Ask an Australian or Kiwi and they could tell you the flat white coffee is a delicate ratio of expertly steamed milk (of all kinds) and a silky espresso shot. Stronger, with less milk than a latte (don’t get me started on those tall, milky, European versions) and less foam than a cappuccino, the flat white is the beverage of choice for those craving a simple white coffee with a thin layer of textured milk foam. No, it’s not a small latte. To those that argue ‘it’s just coffee and milk’, I say go out and take the sip test and taste that glorious crema (because you won’t find it on the top of your average ‘latte macchiato’ *shudder*).
But enough coffee snobbery, I’m actually here to talk about how the flat white came about through globalisation.
Coffee beans can be traced back to Ethiopia about 1000 years ago. By the 15th and 16th centuries, the cultivation and consumption of coffee had spread across the Arabian Peninsula and into what is now Iran, Syria, Turkey and Egypt. That is why some coffee beans are referred to as Arabica. While coffee was often drunk at home, coffee houses also became a popular way to meet and socialize, and coffee became a prestigious part of palace life during the Ottoman Empire.
European merchants brought coffee back with them to the continent in the 17th century. Coffee consumption promptly spread and became a popular hot drink among the upper classes, encouraging a European coffee house culture, before eventually becoming accessible and popular for everyone. The Viennese will jump in and claim the invention of the first ‘Kapuziner’ milky coffee in the 18th century. Italians in the 1930s took inspiration from the Viennese and created the frothy cappuccino we know and love today (no chocolate though, sadly).
From Italy, coffee culture traveled south.
Italian immigrants first brought European coffee culture to the British colonies of Australia and New Zealand in the early 20th century. A second wave of European settlers arriving after World War II led to a growth in cafes serving European-style coffee with strange names like ‘dopio’, ‘macchiato’ and ‘EX-presso’. According to coffee blogger Peter Thompson, in Sydney during the 1980s, exasperated Italian baristas began creating a new type of drink especially for Anglo-Australians who were used to drinking their coffee either black or with a splash of milk. “I just want a plain white coffee, mate. Nothing fancy, no froth, just flat!” they said.
There is a similar story ‘across the pond’ in New Zealand. Kiwis claim that due to the high quality and ‘purity’ of their milk, the classic cappuccino was incredibly frothy and sometimes all you wanted was something more milky and “flat” please. Either way the flat white was born.
As a result of global trade, migration, home-grown innovations and a love of the caffeinated beverage, Australians and New Zealanders have developed a distinct kind of coffee pride. If you don’t like how we drink our coffee we don’t like you, and if we travel (which we do a lot) and we can’t find a good brew we will complain profusely. We love our coffee so much that we’ve created an entire cultural ecosystem around our cafes, and to accompany our coffee we pioneered Avo (that’s avocado) on Toast; you’re welcome. Now we’re exporting our own style of coffee to the world. Aussies and Kiwis living abroad are opening up cafes and spreading the love of the flat white to menus across North America, the UK, and parts of Europe. Global coffee chain Starbucks even added it to the menu a few years back.
The flat white is globalising, spreading glossy hot comfort around the world, but this story is in many ways typical of the evolution of food and drink cultures throughout history.
Let’s raise our mugs to migration, innovations and new encounters!