Flat White vs Latte: One Drink, Two Names?

Flat white vs latte is one of the most hotly debated subjects in the world of specialty coffee. Some baristas will tell you that a flat white is nothing more than a small latte with a higher price tag. Others declare it to be completely unique and the only way to drink espresso with steamed milk.

Flat white vs latte is one of the most hotly debated subjects in the world of specialty coffee. Some baristas will tell you that a flat white is nothing more than a small latte with a higher price tag. Others declare it to be completely unique and the only way to drink espresso with steamed milk.

I’m ready to take a look and see if we really can differentiate between these two cafe favorites. I’ll also look at how cappuccino fits in. Just don’t expect me to tell you who invented the flat white!

Flat White vs Latte: Origin Stories

As with most milk-based specialty coffee drinks, the latte’s origins can be traced back to Italy. In just about every Italian kitchen, you’ll see a moka pot and a milk frother, which are used to prepare cafe latte — stovetop espresso and frothed milk — every morning.

Latte: America's Answer to the Cappuccino

The modern latte dates back to the 1950’s, and is believed to have been invented in a San Francisco cafe. Apparently, the strong cappuccinos served there were just too much for American customers. The Italian owner responded by instructing his baristas to add more milk or latte, and a star was born.

A pair of lattes in tall glasses.

As coffee culture expanded in the United States during the 1980s, lattes exploded in popularity. Starbucks led the way in defining the latte as a larger, milkier and less foamy alternative to cappuccino. It didn’t talk long for it to catch on and become one of the most popular espresso drinks in North America.

Flat White: New Kid on the Block

I have to be careful here because both Australia and New Zealand claim the flat white as their own. Go figure! Right?

It’s a fiercely debated subject and I have no intention of wading into the fray. Suffice to say, the flat white is a product of at least one of the aforementioned countries.

I guess if I wanted to stir the pot I’d claim that a Kiwi living in Australia or an Australian living in New Zealand came up with the famed coffee drink!

During the 1980s, cappuccinos were notoriously pillowy, Down Under. Folks wanted something “flatter,” with more milk and fewer mountainous peaks of foam.

Baristas in Australia and New Zealand began giving the people what they wanted: a small drink consisting of a double espresso, hot milk and a thin layer of milk foam on top.

Closeup of a flat white with a pretty design on top.

Around ten years ago, the flat white began showing up on third wave menus around the world, quickly becoming a hipster favorite.

By 2015, Starbucks had jumped on the bandwagon, launching their flat white as a “bold alternative to a latte.” They also described the flat white as Australian in origin. You can imagine how that went down in New Zealand coffee houses!

Its creamy mouthfeel is as paramount to its success as its origin. Today, there’s probably not a coffee house anywhere that doesn’t offer a flat white.

Flat White vs Latte: Does Size Matter?

At this point, you might be wondering whether there’s really any difference between a flat white and a latte. After all, they’re both milk-based espresso drinks that rose to prominence around the same time — on different continents. Plus, each was developed as an alternative to the — apparently — much-maligned cappuccino. 

In the flat white vs latte debate, flat white purists will tell you that the drink must be served in a small (5-6 ounce) mug or glass. A latte, on the other hand, has always been served in a large (8-12 ounce) glass or wide-mouthed cup.

It’s never that simple, though. As these two drinks have spread around the world, different ideas have emerged as to what each should look like.

I don’t want to lay all the blame at Starbucks’ door, but the Seattle-based behemoth hasn’t helped matters. By introducing their flat white as a 12-ounce beverage, they’ve continued an alarming trend of ever-expanding drink sizes. I’m sure you can imagine how I feel about a 20-ounce latte.

How Many Shots of Espresso in a Flat White?

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Things don’t really get any clearer when we look at how many shots of espresso should go into a flat white. Even the inventors can’t agree: Sprudge conducted a survey in Australia and New Zealand, with only 59 percent of respondents saying that a flat white should contain a double shot of espresso. That’s even before getting to the question of whether the shots should be ristretto or not.

How Many Shots of Espresso in a Latte?

As for the latte, it seems like there’s never really been a standard definition. The amount of espresso generally increases with the size of the cup — a 12-ounce latte might have a single shot, whereas a 16-ounce latte will contain a double. Still, you’re free to order as many shots as you want and still call it a latte. Any reasonably good barista will hook you up straight away.

Flat White vs Latte: The Difference Is in the Milk

A freshly extracted espresso.

In the flat white vs latte debate, size doesn’t matter and there’s no standard when it comes to counting espresso shots. So, what is the difference between these two coffee drinks? It all comes down to the milk — more specifically, the way it’s steamed and then poured.

When you steam milk using the steam wand on an espresso machine, three layers are present in the pitcher:

  1. Hot liquid milk at the bottom of the pitcher
  2. Smooth, velvety microfoam in the middle
  3. Thicker, more frothy milk at the top

How to Prepare Milk for a Latte

Generally speaking, a latte is mostly hot milk from the bottom of the pitcher, with a generous layer of foam at the top. Skilled baristas will often hold back the foam with a spoon as they’re pouring, before adding it at the end. Most professional baristas can manage this without a spoon, and will create latte art to top things off.

Lots of people use lattes as an excuse to load up on sugary syrup and whipped cream. While I don’t condone these artificial additions, I stand by my delicious and healthy Pumpkin Spice Latte recipe.

Pouring steamed milk into a glass from a metal pitcher.

How to Prepare Milk for a Flat White

Creating a flat white is a more involved process, demanding skill and manipulation on the part of the barista. The key component here is the microfoam, which consists of tiny bubbles.

In order to maintain the microfoam, the barista must integrate it into the hot milk by swirling the pitcher, before “free-pouring.” The resulting drink will have the all-important thin, flat layer of velvety, glossy microfoam, often with a pretty design.

Flat White vs Latte vs Cappuccino: Clash of the Titans

How does the humble cappuccino fit into the picture these days? It seems as though the Italian classic has become somewhat lost. After all, both the flat white and the latte evolved to replace the cappuccino. It doesn’t help that the cappuccino has been repeatedly abused through the addition of chocolate sprinkles, whipped cream and caramel syrup.

That said, there’s still hope. Since more and more of us have been experimenting at home with our super automatic espresso machines, we’ve begun to rediscover some love for our long-lost Italian friend.

I go into greater detail about this milky favorite in my article How to Make a Cappuccino: The Difficult Relationship Between Espresso and Milk.

Flat White vs Latte: Which Is Better?

If you’re expecting me to declare a winner in the flat white vs latte debate, you’re out of luck. Some say latte is a second wave drink, whereas the flat white defines the third wave. I think both are relevant and labels don’t matter.

In the past, I’ve dismissed the flat white as little more than a hipster re-invention of the cappuccino. On reflection, that was a little unfair. At its best, the flat white takes the cappuccino back to what it was always supposed to be: the ideal balance of espresso, hot milk and perfect foam.

The latte has long been a “gateway coffee” for those who are new to the world of espresso. As long as you avoid all the syrups, sprinkles and toppings that have tarnished the latte’s reputation, it’s still a great way to enjoy espresso with milk and a wee bit of foam.

What is the perfect drink? Well, that depends on you. To each their own.

FAQ About Flat Whites and Lattes

Where do you stand on the flat white vs latte debate? Do you have a preference? I’d love to hear what you think!

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