Starbucks Flat White

The flat white is a medium sized coffee with milk. Starbucks in the USA recently added the Flat White to their permanent menu. The Starbucks version is based on their normal cappuccino and latte with a few modifications.


Espresso shots

The Starbucks Flat White uses ristretto espresso shots. A ristretto is an espresso shot with less water used, or the same amount of water in a smaller amount of time. Ristretto shots aren’t really necessary for a drink to be considered a Flat White, but the best baristas usually do pull a shorter ristretto shot when making small milk drinks like a Machiatto, Cortardo and Flat White. So it’s a nice touch by Starbucks.

Velvet textured milk

The texture of the milk is a large part of what makes a Flat White different to a cappuccino and a latte. In some high-end cafes all the milk-based drinks are steamed the same. But in most middle of the road cafes and in Starbucks, the Cappuccino has more froth whereas the Latte has less froth (and more liquid milk). The Flat White is halfway in between.

The smooth texture of well steamed milk is one of the hallmarks of a good Flat White. This velvet texture seems to be the intention of the Starbucks barista training but honestly, the variabilty in milk between stores (and baristas) is what makes the Starbucks Flat White so hit and miss.

White dot

The Starbucks flat white has a white dot poured in the latte art. This is a nice touch and a good way to visually see whether the milk has been properly textured. If all you see is a mushy orange mess, then you can already tell that the milk has been poorly made without even tasting the drink.

Ordering off the secret menu

The only size the Flat White is listed on the menu in is “Tall” which is the Starbucks equivalent of a “small” (although at 12 oz, it would be considered a large anywhere else). The baristas are perfectly happy to make a Flat White in the secret “off-menu” “Short” size which is the Starbucks equivalent of an “extra small” (and at 8 oz would be considered a “medium” size anywhere else).

Before the introduction of the Flat White, the off-menu Short Cappuccino was my go-to order at Starbucks. In theory, the Short Flat White should be the ultimate Starbucks drink for modern coffee connoisseurs. But the recipe seems to be dialled-in for the Tall size and the Short tastes bitter, dark and burnt. Personally, I now stick to the recommended Tall size.

Coffee credibility

To me, a large part of the motivation for adding the Flat White to the menu is to help Starbucks recapture the positioning of a coffee-focused cafe. The “third place” positioning has taken the company too far down the road of a confusing menu, free-wifi and public-toilets. Starbucks was starting to feel like a tired habit and a co-working space without a monetization strategy. The Flat White is part of a larger global push to focus back on coffee.

Whatever you think of the drink itself, it’s great to see the largest coffee chain in the world putting some serious effort into actually making coffee.

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?” Continue reading Origins of the flat white

Best Flat White in New York

Last year I was in New York for a startup investment tour organised by UKTI and VentureOutNY. I was interested to revisit New York and see how the coffee culture has changed. New York is obviously a big city but has it evolved its own coffee culture? And where is the best Flat White in New York?

Flat White in New York
The best flat white I had in New York was from Brooklyn Roasting Company in the creative DUMBO startup district.

The New York Times has been waking up to the growth in small independent cafes. I noticed lots of interesting things in the course of my week exploring the cafes of New York. New York coffee is as good as you can get anywhere else in the world, but they still have a lot to learn.

Cafes spread all over the place

In many cities in the world, the best cafes are clustered together around a certain neighbourhood. In New York the best cafes are spread across different neighbourhoods. The geographical spread makes it more fun to explore New York by hunting out the best cafes. Much like London, New York is great for coffee orienteering. I used the New York’s Best Coffee iPhone application to navigate the city.

Seedrs Coffee App
New York’s Best Coffee Map on iPhone

One of the reasons that the cafes in New York are so spread out is that they are serving such different cultures and groups of people. In many cities in the world high-quality coffee is associated with hipsters and young or creative people. In New York, lots of different demographics including bankers, yummy mummies, hipsters, designers, students and tourists all enjoy high quality coffee.

The price of real estate is also extremely important to how the New York cafes have evolved. In some cities like London, property developers and owners are starting to appreciate the influence of an independent cafe on the local neighbourhood. Therefore, some developers are providing discounted rent to high quality cafes in London. My sense is that in New York this increased property value caused by good coffee not yet been a factor so the New York cafes are paying full market rents and therefore renting much smaller shops in more obscure locations.

Abraco cafe New York
Abraco didn’t technically have a “flat white” on the menu but the small latte made a passable substitute. (Photo by: Abraco)

Most of the New York cafes that I visited were takeaway only or provided only a very small area for seating. This feels normal for New York as, culturally, most New Yorkers are drinking the coffee on the way to or from work. The New Zealand style of sit down cafe for a lingering brunch still exists in New York, but New Yorkers would associate brunch with a full meal instead of with a coffee and a muffin.

Less Tribal

In many cities, hipster grade coffee is associated with particular groups of people and particular lifestyles. In New York everyone drinks coffee. I noticed many people ordering coffee from independent artisanal cafes that you would not expect to see in an independent cafe anywhere else in the world. For example, I waited behind a fire truck load of firemen in one small cafe on a Tuesday morning. Some of this is driven by the American attitude towards service, where anyone that walks in is a good customer. Overall, I found the New York independent cafe scene less cliquey than Berlin, Paris, London, Melbourne and Auckland.

Ninth Street Espresso
Ninth Street Espresso only sells coffee by volume so I took a 3 ounce for the flat white. Although the 6 ounce looked good. (Photo: Brian’s Coffee Spot)

The broader customer demographic does not mean that there is a broader appreciation of high-quality coffee. On the contrary, I found that the clientele of the high-quality cafes did not necessarily appreciate the product they were being served and might have been just as happy with Starbucks.

Quality Culture

The average American coffee consumer has been exposed for years to Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. It is only those who have travelled to Australia, New Zealand or the UK who have experienced modern, high quality coffee. The baristas in the independent cafes are doing their best to provide high quality coffee, but it is hard to keep the quality high when customers don’t appreciate the product. There are an increasing number of discerning customers and I still found some excellent coffee in New York.

Flat White in New York
Bluebird Cafe was casual and friendly. It was next to our AirBnB so it was my local in NYC.

Overall, the cafe scene in New York is vibrant and fast growing. The cafes are widely spread out so you have to travel to get to a good coffee, but then maybe that makes you appreciate it more. Once you find a good coffee, there is nowhere to sit and drink it because the cafes are all too small, but then maybe that makes you get out and explore New York. Even if you find an independent cafe there is no guarantee that the coffee will be high quality, but then maybe that’s part of the New York adventure.

Flat White vs Latte

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.

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

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?

Continue reading Flat White vs Latte

What is a flat white?

“A flat white is a small latte.” Said the barista at the 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 debates 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.”
Continue reading What is a flat white?