I empathise with the flat white. We both derive from humble origins, Aussie roots, and european ancestry, and now share parallel homes on either side of the pacific, yet are a little less understood and still somewhat a novelty over on the American side of the pond. I can guarantee without fail, almost every day of my five years working in San Francisco cafes, someone would ask me about the flat white, looking for “the truth” out of the mouth of a “real” Australian (what a responsibility, I know).
We could go into the history of this iconic beverage, but it’s more interesting to sip on why it's so personally significant to millions of people around the world.
Wet cappuccino, flatty, white coffee, aussie latte (yes I’ve got this one before), or simply “coffee”… are some names.
As it should have, the flat white has grown up into an international beverage, and interestingly, its name has inflated to the point where each region and each cafe defines the legendary espresso and steamed milk drink to their own standard, from Sydney to Starbucks. I suspect these diasporic differentiations of a two-ingredient menu item exist because of how particular coffee culture can be. Allow me to elaborate:
When you’re working with two main ingredients, espresso and milk, it’s important to have as many variables as you can. This enables an endless amount of modifiers that transform an order into an individual’s identity at their discretion, as well as the no-fuss option of any go-to classic drink if they want to keep their order low-key. The flat white is both custom and conventional.
The best part about extensively-modified orders is their tendency to become ingrained in our explicit memory through repetition of a perceptual event: the daily cafe routine. Repeated popular orders become part of our daily vocabulary, sometimes mentioned in the first conversation of the day, immediately reinforced by a specific smell and taste, and become increasingly inseparable from our routine. The transformation of semantic information, in this case one’s unique variables of their flat white order, spoken, and sometimes even written down on a takeaway cup, amalgamates into one perceptual meaning: the experience of their custom beverage in its specific smell, taste, feeling, location, time of day etc. The meaning of a certain drink order can be so specific and so certain to someone.
To an outsider, the custom order can be far fetched, outlandish, and downright extra, yet to the person ordering it, it’s essential.
“Good morning, one oat magic please.”
Melbourne’s “magic” is one of my favourite epithets. I like to believe it has transcended into its unique title because its nickname is pinpoint-accurate of how the drink makes you feel. A three-quarter, strong (double ristretto) flat white is a cumbersome mouthful (unless you’re in Sydney), and saying the word “magic” is imagination-stirring and smile-inducing.
What’s funnier than saying “magic” is the appropriation of the short and strong espresso and milk drinks around the world. California has two painstakingly similar drinks: the “gibraltar” and the “cortado”, both double-ristretto and equal parts (slightly) steamed milk, the difference mostly being the importance of the vessel that it’s served in.
Quite a few customers apologise with their meticulous modifiers. Please, save your apology. It’s your barista’s job to get your order right, especially if it’s your “usual”.
Although, if you do have an ultra-specific order, you should know the nature of what you’re ordering. For example, alternative milks texture differently, an iced flat white doesn’t exist (the difference between a flat white and a latte is the texture of the steamed milk, and typical iced drinks don’t use hot/steamed milk, simply cold milk), and artificial sweeteners can be utterly awful for you.
Now that our beloved flatty has transcended into an omni-satisfying espresso and milk drink for the world to imbibe, we can hopefully have a break from consoling the stressed-out pedantics of the specificities of the beverage, and instead of arguing its origins, enjoy the flat whites that are good (from your trusted local), and dismiss the flat whites that are bad (Starbucks’ appropriation with added artificial sweeteners).
Even the most esteemed coffee people drink flat whites, because milk and coffee were a match made in heaven. A few years back I shared a video call with Michal Molčan, editor in chief of Standart Magazine. We both (at first sheepishly) admitted to the espresso and milk drink being our first coffee of choice after waking up. I was relieved that he also admitted to drinking the drink, even if it’s not a purist single origin black coffee.
We can now say that the flat white is more than just a damn good drink: it’s evolved into a mnemonic device of one’s identity. I’ve come to the realisation that loving the flat white is not something to be ashamed of. It’s actually respectable to stand by what you love, and that every drink, no matter how ordinary, is interesting.