A year ago, few people had heard of a “flat white” coffee. Now they are sold in Starbucks alongside more familiar lattes and cappuccinos, and Britain’s Costa chain is offering customers their money back if they don’t love the newest white coffee craze.
Flat whites were quietly introduced to independent coffee shops in Britain about 10 years ago, having been popular in Australia and New Zealand since the mid-1990s, and both these countries claim the drink as their own invention. It is only now, with the big chains serving them, that they are gaining a wider following.
But what is a flat white? New Zealander Cameron McClure, part-owner of the Flat White coffee house in Soho, says it is just a regional name for the style of coffee. “Flat white is a term for a type of coffee in Australasia – it’s describing the ratio of espresso to milk,” he explains. “There are many other coffees around the world with different names that you could probably call a flat white.”
Flat White opened in Soho in 2005 and was the first of a new wave of coffee shops in London to champion the Antipodean way of starting the day. “In New Zealand coffee is like a religion. For New Zealanders it is an integral part of the day,” says McClure.
A flat white, or “flattie”, is an espresso-based coffee served in a small – usually 6-10oz – cup with less milk and froth than either a cappuccino or a latte. The base is a double shot of espresso topped with heated (not steamed) full-fat milk, carefully poured to create a sweet and velvety short coffee: full-fat milk adds a natural sweetness, with texturised milk taking the place of frothy cappuccino foam.
Strangely, Starbucks only sells the flat white in Britain (the chain began selling them in London in December 2009 before a nationwide roll-out at the beginning of this year). Costa followed in March.
McClure is optimistic about the relationship between the coffee chains and independent cafés: “It just brings more coffee drinkers to the market. In the mass market people were really getting into a Starbucks-type model with really big coffees, syrups and flavourings, which in a way distracted from the coffee. Now it’s coming back to this beautiful idea behind the flat white – keeping it all about the flavour of the espresso.”
The laid-back Antipodean outlook has helped many of London’s independent coffee shops to thrive. “London has always been enthusiastic about a new thing,” says McClure. “I think people are aware now that this is real coffee.
“A good coffee comes from things like machine maintenance, the blend you’re using, and being in control of the environmental factors. Coffee is a natural product, and the skill of the barista in being able to read all these factors is important.”
Peter Dore-Smith is the Australian owner of Kaffeine, which opened last August just off Oxford Street. “In Australia it’s not just about the coffee, it’s also about creating places people can go to drink it. The service, the food, the décor, the atmosphere.”
There are now a handful of excellent places to enjoy an authentic flat white in London but, as Dore-Smith says, “Kaffeine is the kind of place you’d find all over Melbourne or Sydney – the UK is really 10 years behind.”
So there’s plenty of scope for new entrants in the burgeoning independent coffee shop scene, in London and beyond.
London’s best independent coffee bars
Flat White/Milk Bar, Soho
Both venues are run by friendly, knowledgeable staff who pull excellent espressos from beautiful La Marzocco machines. Flat White, the original shop, is still one of the best places to get a “flattie” in the capital. Their flat white (£2.50) is velvety soft with a wonderful sweetness to it; a well-rounded bitterness carries through to the end of the cup. They use a Spring blend coffee from east London roasters Square Mile.
17 Berwick Street, W1, www.flat-white.co.uk
The Prufrock Coffee stall inside Shoreditch’s Present boutique may well be the coolest place to grab a caffeine fix in town. Run by Englishman Gwilym Davies and Swede Matthias Bjorklund – world and Swedish barista champions respectively – Prufock’s flat whites (£2.20) are near perfect. On a Sunday, Davies runs a coffee cart at the nearby Columbia Road flower market, enabling loyal east Londoners to drink Prufrock all week.
140 Shoreditch High Street, E1, www.prufrockcoffee.com
Just off Oxford Street, the Australian/New Zealand-owned Kaffeine serves up fantastic coffee in a relaxed, welcoming environment. The red-brick interior is a very pleasurable place to sit. Also currently using Square Mile’s Spring blend, a flat white at Kaffeine (£2.20) has notes of cherry and hazelnut. Espressos come from a state-of-the-art Synesso machine, which electronically regulates shot temperature and pouring duration.
66 Great Titchfield Street, W1, www.kaffeine.co.uk
This small venue, inside a former Vespa repair shop tucked away behind Waterloo station, is a haven for coffee lovers. The staff can be a little surly if you get there early in the morning, but with coffee this good it’s easy to forgive them. A flat white (£1.90) was beautifully soft and textured. Cats scurry among the remains of vintage scooters and antique helmets.
132 Lower Marsh Street, SE1 +44 (0)20 7620 1421
With six shops across London the Sacred coffee empire is expanding rapidly, though their site just off Carnaby Street is a favourite. The friendly, chatty staff and Maori-inspired décor provide a welcoming – if always busy – atmosphere. The milk on our flat white (£2.20) was speckled with air bubbles; a minor qualm about a normally excellent cup. This Kiwi café also serves up tempting sweets and cakes.
13 Ganton Street, W1, www.sacredcafe.co.uk