The flat white is the biggest coffee drink in Australia and New Zealand commonly cited as the centre of cutting-edge coffee culture. Industry analysts have murmered for a while that it would become the next big thing in the UK, following a spate of independent cafés opening in London by expats the likes of Flat White and Sacred.
Now it has arrived, big time, with the UK's biggest coffee chain Costa launching the drink across its 1,000-plus estate, amid talk that it will become as popular as the latte and the cappuccino. Starbucks has also launched the drink in a handful of stores. With Costa ploughing big money into this over £1m customers could soon be coming up to speed and requesting this drink on the high street.
So what is a flat white? It is best described as a rich, full-flavoured coffee with a velvety texture, made by adding steamed, textured milk (see glossary for the jargon). It sits somewhere between a latte and a cappuccino, with less froth. Textured milk is used, so the drink has a 'micro-foam' or tiny bubbles, giving it a creamy taste. The drink should not be frothy like a cappuccino.
"Flat white is what I'd probably call a properly made cappuccino in Italy," says Paul Meikle-Janney, MD of trainers Coffee Community. "How you define a cappuccino, a latte and a flat white are very subtle points. There is no generic definition and they will vary wherever you go to." However, it generally consists of an espresso-based drink, with a double ristretto (shorter, more sweet and intense version of espresso), textured milk and a small 6-8oz size. "We've gone so large with drink sizes, I think what people want is a cup size that they were used to 10 years ago with a strong, sweet coffee flavour. That's why flat white has found a home."
The flat white often has a design on top. The texture of the milk is thick and smooth and so makes the perfect canvas for creating pieces of latte art a good way to add value to your coffee offer.
Costa has devised its own method of making a flat white, named 'Cortissimo'. Cortissimo is a very short espresso prepared by extracting less than a ristretto and using more coffee: 21g instead of the usual 14g for a standard two-shot espresso-based cappuccino or latte (Costa uses a deeper portafilter for this drink). They use a bigger 10oz cup larger than the size that typically passes for a flat white.
"There is an element of cannibalisation of our latte and cappuccino drinkers," says Costa's core skills trainer Tim Douglas. "It will attract some of our latte drinkers who are looking for a milky drink with a broad strength of flavour, and cappuccino drinkers who want a milkier drink with a much richer coffee flavour. It's very much about mouthfeel, like an indulgent hot chocolate it's a third dimension that you don't get with latte or a cappuccino."
How then can the indies benefit from Costa's lead in introducing the drink nationwide? "I would challenge anyone who is looking to add a new drink to their menu to ask, 'Can your staff produce and explain the difference between each one?'" says Meikle-Janney. "Whatever you call it, as coffee drinks have got larger and larger and relatively weaker in coffee flavour, a market has opened up for a small, strong, well-made milk-based coffee. The independents are seizing on this and adding more definition to the drink, because it requires the skill of texturing and latte art."
Extraction: hot water passes through the ground coffee beans, typically 20 seconds through 14g of coffee for a double espresso
Ristretto: half an espresso i.e. the coffeeis extracted for a shorter time; or pack lots of coffee into the handle so the water passes through more slowly, giving a rich, intense flavour
Cortissimo: Costa's own variation on ristretto for making flat whites, which involves 21g coffee extracted for 15 seconds
Portafilter: the handle in which you put the ground coffee, which attaches to the machine before water is sent through
Texturing: steamed milk (see opposite)
Latte: 75-80% milk with a head of froth and double shot of espresso
Cappuccino: 1/3 espresso, 1/3 milk, 1/3 froth