Origins of the flat white

The origins of the flat white are hotly contested. Both New Zealand and Australia claim to have coined the term “”flat white”. And while I’ve previously written a summary of the various definitions of the flat white, to really understand the origins of the drink, 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 cortado, dopio or macchiato could all have been perfectly serviceable drinks but the names wouldn’t have been 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.

Why the term “flat”?

In New Zealand we use the term “flat” to describe soft drink (or soda) that has lost its fizz and doesn’t have any bubbles. So “flat” seems like a natural term for Kiwis to use to describe a coffee with fewer bubbles than a cappuccino (which was the dominant espresso beverage in NZ in the 1980s).

International spread of the 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 its 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 has 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.

13 thoughts on “Origins of the flat white”

  1. You did a really good job with this post. I have always heard the term flat white but didnt know what it meant or where it originated from. Again, awesome job!

  2. How the flat white came about is very interesting. I had no idea that the cappuccino used to be reserved for children in N.Z. Here in Australia we now see parents ordering a “babyccino” for their kids. It is mostly milk, served in a small cup and of course sprinkled with chocolate.

    1. We give our kids a “Fluffy”. A bit of warm milk, froth with a dusting of chocolate. I remembe my first Cappuccino at age 10ish. I was convinced it was warm dirty dishwater

  3. Alright, I have been reading your blog, amongst others, and I can’t understand – is Cortado and Machiatto much different then (the type of Machiatto where you don’t put a scoop of froth, but pour a bit of textured milk in)? There seem to be too many similar drinks now, and with all the variations that the barista can make, sometimes the differences disappear.

  4. As an indigenous Australian I can clarify a single detail of this brilliant post. The “flat” refers to the foam being scraped low, “flat”, rather than heaped in a big alpine meringue as in the case of a 1980s cappuccino. The flat white can be seen, in this sense, as a cappuccino with a buzz cut.

  5. That’s one the best explanations for a flat white that I’ve read over the years.
    I still remember the barista’s face when I ordered a flat white in London around 10 years ago. Looked at me like I was from outer space!

  6. Nice! As a NZer I’ll just clarify that no, people did not order actual cappuccinos with coffee in for their kids. Well not anyone I knew anyway. When I was a kid in the 90’s, before I started on to the good old flat white, it was all about the ‘fluffy’ (just plain milk fluffed up with sprinkles). Which seems to be what UK people call ‘babycino’s. (I now live in the uk). I remember them being the shit man.

  7. Good post but milk in NZ is not usually organic. It is free range but organic means NO chemicals (such as industrially produced fertilisers) have been used. Term organic is subject to very specific controls.

  8. Now I can order a “proper” cuppa the next time I’m in Sydney. Cairns I’m not too sure of though. I think I’ll still get the odd look just because…

    I like AJ’s description: cappuccino with a buzz cut. Though the locals here don’t get it.

  9. Great article. Despite drinking Flat Whites for many years now, I have only recently discovered its origin lay in NZ/AUS.

    I will take you to task on one point though. Free range cows are not automatically organic cows. Although in NZ we have very strict hygene rules for the farm and factory, and laws prohibiting additives and blending, this does not make the product organic.

  10. I read this and i still not sure what is flat white coffee. What could be the equivalent in my country (Bosnia) for the term flat white coffee maybe espresso with milk or is it short or long espresso with milk. Is it possible to make flat white coffee with black turkish coffee?

    1. Espresso with textured milk on top, when the foam has settled you want it about the thickness of your little finger. It should be in a smaller cup.

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