This week, Starbucks made its first somewhat serious foray into third wave coffee craftsmanship, introducing the flat white to the American market. It made for an odd amount of headline for something coffee related, but that’s because the flat white is a kind of beloved, almost idolized coffee drink. For those not in the know, the flat white originated in Australia (or New Zealand, depending on the source), and has long been a point of contention in the coffee world. And it’s not even the country of origin that’s been contested, but rather the construction of the drink itself. And Australians love it.
Typically, the drink is an espresso-and-milk thing, with the milk steamed in a way that creates microfoam — not Starbucks’ trademark “froth.” The problem is, that exact thing is basically what you’ll get when you order a latte at any of the specialty coffee shops that are popping up around most of the world’s major cities. So then what exactly is a flat white, then, how do you make one, and what makes it so special?
According to Keegan Dahl — a Canadian barista who was trained in Australia and now manages Kerr Street Café in a suburb of Toronto — a flat white is this, specifically: “A regular flat white is it is to be served in a 170 ml tulip cup. The proportions are 30 ml/1 oz of espresso to 140 ml/5.75 oz steamed milk, with a thin layer of velvety microfoam that has incorporated with the espresso.”
So, size matters. But, not really. Stick around the coffee world long enough and you’ll discover that even cafes with the strongest convictions can be compromised when faced with irate customers who want things done their way. As far as that 170 ml requirement goes, Dahl says, “Most North American cafes that serve proper coffee have decided not to have different sizes of flat whites, unlike Australia. The cafe I manage does make large flat whites, cappuccinos, lattes, etc. For larger flat whites, we use a 12 oz cup with a double ristretto.”
To Starbucks’ credit, Dahl’s large flat white — which isn’t on the menu, but is available should someone strongly demand it — sounds identical to the standard, 12 oz size of Starbucks’ flat white, which is made of two ristretto (short) shots, microfoam, and a “dot” of latte art.
But, when it comes down to it, the flat white is about proportions and texture: milk steamed to the point of creamy consistency so that it incorporates completely with the espresso, doing away with the intense textural discrepancy of, say, a cappuccino. And, because flat whites are more about proportions and texture, Dahl says it’s possible to recreate at home, even if it’s not quite the same.
“To make a flat white at home I would use a moka pot to make the espresso and warm the milk on the stove and use a milk frother to create "microfoam" (you won't actually get microfoam using this method but let's face it... you're at home.) I would then get a small mug and use a 1:5 espresso/milk ratio.”
It’s pretty simple. For those unfamiliar with moka pots, here’s a handy guide from Stumptown. So, go ahead, try one of Starbucks’ flat whites, if even just to see what all the fuss is about. But try Dahl’s method, too. You won’t even have to wait in line to use the bathroom.