The real controversy about the coffee “flat white” has nothing to do with Starbucks

That’s not a flat white.
That’s not a flat white.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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Tomorrow morning, US time, the ubiquitous coffee chain Starbucks will start selling “flat whites” to its US customers.

At which point the “flat white,” a not-too-milky espresso drink long adored by Australians—and more recently, by  hipster types in the UK—will finally have arrived in the American heartland.

As my colleague Gideon Lichfield wrote last week, there’s a lot of conjecture about what exactly constitutes a flat white. How, for instance, is it distinct from a cortado? (It’s is all about getting temperature and texture of the milk right.)

But this is not the only point of argument: there’s a more fundamental debate on where the flat white actually comes from.

Australia’s two biggest cities (whose residents have long argued incessantly about which is superior) both have claim to being the birthplace of the flat white. Starbucks’ website in the UK (where the chain has been selling flat whites for a while) deftly avoids making a judgement on this issue.

The Flat White was reportedly created in the early 1980s in Sydney, Australia. Although others claim that this was being drunk earlier than this in the 1970’s in Melbourne.

But, like many successful “Australian” cultural exports (think Russell Crowe, Crowded House or, er, Keith Urban) the flat white may not actually be Australian at all, but rather from across the Tasman Sea, in New Zealand.

The New Zealand Herald, for example, describes the flat white as the “quintessential Kiwi coffee,” noting that many baristas claim it was developed in Wellington, the country’s windy capital.

Regardless of where it comes from, critics seem to agree that the standard of flat white in New Zealand is pretty excellent. “More than any other nationality, Kiwi baristas have perfected the Australian flat white,” declared the food historian Michael Symons in the Australian Financial Review Magazine in 2012.

There is also something deeply ironic about Starbucks offering flat whites in the US, because the drink explains the chain’s miserable experience in Australia. Last year, Starbucks officially exited Australia after reportedly racking up hundreds and millions of dollars in losses. As I wrote at the time, it had struggled down under because Australia already has a very sophisticated coffee culture—of which the flat white is an integral part.

It is difficult to overstate the Australian obsession with coffee. “There is nothing more Australian than dropping in at the local cafe for a morning coffee,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said last month, during the Sydney siege.

Translation: “coffee” means espresso—not the gross, watery drip acid stuff so common in the US, and “cafe” means an independent outlet (the likes of which are starting to spring up in New York), and not the monstrous chains that pervade the US.