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What is the Difference Between a Cafe Latte and a Flat White?

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by Clay Steele (subscribe)
Nutritionist & Life Coach Meeting all requirements to call myself so (i.e. none)
Published July 15th 2012
I innocently ordered a café latte while dining with friends at the Pint of Milk Café in Newport. When the waitress announced my drink of choice I was lampooned for a lack of masculinity by one of my companions. That might be easy to accept had my accuser the tattooed exterior of a brickie's labourer and two shots of overproof rum in front of him however it appears my nemesis had ordered a flat white.

Having ambled through an internet search some years ago that seemed to indicate that a flat white and cafe latte only differed slightly in the ratio of milk to espresso (though the details escaped me). I contended to the assembled throng that the only difference was the fact that mine came in a glass whilst my learned colleague's came in a mug. I should therefore be considered manlier than he as I did not require a handle on my pitcher, demonstrating an Anzac-like fortitude by bearing the pain of clutching that moderately warm glass in my bare hands.

The general consensus around the table though was that a flat white did not have any foam on top whereas a café latte did. Observing that the flat white in question, and indeed any that I have ever ordered, all came topped with foam somewhat dulled that argument. Given that we had more important things to discuss such as the best method for creating a life-sized replica of oneself composed entirely of matchsticks the debate concluded with a few disinterested shrugs.

As I am unable to accept ever being wrong I decided to take this question to the experts. The barista at Alley Tunes in Hawthorn was certainly given to my way of thinking. After I'd ordered a wake up short black he confided that the café latte and flat white were in fact identical (the latter being an entirely Australian phenomenon) and that in Europe the coffee aficionados would never countenance adding milk to a shot of Espresso. I proudly downed my short black and strode off with pride intact (scurrying back 10 minutes later to pay for my purchase).

The same question was asked of the waiter at my recent Odd Spot Café breakfast. The only difference according to this fine gentleman was that the café latte came with an extra 'finger' of foam upon its apex.
odd spot flat vs latte
Figure A: can you spot the difference?

I contend that the same amount of foam is used for both beverages. Consider figure A pictured above; as the flat white's container has a wider circumference the total volume of foam is in fact very similar to the taller yet narrower ewer bearing the café latte. So you can see that mathematics studied in Year 12 Further Maths does have a practical use and that I really will go to any lengths to disprove even mild criticism of myself well beyond anyone else remembering it ever having taken place.

Anyway, getting back on topic, according to my somewhat lacklustre research, the answer to the question "What is the difference between a cafe latte and a flat white?" is: "not much if anything".

Author's note: to amuse yourself next time you're at a café ask for a milk coffee. After receiving a blank stare tell them that you'd like a café latte. They will then comprehend your request. Apparently waiters and baristas all over Australia know every single word in the English lexicon apart from "milk" and "coffee". For some reason they only know these words in Italian, but possess no further knowledge of any Italian dialects: an uncanny phenomenon that warrants further study.
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Thankyou Robert - this has been gnawing away at me for years! Can you help me out with another one then - how are either of these different to a cappucino?
by Julie Mundy (score: 3|1734) 2453 days ago
interesting and amusing article...I think I will still ask for cafe latte only :)
by Joy (score: 3|1910) 2350 days ago
I'm glad you brought this topic up Robert and am relieved that you call this beverage a 'cafe latte' rather than the shortened 'latte' which of course means 'milk' in Italian. Try ordering a 'latte' in a cafe in Italy as a friend of mine did, and you'll be presented with a glass of cold milk.
by Rita Price (score: 2|230) 2706 days ago
Everyone has already weighed in on the differences, but I can add something that I find kind of cool: the flat white originated in Australia, from the coffee culture that arose here. Some say Sydney in the 60s, some say Melbourne in the 50s.
by H. Clare Callow (score: 2|109) 1970 days ago
some cafes are so bad that they don't distinguish from one another
by newintstudents (score: 2|474) 2218 days ago
Hi Robert,
Great article! I too love to ponder these important mysteries of life. I've often wondered why the cappuccino ordered by my husband looks the same as my flat white.
It would also seem that while baristas may know Italian coffee-oriented words, they rarely know how to spell them. The word cappuccino seems to create the greatest confusion.
by Geraldine Massey (score: 3|8126) 2743 days ago
Has a higher caffeine content
More foam than a flat white which is just basically milk and coffee
Latte sounds way more classy than a flat white....
by Padmalove (score: 1|34) 2737 days ago
Well, from my years of working in hospitality and numerous barista refresher courses every time we changed our brand of coffee, the general concensus was always the same. A flat white has a paper thin layer of foam on top. A cafe latte has a 10mm layer of foam on top and is not served as hot as other coffees - hence the glass - so that it can be consumed quickly. A cappuccino has a thicker layer of foam and is sprinkled with chocolate. That's the way we serve them and we have a huge return trade so we must be doing something right.
by there (score: 0|7) 2695 days ago
Mmmm..maybe as Robert's milk coffee/caffe latte observation suggests the whole Italian thing has gone overboard ...from my erstwhile experience of cafe work (20 years ago before the latte boom) a flat white is coffee as my Mum drank it - Nescafe with a good dollop of milk we make it as a long black espresso with a a couple of fingers of milk added cold - not from the steamer ...that's what makes it FLAT ...and what makes it ordered in English. Maybe the baristas you spoke to need to go back to (old) school.
by Liz13 (score: 0|3) 2716 days ago
The flat white has no froth/cream , a latte does. the flat white you have shown looks more like a cappuccino without the chocolate on top.
by judyb4 (score: 0|2) 2734 days ago
I think to answer this question you need to go back to the beginning. The cappuccino. to make a proper cappuccino you steam the milk differently than for a latte. you steam it and produce stiff foam. foam with big bubbles. you than spoon this foam into the cup with the espresso first. fill the cup to the rim with foam. than pore the steamed milk through the foam until the foam is above the rim. this will give you the proper 1/3 1/3 1/3 espresso milk foam ratio.

a café latte is steamed milk added to a shot of espresso with a spoonful of foam added to the top. this gives a ratio of 1/3 2/3 espresso to milk ratio.

the flat white got started either of two ways. men in new Zealand in the 60's and 70's all had mustaches. it was the fashion back then and they didn't want foam in their mustaches but wanted the stronger drink you get with the cappucinno. so they either broke the foam of a cappuccino making the foam flat or they added a shot to the café latte. either way the result is the same.

move forward 40 years, add starbuck's to the mix, add superior tech to espresso machines and two generations of coffee shop owners not knowing what the difference in espresso drinks and you have the flat white, latte and cappuccino of today where nobody can tell the difference. today people don't drink cappucino's they drink café latte's with extra foam. starbucks has made everything into a super sized café latte. double and triple the original size. the genesis of these drinks has been lost and new barista's only reference 10 years in the past not 30-40 years before double boilers and pim tech. they don't know how to use a lever action espresso machine.

a proper flat white should be made with a double ristretto shot in a small cup with steamed milk. the size should never be more than 6-7 oz. in an 8oz. cup.

I know all this because I ran a café in Miami owned by an Italian contractor who worked in Australia and New Zealand for 30 years. when he retired he bought a small hotel added a café and would tell me long stories about the proper way to drink espresso. I thought the old man was crazy for his obsession of espresso but maybe he was right.
by megou (score: 0|2) 2347 days ago
His drink actually wasn't a flat white. The cup is too large. If you looj on Wikipedia, you will see that is must be 150-180ml (a latte and cappuccino cup, which is what that "flat white" was served in are 200ml or sometimes 220ml). Keep in mind this also means there is no such thing as a large flat white either. Must be leas than 180ml or no longer a flat white. It should have less foam than a latte would (about half a cm to a lattes cm), but that rule is not as important due to latte art and it is not as important. Since the cup is smaller, it is therefor stronger tasting (same amount of espresso, 15-20 grams), but less milk. Neither is more manly. Some will say that anything with milk is less manly, but you should drink what you like. Baristas and roasters usually drink black espresso or filter coffee though.
by eldri (score: 0|2) 2276 days ago
I always have a flat white as far as I am concerned there is more milk used (about 50-50) and strong coffee. No foam should be on the top. That is how I make my own at home, and it tastes the same.
by annie (score: 0|4) 2738 days ago
The difference between cafe latte and flat white is the language, one said in Italian and the other said in English, both coffees are the same. Both should be served in a glass with no froth.
by Viole (score: 0|2) 562 days ago

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