Starbucks is finally going to show US coffee drinkers what a “flat white” is. Prepare for controversy

Foamier than this. We think.
Foamier than this. We think.
Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
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Starbucks is introducing the “flat white” to its coffee menus across the US on Jan. 6, reports Eater. It’s a little surprising it took this long; the drink has been available for years in the UK and Australia, which both consume far less coffee per capita than the US. (It’s also a popular drink with New Zealanders, whose coffee consumption is on par with that of Americans.)

But good coffee is more about quality than quantity, is it not? Though the US is the birthplace of Starbucks, the most global (if not globally loved) of coffee purveyors, general opinion in Australia holds American coffee to be a sorry disgrace—watery and thin when it’s a filter coffee, milk-drowned and insipid when it’s a latte. Hence the two favored Australian forms—a “long black,” which is a double espresso with a bit of extra water, and a flat white, which is…

… well, OK. What is a flat white? It turns out this is not a universally agreed-upon definition, and Starbucks baristas in the US should be prepared to expect some bickering—especially from visiting Aussies, Kiwis, and Brits—about what they’re serving up. Here are some descriptions we’ve unearthed.

  • “It’s like a cappuccino, except that instead of a top layer of flavorless, airy, milky foam, it’s a velvety, dense foam that is mixed evenly through the drink,” says Jason Fox, a Reuters executive.
  • It’s all in the “microfoam,” a denser, richer layer between the light, airy foam above and the steamed milk below, says Allie Caran, who gives classes at the Brooklyn branch of Australian coffee roaster Toby’s Estate.
  • It’s a “hotter version of a cappuccino with a lighter layer of foam,” says a barista at West Coast coffee chain Blue Bottle.
  • It’s basically just a “modern American cappuccino,” says Blue Bottle’s head of training, in contrast to an Australian cappuccino where the foam on top is drier. (The above four descriptions are from this report by Bon Appétit.)
  • It’s a “wet cappuccino,” with more steamed milk than foam, says the head roaster for Toby’s Estate.
  • It’s not a cappuccino at all; rather, an American latte is “nearly an exact replica” of a flat white, says Australian coffee writer Jennifer Murray.
  • It is indeed just a “small latte,” says, dismissively, the New York Times (paywall).
  • It is not just a small latte, retorts coffee blogger Peter Thomson. It’s all about that microfoam, but also about the crema, the sweet, caramelized layer of coffee that floats to the top of the foam, and which is more marked in a flat white.

So now you know: A flat white is… well, it’ll be whatever the barista that calls it a “flat white” serves to you.