Caffeine connoisseurs have long despaired at the buckets of milky froth that get dished out by the big boys of the coffee-chain world. But help is at hand from a new generation of Antipodean-run coffee bars that are springing up all over the country offering a punchier alternative to the grande latte.
The "flat white" is the new must-clutch drink for the caffeine-deprived, according to market experts, who predict Britain is on the verge of a new coffee boom that will come as a wake-up call to established chains such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee. A small, strong white coffee, made with two to three shots of espresso topped with very creamy, well-frothed milk, the flat white is the star of the show at new coffee shops from Edinburgh to Brighton.
Market analysts predict the new bars will prosper because the big coffee chains, which control more than half the UK's 4,000 outlets, are falling out of favour. Coffee Republic recently went bust and Starbucks has been shutting stores around the globe to stem a decline in its sales. In a sign of consumer malaise with ubiquitous chains, Starbucks recently opened a non-branded outlet that it hopes will capture the vibe of a beatnik coffee hangout, called 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, in Seattle.
A report from retail coffee experts Allegra Strategies predicted that quality independent outlets would flourish on the back of a "growing demand for more 'authenticity', something the chain operators find difficult to achieve".
In the UK, although Americans once called the shots – and served them – when it came to coffee, now Australians and New Zealanders are leading the caffeine charge, opening new shops such as Edinburgh's Wellington Coffee and Press Coffee and London's Milk Bar and Nude Espresso.
All serve a flat white, which Jeffrey Young, who runs Allegra Strategies, said is the UK's fastest growing new coffee brew and provides the "perfect antidote to the latte". He added: "Flat white sales are growing more than 10 times as fast as the rest of the market. Flat whites have the potential to bring a new identity to coffee in the UK."
Ben McCormack, editor of the restaurant and café guide Square Meal, said Antipodean-run coffee bars had "a certain cool cachet", making them popular with "the sort of consumer who is likely to turn their nose up at, say, Starbucks because of a knee-jerk anti-Americanism or anti-globalisation". He added: "Plus there's a lot of affection towards Australia and New Zealand in the UK, so the businesses are starting off on a strong footing." Cameron McClure, a New Zealander who named his Soho coffee bar Flat White, said the new coffee culture was based on serving stronger coffees that don't get drowned by vast quantities of milk. He makes 700 flat whites daily. "They started out as an in-the-know sort of coffee but are now becoming better known," he said.
The new class of British coffee connoisseur has already produced the first British world barista champion: Gwilym Davies, who runs two coffee stalls in east London. Next year he will fight to retain his crown on home turf when the UK, which has a £1.6bn-a-year coffee market, hosts the championship for the first time. "There is a huge new coffee boom. Customers are demanding a better coffee," Mr Davies said. He thinks the likes of Starbucks have been good for business because they've "created a market, promising it something but failing to deliver". He serves more flat whites than any other type of coffee.
Unlike lattes, which are served in anything up to a 20oz cup by coffee chains, less is more when it comes to making a flat white. Ian Boughton, who edits the trade magazine Boughton's Coffee House, said: "It needs to be served in a 5oz or 6oz cup. It's a more powerful, stronger, creamier drink but not uncomfortably strong. The milk needs to be very well stretched and well spun to make sure it has plenty of tight bubbles – a micro foam – which makes it very, very creamy."
The skill needed to make a flat white means big chains are giving it a wide berth – for now at least – although Allegra's Mr Young predicts it is only "a matter of time before one of them takes up the challenge and ups the ante with their coffee offer".