What is a flat white?

“A flat white is a small latte.” Said the barista at the boutique Workshop Cafe in London to an enquiring British visitor. My ears pricked up. To me, a flat white is much more, but those Workshop Coffee guys really know their stuff.

One of the great questions in the London cafe scene is the difference between a Flat White vs Latte. In some cafes, a flat white is just a small latte, but in others it’s an entirely different drink.

Flat White from Foxcroft and Ginger

Flat White from Foxcroft & Ginger pop-up cafe in a shipping container in Shoredtich.

“A flat white is just a cappuccino with less froth isn’t it?” I overheard a slightly confused Hungarian cafe owner say to a Kiwi customer. This was the final straw and set me off on a journey to search for a good definition of my favourite drink. To me, a flat white is like the Supreme Court’s 1964 definition of pornography; I’m not quite sure how to define it but “I know it when I see it.”

For purists there is a lot to a flat white. Including:

1. Velvet micro-foam instead of stiff froth.

2. Medium size, bigger than a macchiato or cortado but smaller than a latte.

3. Double shot so the coffee does most of the talking, not the milk.

4. 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.

And that’s just the basics of being a Flat White, let alone a good one. A good flat white is all about packing as much taste as possible into a small package.


Official Definitions of a Flat White

To settle the issue, I collected together the most authoritative definitions from around the world. From around the web we have some differing opinions including:

The flat white has less milk, less foam (hence flat white) and therefore proportionately more coffee than a latte. The desired texture is a velvety sensuality and there should also be a natural sweetness. New Zealand flatties tend to be double espresso shots while Australians typically pour a single. - Joseph Hoye from Electric Coffee Bean

A flat white is a coffee beverage originating from Australia and New Zealand. It is prepared by pouring microfoam (steamed milk from the bottom of a pitcher) over a single or double shot of espresso. It is similar to the latte and the café au lait. – Wikipedia

A latte consists of a shot of espresso in a glass with steamed milk poured over, topped with a one-centimetre layer of froth. Contrary to the widely held belief that a flat white is stronger, the only difference between the two drinks is the vessel in which they’re presented. A flat white is served in a ceramic cup, usually of the same volume as a latte glass. – Sydney Morning Herald

The main difference between a latte and a flat white is the ratio of milk and espresso. The flat white has less milk than a latte and usually a bit less foam on top. Unlike many people think, the flat white does have foam on top.Coffee Info

Steamed milk poured over two shots of espresso, topped with microfoam.Starbucks

The cappuccino is the “Marge Simpson” of espresso-based drinks, with the milk whipped into a bubbly froth and placed on top of the espresso like a high Marge Simpson “bee-hive” do. The latte, on the other hand, has had a hair cut, but nonetheless, has enough froth left to top the drink off with a slight bit of teasing on top. The flat white, on the other hand, doesn’t have any of that volume on top, but rather has all that tease distributed throughout.Espresso Coffee Snobs

Richard Rees, owner of the Nude Espresso, said that the secret of the flat white lay in the quality of the beans used for the double-shot espresso base and the “texturing” of the milk. He said: “When you heat the milk you get different layers in the jug. Further down you get the most silky, textured milk. You use that, not the frothy milk on top. The coffee has a stronger taste because you just use the first half of the shot… Probably about a third of the coffees we sell now are flat whites.”Evening Standard


Why are we fighting over coffee?

One common point of confusion is when people say a Flat White is “like drink xyz.” because their definition of drink xyz may not be the same as everyone else’s. So we’re building on quicksand. The most common example is “A Flat White is a Caffe Latte.” It’s a common definition – but only from people who make Lattes in a certain way (with textured micro-foam). There is a significant difference between a latte and a flat white.

Dose Cafe in Clerkenwell

The flat white at Dose Espresso is smooth and silky.

For people around the world who have never had a Flat White, this definition is confusing because they might only ever have had Lattes made in a certain way (milk intentionally scalded, pan heated, wand heated with no velvet, etc, etc).

To me, a Flat White is an espresso with milk where the coffee does the talking. What’s your definition of a Flat White?

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50 thoughts on “What is a flat white?

    • Thanks Jane, was hoping to spark a debate on the topic because I’ve had too many baristas in London just say “Oh, that’s just a small latte.” To you, what makes a flat white a flat white?

    • Apparently, Caravan in Exmouth Market is training baristas (in cafes that use their beans) that:
      *For takeaway, a cappucino, flat white or latte can come in any size the customer wants, so size isn’t the difference between them.
      *The difference is how you prepare the milk:
      – Cappucino has stiff froth.
      – Latte is velvet throughout the milk.
      – Flat white has less foam than a latte and more liquid milk (i.e. “It’s flatter.”)

  1. Flat white has single shot and has less microfoam than a cappuccino. Although in the real world, a flat white and cappuccino are the same except for the cup they are presented in.

    • A cappuccino has no “microfoam” and a flat white is either a double or triple ristretto dependant on the size of the cup. A cappuccino and a flat white are constructed completely differently.

  2. we have just open a small cafe in central London, and this topic about the Flat white is something,, is that, is this, is not that etc… well our manager is Kiwi and the flat white does comes from New Zeland.. some ppl say that it does not have any froth on top hence ”Flat White” others yeah it does have. here in london some baristas said that it was invented by Costa Coffee and so on.. the way we do is, full cream milk, two shots of espresso in a 10 onz cup.. with a small leaf on top… one barista came ,as he told me he was,, he told me to do a flat white with out milk… i said the you must want a large espresso?,, he became so angry and strarted to argue how he has been around coffee shops bla bla bla.. i found this website usefull since the flat white was invented in New Zeland / Australia, i think we should pay attention in how they make it not in how we the non kiwis think it is..

  3. I never thought much about it as a Kiwi, but I always thought of it as half-way between a latte (bleurgh, too much milk) and a cappuccino (save something that strong until you really need it!), and on further reflection, less foam. Though the difference in shots explains why I’ve always hated flat whites in the UK!

  4. In my understanding (and the years I worked as a barista with a persnickety Canberra crowd), a flat white is simply a shot of espresso with steamed milk and as little foam as possible. It can be any size you want but typically is a normal coffee cup size. And it most certainly doesn’t include foam art!

  5. My first experience if a flat white was how I’d like all flat whites to be: the coffee was strong but tempered by the smooth microfoam that ran all the way through and which gave the coffee a slight sweetness. I ordered a soy flat white. I really don’t like soy milk but I loved this! If this is not anyone else’s definition of a FW then the drink certainly deserves a classification of its own.

  6. I’ve been debating this very point for years now, whether from the point of veiw of training, as a barista or roaster. I’ve also been lucky to work beside people from all over the world, including New Zealand, Australia , the Netherlands, Canada, America and Tazmania. It seems to me that even in the Netherlands they had a similar coffee but did not call it a Flat White.
    Both of these beverages were served in a 6oz cup (the same as a cappuccino) but usually consisted of a double espresso (single if you wished) and a ratio of more milk to microfoam. There was usually only a thin layer of microfoam on top, just enough for some latte art. This meant that the beverage did not rise above the rim of the cup (where I am told the ‘flat’ part comes from).
    Effectively if you think about construction of espresso based beverages if you use a single espresso in a Flat White it does make it extremely similar to a miniature latte. I say this because in the current coffee climate we utilise only the best coffee beans in our roasts, and therfore we also use ‘dense, velvety, free poured’ milk in our cappuccino and lattes. You can’t attribute the milk texturing as the difference in drinks because it would be upholding obsolete and sub-par coffee standards. Milk has a tendency to settle out into the beverages constituent layers in under a minute in the cup and this gives us our differences in drinks. A good example of that is the milk foam science talk in last years Nordic barista cup.
    All the debate of the years and continuing still has led us to believe that a Flat White is a New Zealand/Australian drink, but one that is synonymous with good quality coffee and therefore was presented as a double espresso in a 6oz (approx) vessel (glass or cup), and topped off with well made dense and textured microfoam with a little latte art (if it was in the Barista’s ability).

    • “You can’t attribute the milk texturing as the difference in drinks because it would be upholding obsolete and sub-par coffee standards. ”

      YES. YES YES YES YES YES.

  7. As explained by the important coffee people, George Sabados, the so-called Flat White is nothing but Italian and European style Caffe Latte, to avoid confusion of the American style Caffe Latte. It’s been confused by so many baristas in Ausy and Kiwi too.

    • Great thought and good to have a diversity of opinion. But as someone who has had plenty of Cafe Lattes from around Italy, I can assure you they are nothing like a Flat White. Can you recommend a particular cafe in Italy that serves a Caffe Latte that would make you think they are similar to a Flat White?

      • Hi there.
        Caffe Latte in Italy is what you get for breakfast at home. In a cafe (Italian bar) you get Latte Macchiato (light espresso with milk and a little bit of foam) that I suppose is what abroad is called Cafe Latte or Latte. The flat white is like an Italian Cappuccino. The cappuccino you get in Sturbucks, Costa and Caffe Nero has nothing to do with a proper cappuccino served in Italy. The good thing about this phenomenon of the flat white is that eventually people would start to appreciate globally the taste of a real cappuccino. Never mind if they think it’s an aussie inventions.

  8. Having lived and trained in Australia, I have been drinking Flat Whites there for well over a decade.
    I can only comment on what the Aussies consider one to be, they are served with a single shot (unless asked otherwise), with velvety textured steamed milk with a very thin layer of microfoam to finish.
    This is how I serve my Flat White and my customers love it.
    Although I believe the Kiwi version is a standard double shot !!
    TaDa!

  9. I’m from Melbourne, living in Dublin. I was recently in Brunetti’s, Melbourne with an friend from Milan where he experienced his first Flat White. He really enjoyed it so i then asked the elderly Italian/Australian man serving us – what IS a Flat White actually ?? He replied in Italian and i thought it was very interesting – he said it developed in Australia as the style of coffee with milk that most replicated what Italian’s were drinking at home- presumably with stove top espresso makers. Having gown up in teh 80’s with many Italian friends and experiencing their ‘home made coffee’ with a little heated milk this makes a lot of of sense to me. I personally think that, even before the microfoam, the balance between the milk and the coffee is the most important characteristic, though everyone will have a slightly different take on that. For me its a sweet balance where the milk isn’t over-steamed or watery and is just enough to dissipate the coffee without losing its character and intensity. I agree that a Flat White NOTHING like a classic morning Cafe Latte in Italy. Many cafes in Dublin will now serve you a ‘Flat White’ but unfortunately i’ve found they don’t have this balance at all. Its usually just your normal crappy, watery, milky cappuccino with less froth or its 2 incredibly bitter shots with lots of milk to compensate. NO!!! What’s the point? The classic Flat White-sized cup works because the ratio is right between the shot to the milk. Less is more , in this case. A Flat White in a big cup – forget it…

  10. I just encountered my first flat white in Istanbul at a lovely South African coffee shop behind the Spice Market, created by a barista from New Zealand. I’d never heard of “flat white” before and I loved it so much I returned for more the next day. I don’t know if it was the quality of the espresso or the barista’s talent, but it was a delicious blend of milk and espresso with beautiful art and the finest foam I’ve ever encountered.

  11. Having just had two bad experiences of over foaming in a “flat” white. I have ended up on this website. I was searching for what is a definition of a “flat white ” presumably with the word latte at the end of it. I am from New Zealand (Aotearoa). I absolutely love my coffee migrating from Mobil service stations version (mild roasted bean) which they say is Richard Harris brand to BP version. A stronger fairtrade but I understand also Richard Harris (someone please confirm).

    I am always having to ask NZ staff for a ‘no-froth’ flat white. Some people say “flat” white refers to mimimal foaming at the top of the coffee. Others say you can order a Super Flat white – (this normally gives a 1.3 cm layer of micro foam).

    Reading the comments before me; it appears this concept is originated in south pacific (Aussie or NZ). I can only speak for NZ geographically I travel widely inside the country. I prefer a stronger brew hence a preference for BP service stations.

    The consistency of the quality of their coffees which you can purchase in either small medium or large. I prefer the large takeaway container for my coffee. with full creamed milk steamed. I find the skim harder though I should swtich to it. Optional is medium cups or small cups. Most service stations serve one shot, however two shots are considered “proper” for the large size.

    Another way to increase the intensity of the flavour and the shot is to only fill the large container to half – thereby increasing the suffusion of the coffee.

    I am currently fully milked out. I am so saddened that you have been able to resolve this issue :) and entertainably enlightened and looking forward to further info.

    I have noticed in most coffee shops the apparent glazed looks of all coffee purchasers who are intensive drinkers. as they ardently wait in line for their ‘fixes’ almost like lovers waiting to meet again.
    To this end I wrote both lyrics and music about the coffee being the lover, and how we can meet our lover in the coffee shop, and have secret love affairs and move on. Only to return again to that secret love affair with our coffee. :)

  12. I usually drink “cortados” or order a double espresso machiato and then add milk to it. I first tried a Flat White when I landed in Auckland about a year ago. I thought I had died and went straight to heaven.
    Let me tell you: I hate Lattes, there’s no coffee in there, just hot milk with a tiny bit of coffee. Consequently, to call a Flat White a small version of a Latte is absolutely mental.
    I too have searched and cannot find a straight answer on this. I think a double shot of strong arabica espresso is a key ingredient, followed by superbly foam whole milk (not skimmed, or semi-skimmed).
    I didn’t think much of Flat Whites in Oz… they tasted more like Lattes. Perhaps the Barista’s you’ve spoken with have Australian influences.
    I think the Kiwis should seriously consider making Flat Whites a national icon. In fact their whole coffee drinking culture should be more widely advertised.

    • I’m an Aussie in the UK and currently searching in vain for local cafes that can serve a decent flat white. Despite my Aussie pride, I do agree that the flat whites in NZ are consistently better than those in Au – possibly because of the milk quality and/or the double shot of coffee – whatever it is, they should market it to the world as it’s a great thing they have going and a secret worth sharing!

  13. My Uncle Harry moved from London to Melbourne in the mid 50’s. My son lives in Sydney now. He emailed me the following. I walked into my favourite coffee shop (Forsyths) in Willoughby and was busy selecting a blend and got talking to the Barrista about coffee machines. Found out he came from Melbourne and I said I think my Great uncle Harry was the first person to import an espresso machine to Australia. He replied “Harry Levine!?, yes apparently he couldn’t stand coffee in Australia so got one from Italy. And because the Australian’s couldn’t take strong black coffee and didn’t like foreign names he coined the phrase ‘Flat white’. I asked him how he knew all that and was told that every Barrista worth his salt in Australia knows about Harry Levine!!!

  14. Small no bigger then am 8oz cup.
    Dbl shot of espresso.
    Latte style micro foam milk.
    Not to hot!
    Aka small dble shot latte.
    If you want a bigger drink get a 12oz latte.

    Coffee is a simple thing and is best done simply.

    • Good point, this strategy would work well if every cafe in the world made Lattes with a perfect and even blend of froth, microfoam and liquid milk in the pitcher (and in your cup). – Unfortunately, they don’t.

      • True.
        Coffee is about consistency.
        I am an ex barista and now a barista trainer and the first thing I try to teach is simplicity and consistency. All of the coffees we know come from one drink – espresso. So this is the first thing you need to teach is how to make consistent espresso. Then traditionally every drink has slightly more milk added, espresso, macchiato, piccolo, etc.
        For me the latte and cappuccino are the same apart from the milk texture and traditionally in Italy a cappuccino is drunk only in the morning.
        Then you get into different cultures. Different countries have different taste and their own takes on coffee USA Gibraltar, Spain Cortado, NZ/Australia Flat White.

        Then you are always going to get people who think that they know best. Some people believe a FW is in between a Cap and a Latte, some people think it has slightly less micro foam then a latte. I am a New Zealander who has lived in London and have meet many Kiwis who swear a FW should be done in a bowl?!
        I guess in the end, maybe there is no correct way, but the way that you as an individual like it?
        That’s why we have baristas operating traditional machines to customise it to the individual.
        It’s human nature to believe we are right about everything so maybe there is no correct way but the way we like it? So for me a Flat White is:
        – No bigger then an 8oz
        – Double shot
        – Latte milk

        • I was a Sydney flat white drinker who moved to Seattle, which had a lot of espresso stands back in the 90s. To get something close to a flat white I’d order a “Double short latte, whole milk, no foam”.

          It was stronger than a flat white but pretty good and replicable.

          Seattle lattes are specified a little differently to lattes in the rest of the US, let alone the rest of the world, so you have to try it and see what works for you. The Duaneiac has it right.

  15. When I spent 15 days in Dubai I went to Costa coffee about every other day and got a “flat white” about 90% of my visits. I love them and have actively been trying to bring them to the coffee shops in the states telling every barista I encounter. I love this blog post!

  16. I have 20 years professional experience, I have also trained many baristas. An espresso is an espresso. In my opinion, it’s always a single. It’s short and creamy, can be served with some milk (macchiato) hot or cold, slightly shorter (ristretto) and slightly longer (lungo). You can have two if you like, and call it a double.
    There is no milk with stiff foam. That’s american starbucks crap.
    There is hot steamy milk which is foamed but then mixed with the hot milk and creating what some people call “microfoam”.
    So.. a cappuccino is an espresso plus this microfoam.
    A latte is a large glass of microfoam with one espresso.
    In my opinion, a flat white is a small latte but it’s presented differently and with arty touch.
    But you can still be arty with a cappuccino or a latte. Then you can have a dryer foam and use it for a cappuccino and a lighter for the latte or for the flat white. You also have to know how to pour, and the movement will pour it drier or smoother.
    In Italy, the flat white is a “latte macchiato” (spotted milk) and the cappuccino is served in a slightly smaller cup.
    The rest of the world likes to have longer drinks that looks funky, but at the end of the day is coffee and hot milk.

  17. I’m italian and we drink our strong coffe in the morning using a bialetti moka, and pour warm milk inside. The ratio is about 50/50. But then everybody has a different taste and some like it more or less milky. But we always like it more coffe based. I’m sorry to say that the more milky based drinks we give the children – Latte e caffe. I think this what people in the US call a Latte. I don’t think anyone would drink that in italy. But tastes are different right.
    What i’m trying to say is that the whole flat white discussion is a bit useless because in the end what you want is a strong coffe mixed with warm milk. And you mix it to your taste. And if you’re in a caffe bar, the milk will be steamed which gives the coffe a different texture. But you simply ask the barista how much milk you want in your coffe. Simple as that.
    Let’s not talk about the flower on top, that is a whole different discussion. I think the anglo saxon countries are too obsessed with those flowers on top. What is most important is the wonderful good taste of the drink and the feelings it conveys….

  18. thanks a bunch for helping me finally get a legitimate definition on what a flat white is. here in Portland Oregon ordering one will only lead to your barista (confidently) pretending he or she has a slight idea of what one is…..and then ultimately making a latte.

  19. This is really enlightening! I’m a huge fan of coffee and currently living in Australia but didn’t know that the flat white is originally from here. But yes, here, flat white and latte are totally different things. Try Merlo Coffee if you come down under. :)

  20. Well I’ve read all this with great interest. When we are in NZ, my wife loves her FLAT WHITE at around 11 a.m. every morning. Some are better than others but most are good. Me, I prefer a boisenberry ice cream. Each to his or her own, thank goodness.

  21. Flat whites in Australia have less milk than a latte and a very dense microfoam if done well. Personally I find Lattes way too milky. The secret is in the balance of coffee (one shot) to milk in a small cup (150ml).This gives you a good strong coffee flavour without being bitter like an espresso shot. You never add sugar because if its done well it will be sweet enough from the crema and silky smooth dense textured milk. Belissimo !

  22. interesting topic….for me latte means milk…in coffee world it means more milk and a shot of espresso…the milk do the talking in latte while in flat white…it contains of 2 shots of espresso milk the creama of the espresso most on the top not foam…the creama serves as foam not the micro foam..thats why flat…espresso do the talking in the flat white….

  23. This should be re-phrased… a MODERN flat white! Back before yuppy-dom, and fashionable coffee, a flat white was just warmed milk, and no frothed milk at all, not micro, not macro… And I’m going back nearly half a century here.

    I remember a time where a flat white that had froth on it would be slung back in your face. I always assumed that ‘flat’ meant ‘not frothed’, like any logical person would.

    My Italian family always did it that way… and so did the majority of commercial places where coffee was available. In Sydney, at any rate. Apart from that, all the current ‘pfaffing’ over coffee has put me off the stuff completely. I now drink tea.

  24. When I was trained as barista we were taught to treat it as a latte with one exception…. When pouring you have the jug higher, still pouring from spout. This way you have no foam/froth. Hence “flat”

  25. I’m a barista from Singapore, and here we have a different view. I guess that helps us further disassociate the big 3 of coffee drinks.

    Lattes – espresso, steamed milk topped with 1cm or less of microfoam. Usually the espresso is poured over the milk and foam. About 3 to 4 parts to a part espresso

    Cappuccinos – espresso, thicker “stiffer” foam. The foam is poured over the espresso and usually has less liquid milk if any. Twice as much coffee as a latte, equal parts of steamed milk and foam on top.

    Flat whites (aka ristretto bianco ala starbucks) – ristretto, microfoamed milk.
    The milk is pour THROUGH the ristretto, resulting in the crema being on top of the finished drink. We use 3 ristretto shots per 6-7 ounces of milk.

    As you can see, all three very different drinks here. And I agree with an earlier reply. The FW does have an inherent sweetness to it.

    My 2 cents. Cheers

    Jon.

  26. I am a well-travelled (43 countries so far) coffee drinker (30+yrs) who only uses freshly ground at home and a do-it-yourself espresso maker (no pods please). When I was introduced to the Flat White (with capitals) this year in New Zealand, my wife and I fell in love with coffee all over again. Creamy, smooth, sweet without sugar, and rich taste and no milk-moustache! I have been trying to replicate it at home in Canada ever since. I am convinced in the end the ingredients are more important than the technique – whole milk (has the required sweetness) and a rich, smooth espresso bean. Bitter beans or 2% milk will not give you the results you long for. The pursuit of perfection is well worth the effort in this case.

  27. A Flat White is HEAVEN! But more specifically, it is certainly not a latte. It’s much, much better than a latte. The entire drink is frothy, silky, and smooth. It’s got a hint of sweetness, but it doesn’t overpower the flavour of the coffee.

  28. I live in Sydney (but also spend a lot of time in Melbourne), and I’ve been drinking flat whites in both cities for about 20 years. The cafes I visit are all precious about coffee, but that’s fine — I am too. None of them would make a flat white with one shot of espresso. Always two. Every time. It’s been like this for many years. I could believe there are baristas out there who use just one shot, but I’d respectfully suggest they’re not working at the good places.

    The milk should be ever-so-slightly creamy, and consistently so all the way through the drink. Getting the texture right depends on how you use the steam wand in the milk. There shouldn’t be a lot of milk either. That, for me, is the principal difference between a flat white and a latte. A latte has more milk, so the coffee flavour is less conspicuous.

    A flat white may or may not feature art. It’s really not important.

    Up next: What’s a piccolo latte?

  29. Hey Peter,

    i’ve been very into flat whites recently, and there’s a cafe that decided to make a “latte with no foam” instead of my flat white. Should I be annoyed, or is there not a huge difference? I don’t find that it was too “liquidy” as some lattes can be.

    Thanks,
    Karen

    • Drink ordering is really just about translating the idea of what you want into language that the barista can understand and then make what you want. So if you like it, then it’s the right drink for you, whatever it’s called.

  30. Adding milk to coffee is a perfect way to end up with sewage. Flat white? macchiato? latte? All bollocks. Real coffee is made with water and coffe. these ridiculous milky inventions are poncy gay pretentious nonsense and taste like something out of the devil’s dick. Real coffee drinkers know this. Stick yer flat white up yer pretentious feminine arse.

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