This year, McDonald’s began serving flat whites – with a side of sass.
You may remember their tongue-in-cheek ad campaign, “Flat what?” by Leo Burnett London, which poked fun at pretentious coffee culture with confused customers wondering what a flat white actually is.
“Look, it’s the complexity of the brewing of coffee and the simplicity of its mastery!” sneers one waiter.
Enter a kindly fast food worker who clarifies: “It’s like a stronger latte, just with less milk.”
Simple, right? But far from needing an explanatory advert, the flat white is in fact “a staple in the UK’s coffee shop scene”, according to Lavazza’s head of training Dave Cutler – and one of the most frequently ordered products.
Jeffrey Young, founder of The London Coffee Festival (which takes place 12-15 April), describes the flat white as “one of the key innovations in the last decade in the UK coffee”.
“It epitomises the Third Wave or artisan coffee scene, now accounting for often more than 10 per cent of coffee beverages ordered in quality UK coffee shops,” he tells The Independent. “Very few good outlets would not offer flat white.”
And, as Pact Coffee expert Melissa Dabbs says, “It's also become the go-to drink for coffee connoisseurs.”
So how did the apparent bastard child of the latte and a white Americano come to conquer Britain‘s coffee culture?
The story of the flat white begins Down Under, in Australia or New Zealand... In fact, it’s a bone of contention between the two. Not unlike the pavlova, both countries clash over who actually invented the drink.
Aussie Alan Preston, who opened the Moors Espresso Bar in Sydney in 1985, claims he was the first to coin the term “flat white”, drawing inspiration from a type of espresso popular in Queensland in the Sixties and Seventies, described as the “white coffee – flat”.
Kiwi Frank McInnes, on the other hand, contests that. The barista says he accidentally invented the flat white when the milk needed for a frothy cappuccino refused to rise. “Sorry,” he said, “it’s a flat white”.
Legend also has it that both countries were confused by, and then improved upon, the European import of the cappuccino. Apparently, they call it a flattie.
Nevertheless, Halina Klos, head of training at Union Hand-Roasted Coffee (one of the UK’s largest specialty coffee roasters), is pretty adamant.
“While New Zealand has been trying to stake its claim in the invention of the flat white, the general consensus is that it is Australian in origin.”
So in order to avoid a Russell Crowe-type kerfuffle, let’s agree that the flat white is a shared invention – but a Kiwi certainly brought it to Britain.
How it conquered Britain
Visitors to our rainy shores complained about the lack of flat white options, perhaps confirming their stereotypes about British culinary culture.
And then came Peter Hall (Aussie), and James Gurnsey and Cameron McClure (New Zealanders), who opened up a coffee shop in Soho in 2005 to bring “the refined artisan-style coffee prevalent in Australian and New Zealand cafes to London”. The name of the establishment? “Flat White Soho”.
Because, the shop now explains: “It was nigh impossible to get a flat white; the strong, delicious, creamy coffee of our namesake.”
By 2009, McClure told The Independent he was making 700 flat whites a day.
Bit by bit, Antipodean-style coffee shops began knocking the big American chains by storm.
Starbucks started serving the beverage in its London stores in 2010, but Costa Coffee was the first high-street chain to launch the flat white nationally, just a week or two after.
Gennaro Pelliccia, master of coffee at Costa, says that the flat white has subsequently become one of the most popular choices, leading the coffee chain to introduce the “Flat Family” – flat black, flat mocha and coconut flat white.
And although Pret a Manger's bestselling coffee is still the latte, the flat white is becoming increasingly popular – it now makes up almost 12 per cent of their coffee sales in the UK.
But the original flat white only made it onto most major chain menus in 2015 – like Starbucks (which, for what it’s worth, credited Australia with the invention).
It’s now their most popular product, but at the time the move was met by a good many baffled customers asking what it actually was.
What actually is it?
According to the McDonald’s UK website, it’s a “double shot of espresso blended with steaming and slightly frothed organic milk”.
Richer and stronger than a latte, creamier than a cappuccino, smaller than an Americano, with a drier foam or “microfoam” – what the “flat” refers to.
Ian Boughton, editor of trade magazine Boughton’s Coffee House, believes it should be served in a cup no larger than 5 or 6oz, while Dabbs says a flat white is best prepared as an 8oz size.
Dave Cutler hedges his bets and says “size 6-8oz, and prepared using a ristretto – a short espresso”.
One unique factor of the flat white is the skill it takes to actually make it, particularly when it comes to milk-heating technique (which, I learn, should be whole milk, to around 65 degrees).
“The milk,” Cutler says, “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.”
Cutler adds: “Whole milk is steamed and folded through the coffee, creating a velvety texture before the drink is presented, usually with latte art on the surface.”
The perfect “flattie”, apparently, has an even mix of liquid milk and velvet micro-foaminess.
Jeffrey Young poetically calls it “a smoother, more silky beverage that is achieved by micro-foaming of the milk to create a superior texture that gives a better mouth feel and also richer, smoother coffee taste.”
This is not just coffee...
Why so popular?
Andrew Knight, founder of independent coffee roaster Andronicas, explains: “Since its arrival into the UK, the popularity of this now king-of-coffees has skyrocketed. This can be put down to the fact that the public’s interest in coffee in general has seen unprecedented growth.
“People now understand the difference between a really great coffee and a substandard one.”
So, the rise in popularity reflects the growth of speciality coffee as a whole? Rick Tingley, coffee specialist at independent Yorkshire brand Taylors of Harrogate, certainly believes so.
“The flat white is the poster child for the rise of the speciality coffee scene in the UK. As the out of home coffee industry has grown here, consumers have become more educated and curious about coffee.”
Gavin Dow, coffee expert and MD of Coffee Central agrees, adding: “The flat white today sits at the heart of culture in the UK coffee industry, in many ways an encapsulation of the way that Britain absorbs and embraces external influence.”
However, he adds that the fact that it is much more accessible than other specialty coffees helps.
“It is the coffee culture embodiment of the phrase ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’,” he says. “The consumer can feel they’re still in the speciality coffee ‘club’ without having to really do the hard work.”
Flat whites have also gained a reputation as excellent canvases for Insta-ready latte art. And let’s not forget – we’re living in an increasingly dairy-conscious world.
Rombouts Coffee expert Jonathan Wadham points to the shift from the US model (large, milkier drinks) to beverages like the flat white (smaller, with less milk).
“Some of this shift is also from consumers looking to reduce their dairy consumption for health or lifestyle reasons,” he explains.
Huw Wardrope, co-founder of Urban Baristas – where flat whites have become the most popular drink on the menu – agrees. “The fact that flat whites are served in 6oz cups is also appealing to more health-conscious customers that prefer to have a great drink with not so much milk, or with an alternative to dairy in moderation,” he explains.
It may well be that the flat white is riding the wave of Antipodean hipster coffee culture, or a rebellion against the global ubiquity of the cappuccino and the American consumerist latte.
But essentially, it’s a strong white coffee: a mid-roader and a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
As Dabbs explains, “A poorly-made cappuccino can often end up more air than liquid, and a latte with a weak espresso base can result in a disappointing experience.
“So, the flat white have won the hearts of coffee-drinkers everywhere, as it seems the most consistent and safest bet.”
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