A few weeks ago, I was catching up with my favourite sister and as she began to sip at her skinny flat white, she said, “I am pretty sure that a cappuccino is just a flat white with more foam and chocolate on top.” Now, although she was right, her uncertainty made me think – she cannot be the only one with questions about her coffee order, but she is the only one that has me for a sister to ask. Since that is a great misfortune, I thought that I would take a little time to lay it out for y’all.

Perhaps the most confusing drink of all is the flat white, which is gaining popularity across the globe after being invented over 30 years ago. Both Alan Preston in Australia and Fraser McInnes of New Zealand claim to have named the drink with essentially the same reasoning; it is a drink that is both ‘flat’ and ‘white’, as opposed to being short, or long and black.

Like 80s shoulder pads, this is too much foam!

Since the ‘80s a lot has changed in the world of coffee. We have said goodbye to stacking our cappuccino foam as high as the sky, and warmly welcomed some smooth, latte art filled micro foam to our milk coffees. Our coffee culture is growing stronger and yet debate surrounding the flat white still extends from its country of origin to how much coffee, milk and even what shape and size of cup it should be served in!

By definition, a Flat white is:

A type of coffee made with espresso and hot steamed milk, but without the froth characteristic of a cappuccino.
– Oxford English Dictionary

A traditional Italian caffé latte, which we shorten to latte here in the land of Aus, also translates to ‘milk coffee’, though. So, what is the difference between a flat white and a latte?

Originally a flat white would have been distinguishable by stronger characteristics of coffee, compared with a milky latte. This extra strength can be achieved in two ways – by adding extra coffee or by reducing the amount of milk (so, using a smaller cup). But there is no defined milk to coffee ratio for a flat white, or any of the drinks for that matter so it can be really confusing to work out exactly what you are going to get when you turn up at your local coffee shop!

The consensus in most specialty coffee shops throughout Australia now is simple: a flat white and a latte are the same drink, served in either a cup, or a glass. A latte, in its taller, thinner glass will therefore appear to have more foam. When you’re serving the same amount of foam in a flat white, it spreads out thinner and therefore is aptly named flat and white. In a takeaway, you might be getting exactly the same drink. With a different name!

Renae’s Fav Flat White

My favourite flat white recipe is:

1 shot of espresso in a 150ml bowl shaped cup topped up with textured milk, steamed to 60 degrees, with a latte art heart*. Deeeeeelicious!

*an indication of extra love, probably.

Flat White Variations

Depending on where you buy your flat white, you could expect several variations:


Not all shots are created equal. The amount of water that gets run through the coffee, and at what speed makes a huge difference to the taste and strength of the shots. Ristretto are around half of the size of an espresso shot, but are much more concentrated. Flat whites may contain single or double espressos or ristrettos, depending on what the baristas think tastes best. Just to make it a little more complicated, how ‘strong’ your flat white tastes will also depend on where your beans are from, how they were roasted and even how fresh they are.


Generally a flat white will have somewhere between 150ml-200ml of milk added, which has been steamed to 60 degrees Celsius poured over the espresso resulting in a thin layer of smooth micro foam covering the surface and if you are lucky some pretty latte art, too. As specialty coffee gains popularity, our espresso is getting tastier and so in terms of milk less is more – a 160ml cup is becoming the norm.


Can be bowl shaped, tulip shaped or really any shape at all, just not glass because then we would have to call it a latte!

To add a little more confusion into the mix, if you would like a truly magical experience (and you are a Melbourne local!) you might want to order yourself a ‘magic’, which is a double ristretto with around ¾ of the milk that a latte, or flat white would have. For those of you in my hometown, Perth, looking for a stronger coffee option you have the controversial ‘long mac topped-up’. Originating from the macchiato, meaning ‘stained’, which is espresso with a stain of foam. The story is that we wanted a bit more bang (milk) for our buck and so we created a new meaning; nowadays you will be served a latte with an extra shot. And a latte is just a flat white in a different cup. So, I guess a long mac is just a flat white with an extra shot, served in a glass. Simple. A word of warning on your travels Perthians; in Melbourne by asking for a long mac topped-up you may have just ordered yourself a long black with a dash of foam.

The ‘perfect’ cuppa joe is going to be different for everyone so it’s all about finding a café that makes it exactly how you like it, and more importantly serves it to you with a smile. For anyone who would like to know a little more about what you’re drinking; read up on ‘The Coffee Menu Explained’, a great guide to help you choose your coffee of choice.

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