A trend worth milking: figuring out the flat white
Six months ago, I’d never heard of the flat white. It could have been matte paint or fancy cheese, for all I knew, or perhaps an exceptionally pretentious craft beer. One day, I was reading about the frothy espresso drink on a New Zealand travel blog, and seemingly the next, it had popped up on the menu at my neighborhood Starbucks.
Still, my curiosity was minimal until I overheard a guy ordering one at Crows Coffee (304 East 51st Street). Something about the ease with which the customer and the barista transacted the order gave me new reason to suspect that this Down Under crossover might be more than just another trend sopped up by Starbucks’ vast corporate sponge to be wrung directly into the mouths of the hyper-caffeinated masses.
But two important questions remained: What exactly was a flat white, and was it any good?
“It’s an interesting thing, this flat white,” Crows owner Zach Moores said when I later placed my own order. “At this point, it’s so new that it’s kind of whatever we want it to be.”
Calmly working the espresso bar on a busy Friday afternoon, Moores prepared his version of the drink, which comes in a 6-ounce mug and is made with half-and-half instead of milk. Though small in size, this flat white contains two ristretto shots. Ristretto is Italian for “restricted,” meaning that the barista uses the same amount of espresso but less water, resulting in a stronger, richer flavor. (The 12-ounce is a real brain rattler, with four shots.)
“Espresso aficionados really like it,” Moores said. “But you need to really enjoy the taste of coffee.”
With the first sip of my flat white, I understood what he meant. The texture of the drink was somewhere between a latte and a cappuccino, with an even distribution of microfoam throughout. The velvety texture of the milk blunted the espresso’s bite, nearly tricking me into thinking that the drink tasted sweet. The moment I finished, I wished I’d ordered the larger size.
Moores said he’d been drinking his coffee this way for years without giving it a name. For that reason, he said, many baristas find the very elemental flat white “a little silly.” The drink lacks definitive characteristics — for example, it wouldn’t be as instantly recognizable in a blind taste test as, say, a pumpkin-spice latte. That’s why, Moores said, many area shops are trying to find ways to make the flat white stand out.
To get another local take, I stopped by Brookside’s Roasterie Café (6223 Brookside Boulevard). The flat white wasn’t on the menu, but I asked for one anyway, to see what happened.
“Do you want it with whole milk or half-and-half?” the barista asked, unfazed.
“However you usually make it,” I said.
The barista laughed and repeated what Moores had said: The drink is so new that there is no “usual.” He said the Roasterie had seen an influx of flat-white orders since Starbucks began its marketing campaign, so the staff had been figuring it out one pull at a time. Here, though, microfoam is standard, so a flat white isn’t much different from a regular latte.
I opted for whole milk. The 8-ounce beverage was bold, satisfying and strong enough to jolt my brain out of its usual fog and into an unfettered state of alertness for the remainder of the evening. I was beginning to fall in love with the flat white.
I also dropped by PT’s at the Crossroads (310 Southwest Boulevard) and attempted to order one with nonfat milk. I was cautioned against it, but I was determined to find a healthier alternative that would allow me to enjoy my new favorite drink more regularly. I asked for almond milk. But the texture was not the same, and I wouldn’t recommend it. In the same way that baked potatoes are good only when loaded with butter and sour cream, a flat white is best savored with a certain indifference to calories and saturated fat.
The last stop on my flat-white tour was the institution that kick-started my curiosity. At a Starbucks drive-thru, I was surprised to learn that the chain offers the drink in a venti, or 20-ounce, cup. Even at that size, though, it’s made with just three shots, meaning that I’d essentially be drinking 17 ounces of whole milk. I also wasn’t convinced that any barista could successfully produce that much microfoam.
So I got the 8-ounce version, and the espresso tasted bitter, and the milk burned my tongue. Learn from my mistake: If you want to get to know the flat white, start local.