Ah, the flat white. Despite having been Antipodeans’ velvety friend for over two decades – has it ever featured so strongly in our national conversations as in the past week? As its name suggests – it has its origins in that unassuming culture that prefers its coffee strong and short, and has worked quietly away at perfecting it in our little corner of the globe. Which corner that is exactly is causing a brouhaha lately as we engage in our favourite national pastime: Fighting with the Aussies over who can claim credit. They can have Russell Crowe, but while ownership of the flat white remains hotly contested, Australasians all know it to be objectively special – steamed microfoam and a double espresso shot beats a cappuccino with its mountain of dry foam any day.
But now the fast food behemoth that is Starbucks has cottoned on to the appeal of the flat white, and as they attempt to align with the growing market for specialty coffee and coffee preparation, the flat white provides a natural avenue for attracting the more discerning of American coffee consumers. It’s a savvy business move. The flat white was just poised to blow up in the States; its following has grown significantly in the UK, and a few of the more hipster-y independent coffee companies have begun to offer it in the likes of New York, Boston and Portland.
More than one blogger has read this as an attempt on Starbucks’ behalf to be taken seriously as a quality coffee purveyor. The company itself introduced the addition with the proud headline “Starbucks Honors Coffee Artistry and Espresso Craft with New Flat White”. Whether it will be successful remains to be seen, but early reports are less than positive. And really (brace for snobbery) it is hard to be taken seriously in the world of ‘coffee artistry’ when your menu includes such delights as the caramel brulee frappuccino and the double chocolaty chip creme frappuccino.
Regardless, Starbucks’ success or otherwise at representing the celebrated Antipodean creation really depends on your definition of a flat white. Any Kiwi barista worth their salt will tell you that the espresso-to-milk ratio of a flat white is one of its defining characteristics. Ideally, a flat white is served in a 160ml cup. This ensures the flavour of the coffee will not be watered down by too much milk – but as Australasian visitors to America have bemoaned for decades, American coffee drinkers in general have a penchant for quantity over quality.
Photo: David J. Bertozzi/Buzzfeed
Starbucks’ smallest size on offer is bafflingly the ‘Tall’, which at roughly 350ml is double the size of a traditional flat white. It is hardly surprising, then, that many Starbucks patrons and twitter users have struggled to understand the difference between a Starbucks flat white and a Starbucks latte or cappuccino.
Also, at risk of sounding nit-picky, or worse – pretentious – can we maybe talk about the ‘latte art dot’ gracing the top of these? It does seem an oxymoron… Isn’t a dot basically what you get if you make no attempt at creating latte art? In all fairness, Starbucks would have to give its thousands of baristas a very effective crash course in latte art to expand beyond the dot, and really – the first thing to get right should be the taste; maybe we can cut them a bit of slack on that one. But actually – it seems the dot itself eludes some Starbucks franchises:
It is not only Starbucks’ preparation and presentation of the flat white that is causing controversy amongst coffee connoisseurs in our neck of the woods. The other issue at hand has proven even more contentious: Which country is responsible for the invention of the beverage we know and love? After extensive self-reflection, I have decided that it is not beneath me to dive into the ultimately inconsequential debate…
A smattering of individuals have come forward to claim sole responsibility for the development of the flat white, and the story usually goes something like: “I got my cappuccino wrong at (insert name of Sydney, Melbourne or Wellington cafe) in the 80’s, I called it a flat white, and bada bing, bada boom: Cultural Revolution.” Not to discredit these claims though – they probably all contain some truth. The general consensus amongst those in the know tends to be that it was a group effort.
Foremost amongst those in the know is Australian food historian Michael Symons: “I declare that it started in Australia, where it often remains weak, murky, fluffy and under-appreciated. It was then perfected in New Zealand, more particularly, in Wellington. It’s impossible to find a better morning coffee anywhere. I know, because I’ve tried.” So there. But we’ll refrain from blowing our own trumpet too much and add that it is possible to find a pretty spectacular flat white by world standards in the vicinities of Melbourne and Sydney.
Australasian espresso culture has a lot to do with Italian mass migration to Australia in the period following World War II. To put it quite simply: that European coffee refinement, and our trusty ‘coffee with a bit of milk, mate’ collided. They evolved into something even the blokeiest of blokes could feel comfortable ordering: The flat white. Kiwis took it, and ran with it. Having had very little time with espresso to develop bad habits, New Zealand (and Australian) baristas brought a fresh perspective to the world of coffee, and our innovative coffee pioneers refined the drink into something that the world has begun to recognise as the cutting edge of espresso craft.
So, all in all, it was a team effort. And it will be even more of a team effort to ensure that our flat white is being done justice by that titan of appropriation – Starbucks. No time for in-fighting, we’re already on the back foot.
January 15th, 2015
Posted In: Uncategorized