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What is a "flat white," and why is Starbucks selling it?

Um, duh, of course it's not a cappuccino.
Um, duh, of course it's not a cappuccino.
Giulia Mule

Coffee snobs, rejoice. Or groan. Starbucks is trying to win you over with its new offering, the "flat white," a foam-topped concoction that originated in Australia. The coffee behemoth will be selling the drinks in the US starting on January 6, Eater reports. And this is no Pumpkin Spice Latte; the flat white will be part of the "core menu," sold year-round.

Foodies love the flat white. Bon Appetit calls it "the next big thing in caffeine." Even economists love the flat white. George Mason University's Alex Tabarrok writes, "I do hope that this move will increase coffee innovation throughout the market, pulling us closer to the Australian model."

The delicious, delicious Australian model.

So what is the flat white, and why is Starbucks backing it? Here's a primer.

What is a flat white?

A flat white is a combination of espresso and milk, with a bit of foam on top. According to Starbucks, the drink originated in the 1970s or 1980s in Australia.

But a more precise definition is hard to pin down because coffee shops vary. Bon Appetit took a stab at it last month but found that, at least at US coffee shops, there are all sorts of definitions. It's a bit like a latte in construction (steamed milk and espresso) but also like a cappuccino (less milky than a latte, if you don't count the foam on top). One thing that sets the flat white apart in Australia is "microfoam," a smoother, less-dry foam than Aussies tend to serve on a cappuccino — Aussies, unlike Americans, tend to serve cappuccinos with a dry foam on top. The foam is also generally more evenly distributed through the drink in a flat white, whereas on a cappuccino it sits on top. But as several outlets told Bon Appetit, the differences between their flat whites and cappuccinos are very small.

I asked Ben, a worker at Filter, a Washington, DC, coffeehouse that has served flat whites for years now, if he could differentiate the differences between a latte, a cappuccino, and a flat white. There was no way for him to give the exact recipe differences between a flat white or a latte or a cappuccino — "we don't really have defined proportions for everything" — but he said the flat white is a lot like a latte but smaller and stronger, because it has less milk. He also said they use hotter milk in lattes and flat whites than in cappuccinos.

"You get a smaller, stronger latte overall and a more defined espresso taste," he says.

At Starbucks, for what it's worth, the flat white has two shots of ristretto espresso, a concentrated type of espresso, combined with steamed milk. The way it is poured results in a white dot in the middle, a spokesperson told Eater.

Wait — why are we taking coffee cues from Australia?

You might think of Italy or Turkey first when you think of countries with big coffee cultures. But Australia also has a strong coffee culture, as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2013.

"[Australians in New York] say, 'Oh, thank God you're here now, we can finally get decent coffee,'" Leon Unglik, owner of an Australian coffee shop in New York, told the Journal. "In Australia, everywhere you go you can expect to get a decent coffee."

It's not that Australians drink a lot of coffee — in fact, they drink far less per capita — but they are known for having really great coffee. The country's European immigrants from countries like Italy and Greece are credited for bringing this coffee culture to Australia's shores.

Why is Starbucks introducing yet another milky coffee drink?

Starbucks has been classing up its act in the last year or so, trying to appeal to coffee snobs and not just busy workers looking for a caffeine fix (or free WiFi). The company has launched a massive, upscale roastery and tasting room in Seattle, for example, and plans on opening 100 "reserve" stores, which will exclusively sell the company's Reserve coffees, this year. Starbucks also has been touting its different roasts and blends of coffee lately — its latest press release is just a list of 10 coffees that "highlight Starbucks' coffee passion." The trendy flat white appears to be another step in this strategy.

But Starbucks isn't really the trendsetter here. Hipper, smaller shops (like Filter) have been serving flat whites for years. And this isn't even a new move for Starbucks — the flat white is already a mainstay at the company's UK, Australia, and New Zealand outlets.

There's also a sort of bitterness (no overroasted-coffee pun intended) for Starbucks in embracing an Aussie drink. Australians have firmly rejected Starbucks. The company opened 84 stores down under in 2000, according to Vice. Today, there are just 24 stores remaining.

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