As far as milky coffees are concerned, two commonly found drinks on most cafe menus are the good ol’ latte and the flat white. Lattes are fairly commonplace, and have been around for a while, whereas the flat white is a bit more recent.
In fact, not many people really knew what a flat white was until Starbucks started serving it, and before you could say “coffee”, everyone started putting it on the menu.
So where do flat whites come from? The Aussies and Kiwis both lay claim to the drink, saying their own nationals first came up with the idea.
However, more reliable sources say that it was actually a New Zealander, Derek Townsend, who came up with the drink. Townsend apparently enjoys mythical legend status in the coffee world down under, as it’s said that he could grind coffee with his bare hands and prepare 1500 beverages in a single hour!
Note: This is, of course, a tall tale and a joke – but it goes to show how myths and legends creep into coffee, too!
But they’re both milky coffees!
To an unassuming observer, the latte and flat white are both just milky coffees(latte is the Italian word for milk). And to a certain extent, that may be true – the amount of coffee is the same in both preparations – a single or double shot of espresso.
Both drinks are milk preparations with espresso shots – so the caffeine boost and the taste of the coffee itself will be quite similar.
In fact, if I gave you a latte and told you that you were drinking a flat white, and you didn’t know what to look for, you may not be able to tell the difference.
However, once you get to identify the subtleties and nuances in each coffee, the differences really shine and you can enjoy each one individually and properly.
Difference between lattes and flat whites
First off, a flat white is served in a smaller vessel than a latte. Some unassuming baristas may end up just serving you a small latte if you order a flat white, so size is not the most reliable distinguishing factor! However, lattes are large, flat whites are slightly smaller, but not quite as small as shots.
After all, they are shots of espresso mixed with milk.
Flat whites are stronger than lattes, simply because they have less milk in them for the same amount of coffee! So naturally, flat whites will have richer coffee flavor and stronger notes than lattes.
3. Milk texture
The real difference between a flat white and a latte is the texture of the milk, which forms by the way it was steamed and how it was mixed with the espresso shot.
Steamed milk texture is a bit complicated, but here is my best attempt at a simple explanation:
You must have seen baristas steam milk in a little metal pitcher using the silver colored steam wand at one extreme of their espresso machine. The resounding yet satisfying “fsssssst” signaling the release of the pressurized steam makes my mouth water every time!
When milk is steamed, 3 distinct layers form in the milk:
At the very bottom of the pitcher, there is hot liquid milk
In the middle is what baristas refer to as velvet microfoam. These are tiny bubbles of air trapped in the milk – so tiny that the feeling they’d give you on your tongue and in your mouth is velvety smooth, hence the name.
On top, you have the largest bubbles, or the thickest froth.
This makes sense, because steam tends to rise, so the biggest bubbles and thickest foam will be at the top of any mixture.
A latte is a foamier drink, with thicker foam at the top – whereas as flat white is a smoother drink, where the microfoam is mixed consistently throughout the whole drink.
The way to differentiate between the two drinks when preparing them is by the way you pour the milk.
If you’ve made a cake using a recipe where you separate the whites and fold them in later, you’ll have seen that the foamy egg whites are folded into the batter, resulting a smooth and consistent batter.
Flat whites are made the same way – (good) baristas will pour steamed milk in such a way that it gets folded into the espresso shot, creating a consistent texture throughout the drink.
Because there is no thick, large bubble foam in the flat white, the top is “flat”, perhaps giving the coffee its name!
A latte will taste like a coffee diluted with milk – you may actually taste the milk more than you taste the coffee.
A flat white will taste more like a smoother, creamier espresso shot.
5. Serving type
Lattes are best enjoyed and usually served in glasses, whereas flat whites are served in smaller cups.
6. Coffee/milk froth on top
Lattes, cappuccinos, and flat whites all have some form of coffee froth(known as crema) that rises to the top of the cup when milk is poured in. This is the orangey layer that you’ll find at the top of your cup.
A sign of a good flat white is that the espresso shot will be more uniformly mixed with the milk.
Where to find the best flat whites
Even though Starbucks serves flat whites(and I like Starbucks, even though they’re a bit overpriced – for me, it’s about the atmosphere just as much as the coffee), the best place to go looking for the perfect flat white is where it originated from!