Starbucks to serve a coffee Americans know little about. What is a Flat White?

Andrew Demaria, CNNUpdated 6th January 2015
(CNN) — I come from Melbourne.
This automatically makes me a coffee snob. I cop a lot of grief for this, but I know deep down it is actually born out of respect, deep admiration and jealousy from my critics.
Jealousy because we Melburnians know we have the best coffee in the world, built upon a strong Greek and Italian migrant influence. All scientific evidence -- made up or otherwise -- backs this up. Forget also what anyone from Sydney or Auckland might say.
And being from Melbourne, we have this air of potentially misplaced coffee entitlement that we feel allows us to judge any place we visit by the quality of the coffee.
"Nice beaches, lovely people. Crap coffee but." (The use and location of the "but" is perfect Melburnian syntax, btw.)
Melburnians, like myself, have been known to spend inappropriately large chunks of our traveling jaunts hunting for a our version of a "decent coffee.'
We've traveled through the 'burbs of Tokyo, scooted all over Thailand's Koh Samui, combed Helsinki and suffered in London until the past decade or so.
In our quest for the taste of home, we've heaped scorn on those pots of disgusting brewed coffee so disturbingly prevalent in the United States, not to mention the American aura of coffee superiority.
That's not to say it's impossible for a stuck up Melburnian coffee snob to find their style of coffee in the United States, it's just proved more difficult to do so.
That said, we get absolutely irate at the mere mention of certain coffee chains, and openly mock words like "grande" or "venti," let alone "frappuccino."
Even in Italy, where there is amazing coffee all about, we will still bitch and lust for a "Flat White."
A "Flat White" you see, and it's capitalized because it deserves to be, is for many aficionados the epitome of the coffee experience. We're pretty passionate about it, as you might have guessed by now.
When produced properly -- and usually these days by a bloke with a dense hipster beard -- it's made with art and science and dolloped with culture. It serves as a societal bond throughout Australia and New Zealand.
It simply makes everything better. And when we are out of country, it brings us home.
A good cup of coffee is to be cherished. To be had alone or shared, sitting down, with colleague, boss, date, friend or during a catch up with mom.
To drink it out of a paper cup on the go or whilst in a car is generally regarded as highly dishonorable behavior.
Needless to say, it also helps us avoid work with a suspiciously convenient "coffee meeting." For the fourth time that day.
The Flat White must be Australian
Like the Pavlova or Crowded House, there are arguments as to the origins of this drink. Australia or New Zealand?
A violent debate too has been around the exact constitution of a Flat White, especially when compared to that other popular Aussie/Kiwi fave, the latte, or the more conventional cappuccino.
There are various theories but generally it brews down, or up, to this:
A latte is traditionally served in a glass, made up of a single espresso shot (about 30 milliliters), milk and a little foam. Depending where you go, it's also topped with some unnecessary arty design. The glass is 240 milliliters, or roughly eight ounces. (Americans, please note the glass and its size. Coffee is a small drink, not something you can fill a bathtub with.)
A Flat White is (usually) served in a smaller ceramic cup and is made up of a double ristretto and lightly textured milk. There's less foam than a latte and the vessel is usually 200 milliliters. A ristretto is the first part, about half, of an espresso -- the more flavorsome bit of the actual coffee.
For comparison, a cappuccino in the Aussie/New Zealander world is regularly in an even smaller cup (170 milliliters) with thicker foam than a latte and a single espresso shot.
The Flat White provides a stronger coffee taste for drinkers and is generally served in a smaller cup than the latte. It has the same volume of actual coffee but has a different ratio to the milk when compared to a latte.
"There is no real dictionary definition of a Flat White. Frankly, like a lot of coffee drinks, it is contextual," says Australian-born and trained barista Peter Law, who has in recent years set up Australian style coffee houses in Hong Kong, including Espresso Alchemy.
"In all coffee cultures, the drinks happen relative to other drinks. In Australia, we didn't have a drink that had milk in it that was between a latte and a macchiato in terms of consistency. Hence, the Flat White."
Craig Simon, the 2014 Australian Barista Champion who placed fourth at last year's World Barista Championships, tells a similar tale.
"My understanding is that a Flat White was initially a reaction to people not knowing how to texture milk. Cappuccinos used to have the "snow cone" fluffy, airy milk that added nothing to the drink, so people would ask for just 'flat' milk," Simon says.
"I'm sure it was so it more closely resembled their instant coffees they made at home. Now the Flat White has a bit of variation but essentially is roughly a latte in a ceramic cup."
No grounds for good U.S. coffee?
That latte in a glass thing? Well that's also very Australian/New Zealand.
"Americans have always had lattes in a ceramic bowl or vessel and so in the eyes of the Americans the latte and the Flat White could appear to be the same thing," Law says.
When Starbucks announced it would this week introduce the drink in U.S. stores I almost choked on my Espresso Alchemy Flat White.
I rapidly cycled through a range of emotions, from "how dare they take this cultural icon?" to "they couldn't pull it off," before deciding that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Starbucks, it seems, had finally cottoned on to something us Melburnians have known for some time. They've even gone with pretty much the recipe laid out above.
And it also looks an effort to try and build some more credibility for the brand in a rapidly evolving domestic coffee market.
In a galaxy not that long ago, finding what we'd call a decent cup of coffee in the United States wasn't easy.
Now Australian/New Zealand style coffee offering are popping up throughout the United States in response to an increasingly sophisticated coffee scene combined with the availability of better roasted coffee beans and the demand of consumers.
"Again, it's cultural. Historically the coffee beans in the U.S. have been roasted quite dark and disguising the resulting bitterness has been the reaction, using a more milky beverage like what you get at Starbucks," explains Law.
"Appreciation of coffee is on the rise. People used to also go for lots of syrups to add some flavor. Now U.S. coffee is becoming quite tasty."
But would these Flat White gurus be more likely to drink at Starbucks now the menu's been shaken up?
"If there are no good options available on the road I am always carrying my Aeropress and a bag of awesome filter coffee so just brew up my own," says Craig Simon.
See, it's not just me. Coffee snobs united. But if there are more Flat Whites in this world, surely that can't be a bad thing?
Craig Simon runs Think Tank Coffee in Australia.
Craig's U.S. coffee recommendations: "Four Barrel, Wrecking Ball and Sight Glass in San Francisco. I really enjoyed Victrola coffee in Seattle. I got a great coffee from Heart in Portland. I had some awesome coffee at Bluebottle and La Colombe in New York. Some great coffee at Parisi Cafe Union Station and Oddly Correct in Kansas City. There are many more people rocking great specialty coffee all over the States. Hit Google and search them out. They want to make you an awesome coffee."
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