Europe’s search for the flat white

The ‘flat white’ is taking British and European cafés by storm and it has come to be seen as a mark of sophistication on the board of any eating establishment that values being up with the current trends. The only problem is that very few people seem to know what it is.

In Australia the flat white is almost synonymous with the word coffee and has been since the late eighties when it was developed between then coffee hot spots Wellington and Sydney. Very few foreigners will believe you if you tell them that Australia is the coffee mecca of the world. Germans will say “oh… I don’t think so, I will have to check” (always thorough), South Americans will laugh casually, make one of those amused and amusing noises that South Americans often make and say “no we make the best coffee in Colombia, man” (what they mean is they farm and roast the best coffee, which is true), and Italians will give a disapproving “no!”.

Italy is key to understanding Australia’s intense and perfectionist coffee culture. Australia had a huge influx of Italian migrant workers who were struggling in their homeland after the war, and they brought with them a wonderful sense of humour, an accent that mixed delightfully with our own to create something new, home orchards and coffee. Gino’s café in Fremantle (Perth’s coffee/Italian hub) is historical evidence of this. Gino, the son of Italian migrants, had been working in Fremantle as a tailor for 30 years. Sick of the sub-standard coffee on the main strip, he told the owner of a local café that if they didn’t want to start making good coffee he would set up his own café nearby and do it for them. He absconded to Italy for six weeks and learnt as much about the black brew as was possible. When he returned, much to the chagrin of his wife, he opened up shop in 1983 and started extracting. Proof that a better quality product brings in customers, the business was a success and it still stands today; iconic.

This is now known as third wave coffee, a term coined in the early 2000s to mean an attitude towards coffee that views it as an artisanal beverage to be perfected, an art to be admired, a revelation, something sacred whose secrets reverberate silently at nightfall between the concrete walls of those modern churches that crochet the streets of Melbourne and New York City; cafés. It is the worship of coffee, rather than seeing it as something mindlessly whipped up haphazardly to get people through the morning or to use as an excuse to meet each other on the corner.

One thing that’s very odd is that excepting Italy (though I suspect they may have rested on their laurels a bit), this ‘third wave’ attitude has been almost completely non-existent in Europe until quite recently. It doesn’t matter where you go; Spain, France, Portugal, Germany or Croatia, unless you do some serious research before heading out, you’re likely to be served a bitter, over frothed mess in a cup every time you order a cappuccino. Even in Berlin, until about 5 years ago most cafés would serve a cup filled with froth that they tried to make as high as possible over the edge of the cup (because it looks fancy?), the froth didn’t just sit over the brim but all too frequently extended deep within the cup to provide you with the least amount of actual milk possible (to save on overheads like… milk?). God forbid you asked for a strong coffee because you wouldn’t get an extra shot, no, they would just hit the extraction button again to give you some overdrawn sludge with your long life milk that had the consistency of shampoo.

A ridiculous cappuccino I received in Paris circa 2012

A ridiculous cappuccino I received in Paris circa 2012

This abominable behaviour, this nonchalant, downright disrespectful and dangerous attitude towards the sacred art of barista… er… -ing… -hood…? Whatever. Still occurs if you have the misfortune of walking into the wrong establishment on the Skalitzer Straße.

Enter: The Flat White. The flat white is seen as a sort of badge of honour for European cafés that should tell the consumer that “it’s ok, we’ve got you covered, the baristas here know what they’re doing. Gino took care of that a long time ago.” But unfortunately it doesn’t seem to necessarily have been adopted with the aforementioned sacred ‘third wave’ attitude that it should represent in every case. Anyone can talk the talk but can they extract espresso properly into a pre-warmed cup and add correctly steamed milk at 65-70 degrees celsius? The answer lies in how serious the café’s head barista is about nurturing his or her staff’s respect for the process.

A good cappuccino from Barista Kaffeekunst, Cologne

A good cappuccino from Barista Kaffeekunst, Cologne, 2012

The flat white is an unmistakably Australian (*cough* slash New Zealand) creation. So there should not be much confusion as to what it is, there’s no room for subtle shifts in intercultural definitions here. It is a mixture of milk (yes, I’m vegan and I don’t take it from a cow) slowly heated to form a film of tiny bubbles known as ‘microfilm’, poured onto two shots of perfectly extracted espresso in a ceramic cup. It should not have a ‘head’ of foam and it must have an emphasis on the espresso so as it has a strong coffee taste and a nice caffeine kick. But today, at an unnamed establishment in Hamburg, I received a flat white served in a glass cup with about 2.5 centimetres of head… more head in fact, than I would expect from a cappuccino! Who’s running the joint!? At least it tasted good. I’ve had similar misadventures with the ever more ubiquitous flat white in various establishments around Hamburg and have a good mind to make a list. Watch out, I’ll make a list!!

The offending 'flat white'

The offending ‘flat white’

It’s good to see Europe finally coming around to truly respecting coffee, in fact it’s not just good, it’s relieving. But if you’re reading this, baristas of Europe – when it comes to the flat white, I say to you in typical Australian fashion: “get it right”. Gino went to the other side of the earth, all you need to do is a lazy google search and an hour of research: minimum.


5 thoughts on “Europe’s search for the flat white

  1. Reblogged this on jenniferonlineamuses and commented:
    I would have thought it’s the rest of the world’s search for the flat white. So many Americans I know who’ve been to Australian and partaken of this very addictive drink are trying desperately to find a description for a flat white so that their US baristas can assuage their predilection.


  2. Pingback: Australia vs Germany. Cultural Differences. Part Two. | Vegan Australian In Hamburg

  3. I’ve recently decided to go vegan and since moving to Cape Town, where they actually do have a coffee culture, unlike in Europe, where I’m from, the flat white has been my caffeine of choice. But a flat white with soya milk just taste abysmal, so I’ve converted to double shot espresso. Do you know the secret to a good vegan flat white? If you do I would like to educate my local coffee place (I can’t call it a café, ’cause I’m from Belgium, where a café is a temple of beer culture, not coffee culture).


    • definitely don’t heat the soy too much otherwise it becomes undrinkable

      you can use almond milk or hazelnut milk, rice milk too

      it takes a while to transition, I went through ages of ‘but its just not the same’ – but quite the contrary 1.5 years later. Sometimes the barista doesn’t hear me and makes me a cow milk coffee and I recognise it immediately, I can’t drink it. So it’s definitely just what you’re used to. Keep trying. The soy flat white definitely tastes better here in Perth than anywhere in Europe. Try experimenting at home to find what you like, don’t overheat.


      • At home I use rice milk, I’m not really a fan of the taste of soya milk. I’ll ask the barista to try heating it less, maybe that was why it didn’t taste nice.


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