By March 8, 2010 Read Article
Flat white in a coffee cup

The Humble Flat White

I read an article today in an industry newsletter that Starbucks/Seattle’s Best Coffee is joining forces with Subway and Burger King to improve their coffee to try and compete with McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts success with espresso coffee. Espresso coffee has now contributed to an enormous profit turn-around in several of the world’s largest corporations. So we are obviously talking about very big business here.

Espresso coffee as some may know is my area of specialty! (Please see my book “The Espresso Quest” available from Amazon.  Even though they say it is out of stock – it is still available. They do this to reduce their stock holdings!) Now that I have got that gratuitous promotion out of the way, let’s talk espresso.

Espresso of course in Italy means a single shot of concentrated espresso coffee: Black, short and not ‘long’ as in an Americano. So to clarify, I am actually talking about espresso-based drinks, i.e. an espresso-based menu if you like.

McDonalds who pioneered the world’s largest rollout of espresso coffee to an unsuspecting public, got the idea, wait for it, from my home ‘hood: Australia. McDonalds couldn’t sell their regular coffee in their stores down-under because Australian consumers preferred the milk-based/espresso-based coffee on offer from independents. So, a McDonalds franchisee trialed a new store and they called it: McCafe! And rest is history in the making.

But at the heart of the espresso-based menu that Aussie consumers liked was a milky coffee called a ‘flat-white’. My uncorroborated theory in regard to the origin of the flat-white is based on my experience in my own espresso bars down-under, the first of which I opened about 15 years ago.

I used to get customers, usually older ones who had been reared on instant coffee. (How ironical is this: instant coffee was introduced to Australian consumes as a result of USA GI’s who were stationed in Australia during World War II.) Anyway now that I have indulged in a tiny bit of my passion for history, back to the customers.

These customers would ask for a coffee with milk in it, really hot and with no froth/foam on top. “I just want it flat” they would stridently exclaim. If you left one speck of foam on top they would almost kill you! (Maybe they spent too much time with those GI’s!) I reckon they just wanted to replicate their old instant coffee, which comes out at just below boiling point after a dash of cold milk is added.

In any case this beverage had to be differentiated from the traditional Italian espresso-based menu which only included a cappuccino with up to an inch of foam on top and a latte with about half an inch on top. So it became known as a flat-white.

And so via McDonalds, a coffee culture that began with American GI’s down-under has now been re-engineered and re-exported back to America and beyond. In this same report I read, it also pointed out how Costa Coffee, who is very big in Europe, produced a very healthy profit result based around, you guessed it: the humble flat white!

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