Kev’s Guide to Flat White. What is it & How Make Them?

I think I’m probably stating the obvious when I say that I’m passionate about coffee ;-), I wouldn’t have started this blog as my hobby and now be running it as my full-time gig if that wasn’t the case. But in this post, answering the question what is a flat white & how to make a flat white at home, I’m talking about my favourite coffee, so I’m going to have to try not to turn this into a love letter to the flat white, which it could easily become ;-).

Maybe I should write a love letter to the person who invented the flat white, though. Well, that would be a bit weird, so a letter of thanks maybe?

This, unfortunately, would be immensely difficult, as the background and origins of the flat white is such a highly debated and contentious issue. 

So let’s get this out of the way first:

History of the flat white.  

Flat white originated somewhere down under, Australia or New Zealand. This is as about as specific as we can go when it comes to where flat white originated, because it just depends on who you ask, and no one appears to be able to prove 100% what is true here.

Both Aussies and Kiwis are passionate about coffee, as a nation – and both are particularly passionate about flat white, and if you ask most Australians what is a flat white and where did it originate, they’ll tell you it’s an Australian invention. Ask the same question to someone from New Zealand, and you’ll usually be told that flat white is the national coffee of New Zealand and that it was invented there.

I’ve done extensive research into this, and I can’t find enough evidence to say for sure, either way, where flat white was originated.

From the research I’ve done, though, the earliest evidence I’ve seen of a flat white on a menu is photos of the menu at Moors Espresso Bar in Sydney.

What is a flat white. Photo of a flat white on a cafe menu from 1985.
Credit: Alan Preston

The founder of this cafe, Alan Preston (from Northern Queensland) believes he’s the inventor of flat white. Or does he…  I’m not actually sure that he does, we may be misunderstanding him – but more on that shortly…

In an interview in 2015, he recalled that in Northern Queensland, the norm was for white coffee to be labeled on the menu as “White Coffee – Flat” – and it was him who first abbreviated it to flat white when he opened Moors Cafe in 1985.

In this interview, he comments that he doesn’t know for sure if he was the first to do this, but he’s never seen any evidence on the contrary, remarking “Am I the only Cafe owner in Australia who had a camera back in the day?”

One thing he says he can guarantee is that he did it before the Kiwis. I’m not sure how he can guarantee that, but I haven’t been able to find any evidence online of anyone showing a photo with flat white on the menu prior to his photo.

Alan made reference to Frank McInnes, the chap who’s often hailed as the original inventor of flat white, who says that he accidentally invented the drink in 1989, to which Alan notes that he’d had it on his menu for around 4 years by this point, and it had already caught on all over Sydney.

The issue with all of this arguing about who came up with the flat white, is that it’s actually a lot more about the name than the drink itself.

For example, while Alan Preston appears to be the person with the earliest proof of flat white on a menu, we can’t prove what that flat white was – and whether it’s a flat white as we know it today. So there are probably two different arguments here, who first coined the phrase “flat white” – and who first created flat white as we know it.

What is a Flat White

This brings us nicely to answering the question, what is a flat white? I’ll get to this in more detail shortly, but a quick spoiler – it’s about texture and taste. But first, a bit more background.

What Alan Preston served in his cafe in 1985 and beyond, may have been called a flat white, but if you look at what he said in that interview, he simply abbreviated the name of the coffee for his menu, from the usual “White Coffee – Flat”.

So it’s probably safe to assume that while he called his coffee a “flat white”, the actual drink itself was probably the same coffee that had been served in the North Queensland cafes he was familiar with since the early 80s or beyond.

As I said, I’ve done a LOT of research on this (flat white is my favourite coffee, remember) and “White Coffee Flat” was a hugely popular drink in both Australia and New Zealand, which appears to have developed partly as a result of the huge success of Nescafe’ instant coffee down under, leading to people being used to simple milkie coffees at home.

Many Aussie & Kiwi adults saw cappuccino as a faffy drink with a massive mountain of foam on top. Some also saw it as a kiddies drink, and they just wanted a no fuss “White coffee, Flat”. 

In the mid to late 70s and early 80s when this trend was probably developing in Australia and New Zealand, there wouldn’t have been any drinks on the menu that called for a wetter texture. 

Just to explain, the term “wet” is used to describe milk that has been aerated less, while a more “dry” milk texture is one that has more air in it. 

So when people asked for a white flat coffee, it’s unlikely they’d have textured the milk differently, and it’s highly unlikely that the term “microfoam” would have been a thing at that point. They would have just scraped the foam off the top, or held back the foam with a spoon when pouring – and I’ve heard anecdotes from people who recall baristas doing just this in the early 80s.

So this is how I personally explain the difference in opinion coming from Australia and New Zealand.

Flat white coffee probably developed in both countries as “white flat coffee” within a similar time period. Yes, an Australian chap seems to have the earliest evidence of having coined the phrase “flat white” in 1985, but I think this was probably the same “white flat coffee” that was made with drier cappuccino foam, probably served in the same sized cup with the same volume of espresso. 

Alan Preston, if you happen to read this – can you tell me if I’m wrong here? Are you saying you put this drink in a smaller cup and used a bigger volume shot of espresso to increase the intensity, and that you created a wetter microfoam to make the characteristically velvety texture flat white is renown for, or are you simply saying that you coined the phrase flat white?

Frank McInnes says he accidentally invented the flat white 4 years after the “flat white” phrase was coined. He states that while he was a Barista at Cafe Bodega on Willis Street, Wellington, he messed up the milk texture for a cappuccino, accidentally creating a wet foam with not enough air, remarking “Sorry, it’s a flat white” – and thus coining the phrase.

While it does seem clear that Frank wasn’t the first to coin the phrase, it sounds to me like what he may well have done, was to be the first – or maybe among the first, I can’t find any evidence of any of this – to start using a different milk texture for flat whites.

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So this is one of the innovations that created what we know today as flat white, but it wasn’t the only one. 

Someone started using the phrase “flat white” probably Alan Preston in Sydney in 1985, I can’t find any proof of anyone having done this earlier.

Someone then created microfoam, steaming the milk differently to create the iconic flat white liquid velvet texture – this may well have been Frank McInnes in Wellington in 1989.

So we’ve now got the name, and we’ve got the texture – but what we’re missing, is the intensity.

The difference between flat white and cappuccino isn’t only the texture, it’s also the intensity. At some point, this coffee known as a flat white, started to be served with more espresso & less milk, than with cappuccino, for a more intense coffee.

Personally, I think that all of this was probably more natural evolution than it was singular inventions.

From the 70s when “white coffee – flat” became a regular coffee in cafes down under, to the 00s when flat white became a huge hit here in the UK (mid-noughties initially, but becoming more mainstream here in 2010 when Costa and Starbucks started serving them), the flat white had evolved into a more intense milkie made with the texture of liquid velvet.

So to answer the question “what is a flat white”, it is an espresso-based milky with more intensity (stronger coffee flavour) than its cousins, latte and cappuccino, with the milk texture of liquid velvet, and with little in the way of floating foam on the surface, (again, compared to cappuccino and latte).

How to make a flat white at home.

My answer to this question is different depending on the context, which is why I’m saying “at home”.

The beauty of having your own espresso machine (although I’ve got a guide below also on making flat white without an espresso machine) is that you can do whatever you like, and you can call it whatever you like. All I’m trying to do here, is to point you in the direction of making what you decide is the perfect best flat white.

If you were to ask me how to make a flat white in a cafe, I’d say that you need to be quite careful when it comes to giving your customers what they’re expecting when they order a flat white.

I can tell you this much, when it comes to visiting various cafe’s in the UK, I’ve experienced more “flat shites” than I have flat whites!

My usual definition of a flat shite is anything that is trying to be a flat white but just isn’t.

I have to be honest and say that while McDonald’s annoy the heck out of me with their adverts trying to poke fun at the third wave coffee scene (I know, they’re tongue in cheek, but in my humble opinion, they’re lazy and flat right wrong. Hehe, see what I did there?), I don’t think they’ve done the worst job when it comes to flat whites.

I’ve had far worse – and at least they’re relatively cheap at McDonald’s – I’ve had flat shites at fairly expensive flat white prices, and these cafe’s should really be raided by the DTI, for selling fake goods ;-). A clothes retailer wouldn’t last long selling knock-off branded clobber, would they? 

But “It’s like a stronger latte but with less milk” – No McDonald’s, it chuffing isn’t, shut it!

Sorry, getting a bit carried away – but similar to the overall theme of their adverts which brand third wave Baristas as snotty arrogant patronizing snobs, this is just incorrect.

Also, who the heck did the casting for these adverts, and have they ever actually been into a third wave coffee shop? These Baristas look like doctors and solicitors – where are all the tattoos, where are all the piercings, where are all the beards? 

Anyway, with that little rant over with. Here’s how to make a flat white at home.

How to make flat white at home with an espresso machine.

  1. Make a double espresso or ristretto
  2. Create flat white textured milk
  3. Pour the milk into the espresso/ristretto – in a suitably sized cup or glass
  4. Dab, floss or perform some other awkward-looking victory movement to the amazement, bewilderment, or utter disgust of any bystander.

Step 4 is optional.

Make a double espresso or ristretto

This is another bone of contention among baristas when it comes to what the coffee should be for flat white. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t really matter if it’s espresso or ristretto, as long as the intensity is there, and as long as there’s nothing that is going to clash with the milk and make it taste weird.

But as I’ve just said, you can do what you like at home, so if you want to use a coffee that mixes with the milk to give your flat white a flavour some would be freaked out by, who cares what anyone else thinks?

Most commercial baristas will tell you that a flat white should be relatively one dimensional when it comes to the flavour, so while they may use a bean with a really interesting acidity for the filter coffee, for example, when it comes to flat white, most would try to avoid these kinds of flavour notes for milkies, as “interesting acidity” in a black coffee can mix with milk to make a flavour which might not be particularly pleasing for the majority of customers. 

I think this is more important with flat whites than with latte or cappuccino, simply because the ratio of coffee to milk is higher, so those flavour notes will come through more. 

I think the trend that some follow re ristretto for flat white probably comes from the fact that you can deliver a more one dimensional slightly sweeter more intense “coffee” flavour by pulling a ristretto shot, so this is probably a good way to make a decent flat white from a bean which might not quite work out as well with espresso.

Ristretto, in case you weren’t aware, means a restricted shot of espresso. I’m not going to get into how to make a ristretto in this post, as this would be a whole separate post. For a full explanation see: Espresso vs ristretto.

Don’t have an espresso machine?

To make the coffee for your flat white if you don’t have a machine, you can use an Aeropress (which are actually designed to make espresso style concentrated coffee), or a Mokka pot also known as stove top coffee pot. 

Can you use instant? Well – it’s your home, you do what you like. If you do, just keep in mind you’ll probably have to use quite a bit to get anywhere close to the intensity of a double espresso or ristretto, one teaspoon is never enough, that’s a James Bond film isn’t it?

Also depending on your instant coffee, you may want to just chuck a little bit of sugar in it. I wouldn’t usually recommend putting sugar in coffee – but I always did as a kid, simply because the instant coffee I grew up with was more bitter than… something slightly less bitter. 

For the best results though, I’d highly recommend considering investing in an espresso machine.

See: 

Best Home Espresso Machines – Kev’s Reviews for 2022

Create flat white textured milk

Flat white milk texture comes by messing up cappuccino milk texture ;-). Well, apparently that’s how it started, and it’s a good way to explain how it’s done.

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If you were using the steam wand on your espresso machine to make what I always refer to as “old school cappuccino foam”  (the stiff, dry foam you might not find piled up on your cappuccino in a third wave, speciality coffee shop in 2022, but you would have found in most coffee shops up until relatively recently, and you’ll still find in many cafe’s today) you’d be creating stiff foam.

You can create this kind of foam really easily if your espresso machine has a panarello steam wand. This is the plastic or metal tube covering the steam pipe, which has a hole on the side to draw in the air. The cheapest domestic traditional espresso machines tend to have these, and many bean to cup coffee machines have them too.

If you have a bean to cup coffee machine which has a milk carafe or a cap in cup system also known as a “cappuccinatore” – then again, making this kind of texture is really straight forward, your machine will simply do it for you.

To mimic making this kind of milk texture with a proper steam wand (proper, meaning not a panarello), you simply break the surface of the milk more with the wand tip, so you can hear the air glugging into the milk and making more of a roaring sound, and once you’ve got as much foam as you want, you lift the jug up so the roaring & glugging sounds stop, and you just keep it going until the milk is as hot as you want it.

The polar opposite of this kind of milk texture, is the microfoam milk texture used for flat white. This, or a very similar textured milk, is often used in speciality coffee shops these days for cappuccino and latte, so the big foamed cappuccino is becoming endangered, but fear not – you’ll always be able to make it at home.

To make this kind of milk you just slightly break the surface of the milk, so you’re pulling in a very narrow stream of air (or streams, if your machine has a multi-holed steam tip). When you think you’ve stretched (aerated) it enough, you just lift the jug up slightly, so you’re just continuing to heat the milk up to your desired temp.

You know you’re creating the right kind of texture by the sound. It should sound like an intermittent hissing or ripping paper sound. 

The trickiest part of this is knowing when to stop stretching and start just heating, by lifting the jug. 

Just keep in mind that the more steam power your machine has, the faster the initial aeration phase. With the Rancilio Silvia, which is very powerful when it comes to the steam, it might only take you 15-20 seconds for example, and similar with other higher-end machines such as the Sage Dual Boiler, ECM Synchronika, La Marzocco Linea Mini.

With the Gaggia Classic Pro with its tiny boiler, you’ll possibly find this takes more like 30-40 seconds (although the classic’s boiler is steam ready extremely quickly, one of the quickest in that regard for a single boiler machine).

With most of the cheaper domestic espresso machines up to and including the DeLonghi Dedica, this part is likely to take a bit longer still, as these machines deliver the steam via on-demand water heaters called thermoblocks, not boilers. 

Entry level home barista espresso machines including the Sage Bambino Plus, Barista Express & Barista Pro will usually be slightly quicker than the sub £150 cheaper domestic machines, but they’ll still be slower than most higher end “prosumer” machines, and they’ll certainly be slower than with commercial espresso machines.

So just keep in mind that you’re going to have to play around with your machine and find out how long you need to aerate for, before lifting up the jug and stopping the aeration. If you watch videos on YouTube etc., that’s great, but just be aware that how long each phase will take, will depend on the machine you’re using. 

An example of this is that the amazing latte artist and all-round coffee genius Lance Hedrick, who’s clearly hugely passionate about coffee and has probably forgotten more about coffee than I’ll ever know, talks about stopping the aeration as soon as the jug reached the temperature of your hand, so as soon as you feel the jug getting slightly warm.

This actually only works on the machine he uses at home (and one of the espresso machines I use at home and in my little studio, and its become my favourite) the Sage Dual Boiler, and with other higher-end machines that produce good steam pressure.

With most of the sub £150 domestic thermoblock machines, and with most bean to cup coffee machines – I find that the point at which is right to stop stretching, the jug is more than just slightly warm. 

Actually, if you have a more powerful machine, including the Dual Boiler, you can create a version of the old school cappuccino but with microfoam, by continuing to stretch the milk beyond the point at which you’d usually stop for flat white texture – I’ve found it’s fairly difficult to achieve the same with lesser steam-powered machines, though.

So – if you pour into the cup and nothing at all bounces back onto the surface, you just need to keep up that ripping paper sound for a bit longer, as you’ve under-aerated the milk. Although, if you’re happy with the texture and you don’t care about latte art or any kind of foam on the top, then no need to tweak.

You can do what you like, it’s your home & your espresso machine, so if you like a wetter texture, then you do you – as they say. Not sure who they are, but I’m pretty sure they say that.

If you pour into the cup and too much white stuff (foam) bounces up to the surface, it’ll either be that you aerated too aggressively (glugging/roaring sounds instead of subtle ripping paper sounds) or that you were creating the right kind of microfoam, but you aerated for too long – so just tweak accordingly.

If your espresso machine has a panarello, by the way, which many cheaper espresso machines will have, and bean to cup machines too, you’ll usually find that you can pull this off and use the steam pipe underneath as if it were a single hole steam tip.

This will actually do just as good a job, and the only issue then is that these kind of machines are usually thermoblock powered,  not boiler powered, so it’ll probably just mean the whole steaming process, including that initial aeration phase, will take longer.

Don’t have an espresso machine with a milk frother?

If you don’t have an espresso machine, or you do but it doesn’t have a steam arm / steam wand (some people refer to them as steam arms) or a panarello which you can remove and use the pipe as the wand – never fear.

While it’s easier to create microfoam milk texture for flat white with an espresso machine with a steam wand, you can do this manually.

By far the easiest way to do this is with a cafetiere, as the aforementioned Lance Hedrick does a brilliant job of demonstrating in this video:

Yeah, I know he calls it a French Press – he’s American, what can I say? We shared our language with them, they messed it up ;-). But joking apart, Lance is great, I love his humour (which would be missing the u if I were American) – and his bravery, there’s not a cat in hell’s chance you’ll find my dancing in any of my YouTube videos… to be fair though, Lance got the moves!

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All you do is grab a cafetiere, bung some milk in it, froth it using the plunger, pour it into a jug, and then pour it into your cup. If you’re not bothered about pouring it into another jug to slightly improve the texture, or pouring latte art, then just pour into your cup straight from the cafetiere.

You can also use the Bodum milk frother which is based on a cafetiere but is all microwave friendly and has a plunger mesh made specifically for milk, this is one of the frothers that features in my post on milk frothers, here:

The Best Milk Frothers

Pour the milk into the espresso/ristretto – in a suitably sized cup or glass

The key thing here is the suitably sized cup or glass. Remembering that intensity is an important part of what makes a flat white a flat white, you’ll probably want something around the 5-8 ounce territory, 150-240ml. 

But once again, it’s your home & your machine, you do what you like. If you experiment and find you prefer a ratio way outside of the norm in either way, then go for it. 

By the way, to make sure you have enough milk for your cup, but not way too much – so you’re not wasting milk – just pour the milk into your cup first, then pour the milk into your jug, and remember where abouts in relation to the spout the milk is, so you don’t need to do the same every time.

When it comes to the pour, if you want to get into pouring latte art, just watch some of Lance Hedrick’s latte art videos. I know, this post is turning into some kind of a weird one-sided bromance, but when it comes to latte art videos, I don’t think anyone else I’ve seen so far is doing a better job, both in terms of the quality of the instruction, and the overall entertainment factor.

And there we have it, what is flat white – and how to make a flat white at home (with or without an espresso machine) – you now know :-).

Kev’s Flat White FAQ

What is the difference between flat white and latte?

Flat whites are flat whitish in appearance while lattes are more latte-like. Just kidding. For me, it’s more about intensity and texture than anything else, but flat white and latte are almost the same texture-wise, at least they are in 2022, in many coffee shops, as most baristas wouldn’t change their milk steaming routine much if at all for flat white vs latte.

So the main difference is that latte would usually be more subtle in flavour, as they’re usually (not always) larger, in volume, with the same or smaller espresso content, being made with a single or double shot depending on where you’re drinking your lattes and whether you’re asking for a single or a double shot – although many coffee shops will use a double shot for both latte and for flat white, but will use more milk, in a larger cup or glass, than flat white.

Latte tends to be served in glasses too, although not always.

What is in a flat white

Two thirds flat, and four thirds white. Again, just kidding, it’s of course espresso or ristretto, and textured milk. Usually a double espresso or double ristretto, with around 3-6 ounces of milk, in a 5-8 ounce cup or glass.

What size is a flat white

Depends on where you go or who you ask, but usually around 5-8 ounces.

What is a skinny flat white

This would be a flat white made with skimmed milk. 

What is the difference between a cappuccino and a flat white

This is a good question, and it depends on where you’re drinking your cappuccino, and whether or not you have a Delorian powered by banana skins which is capable of taking you back to the 80s. If you do, you’ll find that cappuccino was always made with a nice big mountain of stiff milk froth, and often dusted with chocolate.

So traditional, or “old school” cappuccino is made with more dry textured milk than flat white, which is made with a much wetter, microfoam textured milk, with less air pulled in, and smaller bubbles. 

So that’s the texture part of it – a traditional cappuccino and a flat white are very different when it comes to texture. The texture of flat white is like liquid velvet, and with just a very small layer of foam, often in the form of latte art – yeah, for some weird reason we still call it latte art, even when it’s on a flat white ;-).

Just keep in mind though, that a lot of coffee shops these days, most third wave coffee shops, will use texture similar to flat white texture, usually just aerated for slightly longer so there’s a bit more foam on the top, but the texture of the drink itself is very similar. 

The intensity, though, is usually the main difference. While a flat white is almost 50/50 espresso (or ristretto) to milk, a cappuccino is usually larger in volume and less intense in coffee flavour. 

What year did Costa Coffee bring the flat white to the UK?

2010 – but, just so we’re clear – Costa Coffee didn’t bring the flat white to the UK. This is a myth/legend I’ve heard previously, one which I’m sure they don’t mind ;-).

Costa Coffee’s master of coffee, Gennaro Pelliccia no doubt helped to create, or perpetuate this myth in an interview covered in this article, where he states that ‘We were the first branded coffee shop to introduce the Flat White to the UK in 2010′ – but, that’s not true, I’m afraid. It’s not true for a couple of reasons.

For the first reason, I’ll let Gennaro off, as I think by “branded coffee shop” he meant chain coffee shop. I would think that the coffee shop James Gurnsey, Peter Hall & Cameron McClure opened in 2005, called “Flat White” in order to launch/celebrate the Flat White, is probably the first “branded coffee shop” to bring flat white to the UK, 5 years earlier in 2005? It has a brand name, so it’s a branded coffee shop, no? 

But as far as chain coffee shops go, which is what I think he meant by “branded” – that’s slightly incorrect, too. Starbucks launched their flat white in the UK in London, about a week before Costa launched the flat white nationally in the UK. So while Costa may well have been the first chain coffee shop in the UK to put flat white on the menu nationally – I don’t think it’s correct to say that they were the first chain coffee shop to launch flat white in the UK. 

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This article firstly appeared at Coffee Blog – The UK Specialty Coffee Blog – For Lovers of REAL Coffee!

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