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 differences between the two drinks across cafes in the UK, USA, New Zealand, Australia, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden and Denmark. I’ve had a lot of discussions with baristas and I thought it was time to shine some light on the common debate about exactly “what is a flat white?

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

Espresso shot: How much coffee is there in your coffee?

We can hold the preparation of the espresso as a constant across drinks. 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. Likewise, some high-end baristas will make the espresso shot differently for the different drinks (such as a ristretto shot for a Flat White). But on average, the coffee is not what makes a Flat White different to a latte or cappuccino.

Cup: 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 still doesn’t mean that a flat white is just a small latte. It’s a bit like saying that a garden 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: The forgotten ingredient

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

  1. Heated liquid milk at the bottom of the pitcher
  2. Velvet microfoam in the middle of the pitcher (these are very small bubbles)
  3. 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 secret art of frothing milk is keeping 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: A good test of a flat white

Crema is the orange caramelised coffee that floats to the top of an espresso shot. It tastes sweeter than the dark coffee part and adds mouth-feel, 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 usually drowns the crema with liquid 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 seamlessly with the crema to form an even dusky orange swirl. This coloration of the milk is also the starting point of good latte art.

Summary: How to make sure your flat white is not just a latte

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

  • Flat white: Free pour for a velvet microfoam mix of froth and liquid.
  • 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.

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:

  • Flat White has an even mix of liquid milk and smooth velvet foam so it feels like drinking an espresso, only yummier.
  • 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.

The best way to test the flat white vs latte is to be to go to a small independent cafe and order a flat white, cappuccino and a latte. 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 just order based on what you think you’d enjoy the most: a frothy treat (cappuccino), a milky warm sensation (latte) or a short sharp shot of coffee that goes down easy (flat white).

40 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….

    • I order a large flat white (16 oz) from the coffee shop (panther coffee) in miami fl, and they seem to make it flawlessly, same goes with there large caps and lattes. There a pretty well known place and win many latte art competitions, so i guess they know what there doing, but still a large flat white is very much possible if left up to skilled baristas

      • It´s like asking for a 16oz espresso… There would be for sure an idiot that would order it, and a dumb enough barista that will make it…

        Or else, you could perhaps make a 6 or 8 shots 16oz flat white… but for me it´s the ratio of espresso:milk that makes a flat white what it is.

  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.

      • I’m a barista in Australia. Before this, I grew up in GB, used to enjoy lattes and then started ordering the Starbucks flat whites when they came around. I preferred the ratio of coffee to milk but I remember no difference in texture.
        So a flat white over here, where it originated is different to UK, so I have been taught. It IS about the texture. Zarraffa’s coffee (an African themed chain, cafe area itself is much like Starbucks) taught me to not add texture into the milk, holding a perfect crema above the milk. Most coffee shops will free pour and still maintain this but a spatula/spoon can be used to hold back ALL texture. However, independent cafes will still get it wrong and add texture and it often verges on a latte.
        I must say I did find it interesting how different a flat white is in UK where I always thought it was more coffee-rich, to where it originated from in Australia.
        I personally prefer flat whites in UK.
        But that’s bevause I like stronger lattes in a small cup with silky smooth texture. I just order a latte here in Aus.

        • The flat white actually originated in New Zealand, just like Lorde, Russell Crowe, Crowded House and the Pavlova! If you want to taste a real flat white, NZ is where you will find it.

        • I think that the “flat” in flat white refers to no bubbles, as in the the milk is not frothy or velvety at all. I absolutely restrict all the bubbly stuff. It is nothing more than hot milk. After the pour, the coffee is a single, homogeneous colour. The clue is in the very name of the drink. A lot of new wave baristi who have been trained in a lot of the modern trendy chains to make velvet foam every time. And yes, I am Australian and have been a barista.

  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?

    • Ristretto- less water through the shot, about half but with the same amount of grinds.
      Lungo- long shot with more water, same amount of grinds.
      Macchiato- to mark/marked, traditional macchiato consists of espresso “marked” with a dollop of foam.
      Lungo Macchiato- long shot macchiato
      Doppio- double
      Doppio Macchiato- two espresso shots w/ a dollop of foam
      Affogoto- gelato (or icecream) with espresso over the top
      Latte Macchiato- Latte with shots poured on top of the foam, instead of mixed in with the poured milk?
      “senza schuima? Caffe corretto?…Nocciolato?Granita di Caffe” Those escaped me. However, not bad for an “abominable” Starbucks barista, no? It’s all about how much the barista cares, not about the company.
      By the way, I really liked this article. I’ve had maybe two people request flat whites and couldn’t figure out how they were different than a latte (though one person swore it was a completely no foam latte). This makes more sense, and since I’ve been practicing my latte art, it’s what I’ve been doing which is really helpful to know.

  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.

  10. Peter,
    Just a quick note to say “thank you.” I read reviews/articles like this all the time and typically end up searching for more info because the first few posts I read are lacking substance. Then on the rare occasion, I read a piece like this one and just simply appreciate how well some people write. I really liked your description of Flay White – articulate, informative and concise. Thanks again!

  11. Excellent description. I have family visiting from overseas and I had never heard of a flat white. As it turns out I have been making them at home and calling it a latte. I guess I didn’t know how lattes we’re supposed to be made. :O

  12. I agree that a flat white should only be served in 7oz and when offered which size I know I’m in the wrong place

    I’d question how a single shot fw can hit the mark.

  13. Ok so after 20 years of drinking and making, it does not change:
    6-8oz double shot ristretto, slightly cooler micro foam textured milk, free pour so the milk and double espresso combine to a silky consistency. Preference even cover between crema and milk, (flat and white). No pretention, but done properly in the hand of an experienced barista, taste of heaven.

  14. I read the article and still have absolutely no idea what the difference is between a flat white and latte.

    From the article, a latte has milk and froth, but a flat white has froth and milk.


  15. As a barista, there are a few more differences between a flat white and a latte that you’ve missed out.
    Flat whites should be served at a lower temperature than lattes, around 54°C. Whole milk is normally used as standard as it froths significantly better, and gives it more of a velvety feel to it, though you can of course request other milks.
    The main difference between a flat white and a latte is the proportion of espresso to milk, the place I work at serves it in a 6oz cup, which really gives it a stronger feel.

    The most irritating thing is when customers attempt to order a “large flat white” as it simply doesn’t exist, yet they refuse to listen and claim that they “order it at Costa all the time”

  16. Thank you for the article.
    I’m not much of a coffee drinker, when I went to New Zealand and had a flat white in Raglan I was hooked had 2 or 3 a day like 2 dollars each. Came back to US and looked for a flat white. Asking for it hopeing that they would know what I was talking about. Then they say oh, you mean a 4.50 latte, I had a latte, and it’s just not the Same.

  17. Flat White is my drink. I like it and I know in most cases I’m going to get a strong coffee but with milk which is why I always go for it.
    Last week I sent an email to Costa complaining about the quality of my last 5 Flat Whites. My disappointment has led me to wanting to now create them at home and not rely on my local Costa (there’s no fantastic independents where I live) but the one question I’m struggling to get an answer to is the cup size…6 oz or 8 oz? Origin Coffee on Vimeo says no bigger than 8 and that’s what I use at home but whilst looking for a new mug I found this http://www.coffeehit.co.uk/cafe-supplies/coffee-cups/blue-flat-white-cup-saucer-160ml-6oz which suggests I should be using a 6 oz cup for Flat Whites?

    Would 6 oz with a double shot create a perfect flat white or should I stick with 8 oz?

  18. The take away I’m getting here is that a flat white is an improved and better thought through version of a latte.

  19. Go to any reputable coffee shop and no one is spooning foam on anything, Everything is poured freehand, so a flat white, cortado, cappuccino, and latte all end up being very similar. Only the size is the determining factor.

  20. I worked making coffee in Australia and New Zealand and the way i was told to make a flat white was, the smaller like everyone has agreed but the milk isn’t stretched as far as you would with a latte.

  21. I recently tried ordering a flat white at a hotel cafe in Bakersfield, Ca and the barista gave me an amused little look before smugly telling me it’s just what Australians call a latte. I was too irritated to explain to her the difference especially since I had the feeling even if I explained it to her she’d still just make me a latte anyways.

  22. I first experienced the flat white when I was living in New Zealand a few years back. Frankly I spent all my time trying (and failing) to find an honest cappuccino. Every barista in New Zealand seems obsessed with the quality of the milk, to the extent that the coffee comes off as an afterthought. Every flat white ends up tasting essentially the same as the coffee is never allowed to be separate from the milk. It was a step up from the near-universal instant coffee everyone keeps in a jar next to their sugar and tea, but i doubt the coffee will ever be ground breaking as long as the culture is milk-obsessed.

  23. Wonderful post…I was looking up how to make a Flat White at home….I was just introduced to the Flat White while vacationing in AU and NZ in January 2015. So beautiful. Now that I am back in the states and wishing to make this at home because my husband is now so disappointed in his morning “coffee” and I am longing for my folded foam in those lovely cups! What to do? Going to a coffee shop is not an option where we live. Suggestion on home machines?

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