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The disputed history of the flat white, the coffee drink Starbucks just introduced in North America


Coffee drinkers of North America, you may now up your snobbery game.

Ever-ubiquitous Starbucks introduced the flat white at its U.S. and Canadian stores  Tuesday. The overly simplified description of a flat white — which was already available at some independent U.S. coffee shops — is a less foamy, more velvety cappuccino.

But the origins of the flat white are more complicated and at the heart of an unsettled argument Down Under.

According to Starbucks, the flat white is an Australian creation. Here is how the global coffee giant describes the drink in a news release:

Since originating in Australia in the 1980s, the Flat White became a coffeehouse staple in the UK and is now a budding favorite among coffee aficionados in the United States and Canada. Starbucks customers in Australia have enjoyed the beverage in stores since 2009, and those in the UK since 2010.

Coffee aficionados in New Zealand would certainly take exception with that.

The New Zealand Herald calls the flat white the “quintessential Kiwi coffee.” While Sydney coffee shops may have first served the drink in the 1980s, the Herald writes, Wellington is where the flat white was perfected.

A wave of Italian immigrants coming to Australia following World War II brought a coffee culture with them. In urban areas, some of the newcomers opened restaurants and cafes where they served Italian style-coffee, according to the Migration Heritage Centre in New South Wales.

Australian food historian Michael Symons explains:

While many would never have known Achille Gaggia’s break-through coffee machine (developed in Milan after the war, using pressure to extract better flavour, and leaving the distinctive “crema” or mousse on top), they soon found work operating them, and helped make espresso fashionable at cafes.

And then, Symons writes, “local peculiarities” came into being.

But because New Zealand didn’t share the same kind of immigration as Australia, espresso wasn’t really embraced by Kiwis until the 1990s. “With fewer bad habits, open minds and learning from the rest of the world, they got much right,” Symons writes.

The naming of the flat white likely comes from how Australians refer to their coffee drinks. A regular espresso is a “short black,” one made larger with the addition of hot water is a “long black” and one with added milk is a “flat white,” Symons writes.

A flat white tends to be smaller than a latte or cappuccino (although the Starbucks version comes in the store’s usual drink sizes). The flat white typically consists of two ristretto shots, which is a more concentrated, sweeter espresso made with less water. Add full-fat milk that has been heated, but not quite steamed, and some milk art to top it off:

Coffee blogger Peter Thomson theorizes that the milk from free-range cows in Australia and New Zealand ends up hardening and turning into large bubbles when frothed. But just heat the milk up, short of foam, and it has a nice, velvet-like texture. The “flat white began life as an attempt to recreate the comforting builder’s mug of plunger coffee with a dash of milk,” Thomson writes.

Last year’s Australian Barista Champion Craig Simon told CNN: “My understanding is that a flat white was initially a reaction to people not knowing how to texture milk. Cappuccinos used to have the ‘snow cone’ fluffy, airy milk that added nothing to the drink, so people would ask for just ‘flat’ milk.’ ”

Symons writes that while the flat white may have come from Sydney and Melbourne, its best incarnation can be found in Wellington. He notes a few cafes in the late 1980s and 1990s that have claimed to have contributed to its perfection, but the claim is still unsettled.

Coffee devotees in Melbourne, a city with a renowned coffee scene, proclaim superiority over neighboring cities and countries. CNN’s Andrew Demaria writes that critics of the city’s coffee harbor “jealousy because we Melburnians know we have the best coffee in the world, built upon a strong Greek and Italian migrant influence. All scientific evidence — made up or otherwise — backs this up. Forget also what anyone from Sydney or Auckland might say.”

Australian barista Peter Law, who has opened coffee shops in Hong Kong, told CNN: “In all coffee cultures, the drinks happen relative to other drinks. In Australia, we didn’t have a drink that had milk in it that was between a latte and a macchiato in terms of consistency. Hence, the flat white.”

Eventually, Australians and Kiwis imported the creation to London. Chronicling Britain’s coffee scene, the Guardian points to 2005’s opening of the Flat White cafe in London, a coffee shop with Antipodean roots, as a pivotal moment.

Melbourne-based cafe owner Salvatore Malatesta told the paper: “We had a culture of better coffee in our families. And we’ve exported it to you.”

Indeed, coffee devotion is so ingrained in Australia that many attribute it to the failure of Starbucks within the country. In 2008, 61 of 84 Australian Starbucks stores closed. “I think what we’ve seen is that Australia has a very sophisticated coffee culture,” Starbucks Asia Pacific president John Culver said at the time.

Whether a flat white is the national drink of Australia or New Zealand, residents from both sides of the Tasman Sea can take pride in exporting a signature beverage to North America.

“I’ve never heard of anything coming out of Australia before — or England, for that matter. It’s usually the Italian-cafe experience that drives new coffee arrivals,” U.S. National Coffee Association spokesman Joseph DeRupo told Bon Appétit. “It’s hard to say that this might be the tip of the iceberg away from Italian coffees, but chances are it’ll find its place in the marketplace along with all the other varieties. The more there are, the more people seem to want.”

As to whether Starbucks can serve a good flat white, well, at least this reporter can safely say she’s thankful that the drink isn’t as hot as some of its espresso drink cousins. That certainly came in handy when she spilled it all over herself.