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Features / May 31, 2022

The Disputed History of the Flat White

Features / May 31, 2022

The Disputed History of the Flat White

Words: Shamim de Brún
Images: Unsplash

The flat white is symbolic of our millennial generation. It gives people feelings. It’s an icon of modernity you can find anywhere in the country, but where it came from and how it got here is the subject of much dispute. 

The flat white is the cause of a decades-long argument between New Zealand and Australia. Each country claims to have originated the quintessential hipster coffee. But, as we hit peak flat white, the question remains: who really created it?

Cultural Relevance

While not particularly groundbreaking, the drink has a cultural resonance. The subject of as many hot takes articles as adulating pieces. Ireland’s most popular coffee was introduced by ever-ubiquitous Starbucks in 2019, but its origins go back much further. Some say to 1980s Australia. Others claim it became the flat white we know now in 1990s New Zealand.

According to the much-derided global coffee chain, the flat white is an Australian invention. In a press release, they said, “Since originating in Australia in the 1980s, the Flat White became a coffeehouse staple in the UK. In addition, it is now a budding favourite among coffee aficionados in the United States and Canada.” 

They conveniently neglect Ireland, but it’s safe to assume we got the controversial coffee earlier with Irish-Ozzy connections being very ties that bindy. Coffee aficionados in New Zealand take exception to the fact that flat white is an Australian thing. The New Zealand Herald calls the flat white the “quintessential Kiwi coffee.”

The Myths and Ledgends

Both legends begin in the 1980s. The Australian origin story harks back to Sydney in 1985 at the Moors Espresso Bar, opened by Alan Preston. According to Preston, cafes there commonly offered several versions of white coffee. White coffee is just black coffee with milk. One of these was called a “flat.” So when he opened Moors, he used the term “Flat White” on the menu, and it caught on. 

Kiwi Fraser McInnes, however, attests that he’s the originator. In 1989, Fraser was a barista at a cafe in Wellington, New Zealand. A customer ordered a cappuccino, but there wasn’t enough fat in the milk to make it rise properly, resulting in a less bubbly foam somewhere between latte and cappuccino. He handed it to the customer, apologizing for the “flat white.” 

However, both of these accounts are thin on the ground by way of tangible evidence. By which I mean you would just have to take their word for it. According to this survey, these are just some of a whole batch of ongoing conspiracy theories involving Australians stealing things from Kiwis and vice-versa.

It seems like the question: “Where was the flat white created? – taps into some deep inner parts of Australian and Kiwi psyches. New Zealanders argue with Australians over the origins of the flat white because it seems their biggest claim to world culinary fame. But, of course, Aussies have a much better gastronomic boast.

History on Who’s Side?

All that being said, it looks like history is more on the side with the bigger and more famous of the two neighbours. A tide of post-WWII immigrants from Italy brought coffee culture to the land of the goon bag. In urban areas, newcomers opened restaurants and cafes where they served Italian style coffee, according to the Migration Heritage Centre in New South Wales. This was not true for New Zealand, which historically had much lower immigration.

Australian historian Michael Symons dictated that “local peculiarities” came into being from there. I’d have gone with the word specialities, but I supposed calling things weird has always been click batey. 

The naming of the flat white seems to come from how Australians refer to their coffee. A regular espresso is a “short black,”. An espresso made larger with the addition of hot water, what we would call an Americano, is a “long black”, and one with milk is a “flat white”.

AIn an interview with CNN, Australian Barista Champion Craig Simon “My understanding is that a flat white was initially a reaction to people not knowing how to texture milk. Cappuccinos used to have the ‘snow cone’ of fluffy, airy milk. That added nothing to the drink. So people would ask for just ‘flat’ milk.'” That’s three strikes against New Zealand’s claim.

While the flat white came from Sydney or Melbourne, Symons writes that its best version is found in Wellington. There are cafes from the 1980s that lay claim to have contributed to its perfection, but those claims are unverified. While a now-closed cafe in Auckland called DKD and its proprietor Derek Townsend repeatedly come up on the internet, there is no traceable literature to support the ‘, but we perfected it’ narrative other than the bloggers and evangelists that say they did.

We Can Relate

Though the same could be said for us and our crisp sandwiches. We all know that the crisp sandwich is an Irish invention. They arrived on the scene around the time the Tayto lads invented the flavoured crisp. But it is the Brits that lay claim to its creation, according to Wiki.

Melbourne’s coffee devotees, a city with a renowned coffee scene, proclaim superiority over towns and neighbouring countries. Locals maintain that all scientific evidence — made up or otherwise — backs this up. Forget what anyone from Sydney or Auckland might say.

Eventually, Australians and Kiwis exported their creation to us in Dublin. The Guardian has a piece on it in London as far back as 2005. I imagine it was in Ireland around the same time, but I could find no definitive evidence. 

Overall the debate is too obscured by history for anyone to win. The sad truth is that the world will likely believe Australia invented it as they so often do with bigger countries; a slight that Irish people will relate to all too well.

Elsewhere on Char: Off The Brated Track at Orwell Road