A flat white coffee isn’t just a small latte. They’re very different drinks. If you get caught in a cafe that doesn’t serve a flat white, then a small latte might be a passable substitute, but they’re still not the same drink. The flat white vs latte debate is common in the UK and USA where the flat white is still new.
I drink flat whites and my partner drinks lattes so we’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 really 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 is the way the milk is prepared and poured. 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:
- 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.
According to the Blue Bottle book Craft of Coffee, the secret to frothing milk is keeping the steam wand just at the surface of the milk (that pleasing noise you hear in busy cafes). Good baristas learn to froth milk by noticing what works and what 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.
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 really test out the difference between a flat white and a latte is to be to go to a few small independent cafes and order both a flat white and a latte.
The goal when ordering a coffee isn’t really to express a fixed reality, it’s to try and express your tastes and preferences to the barista. Forget worrying about the technical name of your drink and just order based on a general idea what you think you’d enjoy the most: a frothy treat (cappuccino), a milky warm sensation (latte), or a short, sharp, shot that goes down easy (flat white).