If you have been following my posts over the past weeks and months you will undoubtedly have noticed one thing. Well maybe two. 1: I love to travel and 2: I sure damn luuurvvveee my Flat White. But what is it about this fickle drink that I have somehow developed an addiction to it? I want to try and explain it to you in a short and comprehensive post because if I told you the story in person you’re most likely to have grown a giant beard and aged 5 years before I am finished.
I have to go back at least a decade or so to set the scene because this obsession with the Flat White didn’t just start the day before I posted my first review on The Coffeevine. Back in 2003 my employer at the time sent me down to Melbourne (AUS) to help out a team of local colleagues with setting up a new sales location at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport. The job itself was not that great. Being in Australia on the other hand was plain awesome! After a few days of communting from my St. Kilda shared flat to the airport I befriended the guys at the local Hudson’s Coffee outlet who I regularly went to visit during my breaks. The first time I ordered a drink there was also the first time I ever saw the famous Flat White on a menu. At first I didn’t quite understand the difference between the Flat White, a Latte and a Cappuccino and I am not 100% certain the kids behind the counter knew either. They explained it to me as being “a latte without the foam”. It still came in the same size cup as a Latte so it must have been true.
Yet, whenever I went exploring the funky neighbourhood cafes of South Yarra, Fitzroy or St. Kilda and ordered a Flat White, I somehow always ended up getting a different incarnation of said drink. Was the preparation of the Flat White really so wide open to personal interpretation that I could hardly see any consistency in its making? Well, since Australia and New Zealand still seem to be in a clinch about who invented the famed Flat White, maybe that also explains why so many Baristas use different recipes to prepare it. I once came across a hilarious article by Michael Symons who stated that the world’s best Flat White is served in Wellington (NZ) and that the Kiwi capital is also its birthplace. I wonder what the Aussies say to that.
“At home I usually use my Aeropress or V60 to prepare coffee but when I go to a specialty coffee shop I tend to go for my beloved Flat White.”
After returning to my home city of Hamburg I embarked on a quest to find a Barista who had a) heard of the Flat White and didn’t look at me like I had poo in my face when I placed my order and b) who didn’t work in one of the many commercial chains that were sweeping the city’s streets with Latte Macchiatos. No success. Remember this was 2003. Today things are rather different there.
But the fact of the matter is that for the next 6 years or so I struggled to find a place that could prepare a good Flat White so I started giving up on it. Maybe it was one of those quirky things from down under that would never catch on in the Northern hemisphere. Luckily I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Fast forward to the end of 2012 when I was preparing to launch my blog and by that point there were at least 3 places in Amsterdam that had both heard of the Flat White and that could prepare a pretty decent local rendition of it. Thus, with newly found enthusiasm I got ready to get word out into the street that yes, the Flat White was not a brief fling of mine who I met while roaming the streets of Sydney, Wellington or Auckland and yes, coffee culture in Amsterdam was starting to really take off.
But this still doesn’t quite explain why I am so in love with it. I’ll get to that alright? Jesus!
Certainly there are numerous schools of thought when it comes to determining what the best way to drink coffee is. Some swear by the purity of a beautifully brewed single origin, others love the punch of a double Espresso and then there are those who happily settle for a Cappucchino.
I don’t want to see myself as an exclusive member of any of those groups because I love coffee in all its glory and forms. In the mornings or when I am at home I usually resort to a lovely Ethiopian or Nicaraguan single origin, which I prepare with my handy Aeropress or V60. When I have people around I might even get my French Press out. But when I head to a specialty coffee shop I generally resort to the Flat White. Why?
Well. The biggest reason is that I don’t have a proper Espresso machine at home so any attempt to recreate a Flat White within my 4 walls doesn’t get any further than buying and grinding Espresso beans and if you can’t use them properly it’s a bit of a waste. The second reason is that the right Flat White recipe is still a subject of heated discussion, which results in very different results that can be a rather fun experience to be had. When I published my Espresso based guide that I developed with Jonatan from HeadFirst Coffee Roasters earlier this year a lot of Facebook followers got into a heated argument about the Flat White. Why it was impossible to have the right recipe when Aussies and Kiwis always ordered a different version and there was even a suggestion that it was just a trend that would pass soon. I couldn’t disagree more.
During my recent visit to London I heard people ordering Flat Whites more than any other drink. Maybe London is an extreme example since so many of its great specialty coffee shops are run by Aussies and Kiwis but even the big boys like Costa Coffee and Starbucks have caught on to the trend. Some, like Costa, are even investing millions in large scale marketing campaigns to let the world know that they also serve the Flat White. Why would they bother if it was already a thing of the past?
When prepared well, and I am specifically not saying correctly, the Flat White is the perfect compromise between the punchiness of an Espresso and the milkiness of a Cappuccino. Depending on where you go it might be made with a double shot of Espresso or with a double Ristretto and then topped up with velvety milk that is neither too foamy nor too thin. No need for the giant cups of milky broth with a hint of coffee that you normally get at the chains. By the time you get to the last drop it’s usually stone cold anyway. And if an Espresso on its own is too strong for you? Well I got the answer…
I don’t think the Flat White is a trend. It’s much more than that. It’s a movement.
Since I started banging on about the Flat White, not just online but also when I am drinking coffee with my friends, I have managed to convert a lot of casual coffee drinkers into adamant Flat White lovers. For me, the Flat White is still a drink that I enjoy when I am out and about and that I usually like after lunch because it can help me get out of my afternoon slump. It has just about the right amount of caffeine to get my engine going again while its milkiness adds a beautiful sweetness that requires no sugar or other additives. You can really taste the flavour of the coffee that was used because it’s not so diluted and this is a great experience in its own right. Certainly you’ll end up with very different tasting Flat Whites depending on what coffee was used in its preparation and of course, very crucial too, what kind of milk the Barista has in stock. I personally prefer my Flat White made with a lovely Colombian or Costa Rican single origin and freshly steamed full fat milk. Ain’t nobody got time for skinny milk.
Of course there is still some work to be done and spreading the gospel of the Flat White will not end here. While having brunch recently at this new funky looking place I ordered a Flat White and after confirming to me that they “definitely” had it, I was served a miniscule cup of coffee with milk on the side. Oh hell no sista! That ain’t no Flat White!
You might think I am crazy but for me there is also a corrolation between the arrival of the Flat White and the vast improvement of the local (Amsterdam) cafe/restaurant culture. 4 years ago you struggled to find a place that served more than an “uitsmeter” and a bitter cup of coffee for breakfast. Now you have more brunch places to choose from than you could possibly visit in a month. And some Dutchies might get offended but I believe it’s the truth. A lot of it has to do with the influence of the vast expat community that is both fed up with crap service and poor quality food/coffee. As things improve for all residents and visitors to the city, everybody benefits and in my view the arrival of the Flat White is simply the result of locals and foreigners embracing the food culture that has been abundand in places like New York, London, Copenhagen, Sydney, Berlin and Auckland for many years. So let’s just all embrace this baby and love it for what it is. A beautiful drink and part of a great movement!
Have your say:
Where have you had the best Flat White you’ve ever tried? What is your view on this fickle beverage? Do you also think it’s a fad? I would love to hear your views! I might even hear about some new places for my blog 😉