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?

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.

A freshly extracted espresso.

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

A flat white coffee is a milk-based espresso drink with origins in either Australia or New Zealand. The key ingredient is microfoam, which is combined with hot steamed milk in a pitcher by means of a swirling motion. It is then poured into a glass, the process of which should leave a thin layer of foamed milk on top.

A latte is a milk-based espresso drink that combines espresso, hot steamed milk and a spoonful of foam. A single or double shot of espresso is pulled first. Then, steamed milk from the bottom of a milk pitcher is poured into the glass. A dollop of microfoam — the foam with tiny bubbles — is then added to the top to form a head.

A traditional latte is not sweet but can be sweetened by adding syrup, drizzle and/or sugar.

The answer to this question really depends on the ratio of espresso to milk and the overall volume of each. If you order or prepare your flat white with a double shot of espresso, the espresso drink will certainly have more caffeine than if you include only one espresso shot.

Two shots/Double shots = 2x the caffeine.

Likewise, if you add more milk foam to your flat white or more hot milk to your latte, the espresso will be more diluted, making it taste less strong.

The bottom line is that the amount of caffeine in any espresso drink is dependent on the number of espresso shots built into the recipe during preparation. So, if your flat white has a double shot of espresso and your latte a single shot of espresso, the flat white will have more caffeine.

In its purest form, a traditional flat white coffee is only as sweet as the milk used to prepare it. It’s naturally sweet because the milk sugars are caramelized during the steaming process.

However, it all depends on the recipe! If you order it with a sugary syrup, sweet drizzle or add sugar, then it will be sweet. By default, some coffee shops in the United States automatically serve flat whites sweet.

Theoretically, a latte should not be sweet. After all, it’s just espresso and steamed milk. The choice of milk will provide some measure of sweetness, as the sugars in the milk become caramelized when heated by steam.

That said, if you or your barista add syrup, chocolate or caramel drizzle and/or sugar, your latte will be very sweet. The lattes on the menus of many coffee shops in the USA are sweet because of these features.

The answer to this question really depends on the type of milk used in the preparation process. Your options are as follows:

  • Whole milk
  • Lowfat milk
  • Skim Milk
  • Oat Milk
  • Soy Milk
  • Almond Milk
  • Coconut Milk
  • Pea Milk
  • Rice Milk

Generally speaking, the greater the milk fat, the more calories. However, milk fat plays a critical role in carrying the flavors of your coffee beans. If you are counting calories, be sure to look at the amount of sugar in each of these plant-based alternatives before making a decision.

The lifestyle of an individual is what does or doesn’t make someone fat. If you don’t use the calories you take in, your weight will increase. But don’t blame the coffee or milk!

Flat whites take a bit more skill to make than a latte because of the microfoam. However, with a little practice, anyone can make one. Well, I say anyone. Let’s just say that most people can. Wink!

Automatic espresso machines make this process easier. Be sure to check out my review of the Breville Barista Express for the lowdown on one of the best espresso machines for beginners.

The easiest way to create a flat white at home is using an espresso machine. Check out my review on the Best Breville Espresso Machine for ideas and costs.

Basically, you need a way to brew espresso, a way to froth milk and a glass that’s not going to break when you free-pour the hot drink into it.

If an espresso machine is out of your reach at the moment, consider getting a moka pot and a milk frother.

Absolutely! A flat white coffee needs to have quality microfoam that gets integrated with the hot steamed milk.

A latte is primarily espresso and hot steamed milk. A dollop of foam gets spooned on top to provide a creamy head.

You want the milk in a flat white to be between 140 and 158 degrees Fahrenheit. Europeans tend to prefer their steamed milk slightly cooler, whereas Americans tend to like it piping hot.

It’s important to overheat your milk, else it will taste scorched.

The milk for a latte should be between 140 and 158 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s really a matter of personal preference. Keep in mind that the temperature of the glass will cool down the milk unless you warm it before use.

Creating good milk foam at home is a lot easier than people think. For recommendations on affordable milk frothers, check out How to Steam Milk at Home: DIY Hacks. In the article, I tell you about some of my favorite manual and electric milk frothers. I suggest some hand-held options. I also go over several ways to use your existing kitchen appliance to achieve good results.

Good question! These three drinks are all the same thing. It’s the language that’s different. In Italy, people write caffè latte. In French, you see cafè latte. Other parts of Europe often use cafè au lait. In the United States people either use caffe latte, cafe latte or latte, with the latter two being the most popular. People love coffee all over the world!

 

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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