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Flat White Coffee | © Russell James Smith/Flickr
Flat White Coffee | © Russell James Smith/Flickr

The Contentious History of the Flat White

Picture of Thalita Alves
Updated: 31 August 2017

Who invented the flat white, New Zealand or Australia? That question has been on many coffee lovers’ lips since Starbucks first brought this milky beverage to the mass American market. The debate is ongoing, so here’s a brief history of this highly-contested café favourite.

The debate at a glance

New Zealanders and Australians tend to bump heads about the origins of quite a few traditional dishes – the pavlova being the most notorious example. But the controversy about the flat white only really flared up in 2015, when Starbucks added the drink to its menu. A press release announcing the launch stated that:

‘Since originating in Australia in the 1980s, the Flat White became a coffee house staple in the UK and is now a budding favorite among coffee aficionados in the United States and Canada.’

Needless to say, Kiwis took issue to that. And thus, the tale of two origins began.

Origin stories: Sydney vs Wellington

Australian Alan Preston, who opened a Sydney café in 1985, is adamant that he was the first person to coin the term ‘flat white’. There’s even a website entirely dedicated to his account of events. In brief, Preston claims the phrase originated after the opening of his Sussex Street coffee house, the Moors Espresso Bar. Preston drew inspiration from his home state, Queensland, where many cafes in the 1960’s and 1970’s offered a type of espresso typically described as ‘White Coffee – flat’. His version of events is backed by a photo from the 1980’s, which, according to Preston, have words ‘flat white’ jotted on the menu board.

As for the Kiwi version, former Wellington barista Frank McInnes claims that he accidentally invented the flat white that we know today. In the late summer of 1989, McInnes made a mistake while preparing a cappuccino at Cafe Bodega on Willis Street. Not having enough fat to get the milk to froth, McInnes apologetically gave the botched espresso drink to his customer and said: ‘Sorry, it’s a flat white.’

To add to the confusion, Ian Bersten, founder of Sydney’s Belaroma Coffee and author of a book on coffee brewing history, believes it’s more likely that the drink originated further afield – in England sometime during the 1950’s. Bersten reasons that the exact story of its origins probably lies with the stingy café patrons of the time, who wanted a bigger size cappuccino than what they were getting (and, consequently, received a frothier blend than they would have got initially).

The flat white: what is it really?

We’ve heard its conflicting origin stories, but is the flat white really worth all this fuss?

A flat white is composed of a double shot of espresso and a textured milk topping that is hot, but not boiling. Milk in Australia and New Zealand largely comes from free range cows: if this type of milk is frothed too aggressively (as is custom with a cappuccino), it can become stiff, almost reminiscent of a marshmallow. So baristas – be careful. Heat the milk gently, and at the right temperature, in order to to get the required silky texture.

A flat white is stronger than a latte, but smoother than a cappuccino, and it is this middle ground that made it a popular beverage in Australia, New Zealand and, now, across the globe.