But this is unnecessary if you’re swirling the milk smoothly enough.

Crema

Crema is the orange caramelised coffee that floats to the top of an espresso. It tastes sweeter than the dark coffee part but it’s very vulnerable and can be destroyed by sitting too long or being drowned in milk. A cappuccino sacrifices the crema under the weight of the stiff froth and a latte can kill the crema with milk. One of the main ways of telling if you have been served a good flat white is how much of the milk has merged with the crema to form an even dusky orange swirl. This coloration of the milk is the starting point of latte art.

How to make a flat white different to a latte

An excellent barista can “free pour” straight from the pitcher using speed of the pour and the tilt of the jug to choose how much froth, foam or liquid to pour into any given drink. A mid-level barista is more likely to do it like this:

  • Cappuccino: spoon the stiff froth into the cup and then top up with a pour from the jug.
  • Latte: Pour the liquid milk from the jug with a spoon to hold back the froth and then top off with a dollop of froth.
  • Flat white: Free pour for a mix of froth and liquid.

Like any human endeavour, there is a bell curve to the skills of baristas. The most ignorant of baristas will make a flat white, latte or a cappuccino all the same. After all, they’re just a “milky coffee”. Ironically, some very high end baristas have the same attitude because they take so much care with frothing, folding and pouring their milk that every coffee is made like a perfect flat white with an even mix of liquid, microfoam and froth.

Latte and Flat White

Latte vs Flat White at Speakeasy cafe in Soho. The latte is often in a glass but that’s not the main difference.

The net effect of this variety of approaches to the milk is that the drinks will feel different in the mouth and may taste different because of the dilution of the coffee with liquid. In terms of mood and mouthfeel:

  • Cappuccino has stiff foam and feels like drinking bubbles with a bed of coffee hidden at the bottom.
  • Latte is milky, has a little foam on the top and feels like drinking a milky coffee.
  • Flat White has an even mix of liquid milk and smooth velvet foam so it feels like drinking an espresso, only yummier.

The best way to test the flat white vs latte would seem to be to go to a small independent cafe and order a cappuccino, a latte and a flat white. But the goal of ordering a coffee isn’t really to compare a static reality, it’s to express to the barista your intention and desires. So order based on what you’d enjoy: a frothy treat, a milky warm sensation or a short sharp shot of coffee that goes down easy.

You might also like:
  • "A flat white is a small latte." Said the barista at the boutique Workshop Cafe in London to an ...

  • Flat White in Soho started in 2005 before the flat white was widely available in the UK. It was ...

  • Dose Espresso was the first cafe that we visited in Clerkenwell. We were exploring the Barbican ...

16 thoughts on “Flat White vs Latte

  1. I’m also getting sick of baristas asking me whether I want a small Flat White or a large Flat White. I might have to revise the post to note that a Flat White does kind of imply a medium size. I think it’s because in a good cafe all the drinks will be free poured with a nice even mix of velvet, froth and liquid milk. Hmmmm….

  2. I want to facebook your post about the difference between flat whites and lattes but there’s no pretty blue button that makes this very easy for me to do *sighs dramatically* There are avid coffee drinkers amongst my friends who need to know!!

  3. Baristas are sick of being asked to make a flat white without being told how you like it. It’s not a good/bad barista thing. I’ve had several varying ideas of what a flat white is. My final thought is that people just want to ask for something difficult and different. 90 percent of flat whites I’ve made we’re based on pretension. Some were 8 oz no foam, some were 16 oz lattes disguised as flat whites. Very few Australians even know what a true flat white is. Surely if you believe there are bad baristas, then you can believe in bad customers. Perhaps you are the latter.

  4. A flatwhite is a small, strong, milky coffee. As far as I’m concerned, as a barista, the best way is 2 shots, silky milk and total drink no bigger than 7oz.

  5. How do you get a good cup of coffee in these places? Seriously. No milk, no cream, just a nice cup of coffee from a french press, with all the essential oils and aromas, and even a smile from behind the counter. Is that just something you can’t have in a cafe that has taken steaming milk and pouring it into an advanced art form? Since the advent of Starbucks and cafes with expresso machines, you can’t even get a good cup of expresso, and certainly not a simple cup of well made coffee. I walk in, look for coffee, and walk out. Cafes should have coffee on the menu, in my opinion.

    • You most definitely can order a French press at any Starbucks and surely most cafés. All you have to do is put in the effort to ask the barista. And perhaps “coffee” isn’t on the menu because most places hope you realise that it’s a “coffee house” and therefore, obviously has a good regular cup of coffee waiting for you if you so choose it.

  6. My husband, daughter and I just returned from a visit to London. We stayed in Hampstead and stopped daily at Ginger and White for our flat white fix–addictive and delicious.

  7. Flat White?! Rather unfortunate (and even depressing) name for an espresso based drink that should give you a zing akin to seeing that red Ferrari parked outside the “Third Noise Cafe”. Coffee is starting to turn into the abomination that Starbucks is. Espresso should not be like liquefied licorice and that pathetic luke-warm liquid under the foam of a Cappuccio should not remind one as somebody on this forum said of “Cambells Tomato Soup” or chicory or even worse it should not leave you wondering if that’s what urine tastes like. Un caffe per piacere. Ristretto? Lungo? Macchiato?Lungo macchiato? Doppio? Doppio macchiato? Cappuccio? Cappuccio doppio? Cappuccio doppio senza schuima? Caffe corretto? Latte macchiato? Nocciolato?Granita di Caffe. Affogato? Anyone?

  8. We have returned to the ‘Flat White’ Issue again up here in Scotland.

    I have read and re-read through your posts concerning the subject, and posted on one a while ago, but more time has passed and we and the industry have matured.

    I totally agree with your description of a Flat White as laid down. Ours in our coffee bar is:
    - 6oz glass cup, tulip
    - double espresso of any blend or SO
    - topped up to 6oz with correctly stretched milk like you would use for a latte.

    My bone of contention with the industry just now (especially Costa etc) is that they seem to be promoting that Cappucini and Latte are lesser drinks because the milk is of a lesser quality.

    I think we should move towards all baristi being at a good enough skill level to produce all the variations of milk based coffee according to their ratio levels rather than lack of quality?

  9. Annoyingly for me, my first ever Flat White was in a Costa Coffee — what’s more annoying is that it’s been the best one that I’ve had to date. I’ve tried a handful of times since then to get what I thought was going to be a Flat White, but instead I just get a big pile of froth over a milky coffee.

    I’ll mainly order an Espresso, Macchiato or Americano and shy away from other options as I don’t like the milk to take over the taste and texture. The thing I like about a Flat White is point 4. in your ‘What is a Flat White’ post — “free poured milk so that the foam is folded through the whole drink and there is no discernable layer separation between liquid coffee and foam”.

    People may say I’m drinking in the wrong places (Cardiff not London), and perhaps I am, but if only there was a standard so you knew what you were going to get. I’m going to be a bit more inquisitive next time I order, and check that the barista and I are on the same page before any milk gets poured, hopes get crushed and tears start to fall.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>