Image: @bayleafcafe

The Difference Between A Flat White & A Latte

The answer is isn't so easy to explain.

There are some questions that have had scientists and philosophers puzzled for centuries. What is the meaning of life? Is there other life outside of Earth? And which ‘orange’ came first, the fruit or the colour? But perhaps a more relevant question in modern society is what is the difference between a flat white and a latte, and by extension, a cappuccino? 

While some baristas will love to give you their opinion, there have no doubt been numerous occasions where a couple orders coffees, one flat white, one latte, and the barista will give them the exact same drink. The placebo effect will kick in, and the person drinking the latte will believe that to be true, when in fact, they’re in the possession of a flat white. 

Your initial response to the question being asked will likely relate to the amount of milk each caffeinated drink contains, and to some degree, you would be right. But if you want to get really technical, the differences also lie in the amount of coffee each should be served with (based on their origins) and the type or size of receptacle they’re served in. 

However, your experience of each cuppa Joe will also vary depending on the café or coffee shop you go to, as each will serve a variety of sizes. Some will simply offer small and large, while others may offer small, medium and large. We’re not going to get into the mind-boggling array of options offered by Starbucks. 

To help clear up confusion and grind away some myths, we’ve put together the definitive guide regarding the difference between a flat white, a latte and a cappuccino. But first, a quick history lesson. 

Where Did The Flat White, Latte & Cappuccino Originate?

Flat White

The flat white first appeared in either Australia or New Zealand in the mid-1980s. There is some debate as to which country came up with it first, but regardless, it was first poured down under. It then made its way to other countries around the world, including the United States of America and the United Kingdom. 

Latte

The latte originated in Italy, where it is known as a caffè latte, or ‘coffee with milk’. Coffee-based drinks combined with milk have been around since the 17th century, not just in Italy, but across European cuisine as a whole, although it wasn’t until around the 20th century that the term caffè latte started appearing. Primarily a breakfast-based drink (at least, in Europe). 

Various countries across Europe, such as Spain and France, all the drink something slightly different – café con leche and café au lait, respectively – and both should result in you being served the coffee with milk drink you’re hoping for. 

Cappuccino

Cappuccinos also originated in the 17th century, when they were called ‘Kapuziner’ in Viennese coffee houses, and initially referred to a coffee-based drink that was served with cream, spices and sugar. It was originally dubbed Kapuziner because at the time, only a few drops of cream were added to the coffee, resulting in a dark brown colour, which was likened to the vestments, or robes, worn by Capuchin monks in Vienna. 

The word cappuccino didn’t surface until 1930 in Italy, and by then, it referred to a coffee drink topped with whipped cream and with cinnamon or chocolate sprinkles on top. It wasn’t until espresso machines were introduced at the turn of the 20th century that the cappuccino began to take on various forms, because the machines were now capable of creating a crema, as well as being able to heat milk to various temperatures. 

What Is The Difference Between A Flat White, A Latte & A Cappuccino?

Infographic showing the differences in espresso to milk ratios between a macchiato, flat white, cappuccino and a latte
Image: Coffeehow.com

So, now you know where each coffee-based drink found its place, what exactly makes them all so different? 

What Is A Flat White?

A flat white is described as a coffee drink comprising espresso with microfoam. What is microfoam, we hear you ask? Well, it’s a finely textured milk that should be shiny, be slightly thicker than the milk that first gets poured into the jug and should have extremely tiny, practically undetectable bubbles. 

Flat whites are traditionally served in ceramic cups (usually around 160-180ml), with a saucer and (at least, according to tradition) served with a double shot of espresso by default. This is where ‘tradition’ can become skewed, as you’ll likely find most cafes will offer a small variant, with just one shot of espresso, and a large, with two. Some cafes may also offer much larger flat whites with three or four shots of espresso. 

 
 
 
 
 
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Once the coffee has been poured in the cup, it is topped up with a layer of steamed milk, with a thin layer of microfoam. The general consensus stipulates this layer of microfoam should be a maximum of 20mm in height, but some cafes aim to keep it as thin as possible, even down to around 1mm – hence the term, ‘flat’. 

Ultimately, a flat white should give you a slightly strong taste of coffee, weakened only by the layer of milk on top, and should be a stronger drink than a latte.

Your experience of a flat white may also change depending on whether you drink your coffee sitting down at a cafe, or get a takeaway, as the takeaway cup may be slightly larger than the ceramic cup it would traditionally be drunk from. 

What Is A Latte?

A latte should be served in a larger vessel than a flat white, usually what is known as a latte glass. These are usually around 170-200ml. In general, however, whatever vessel is used, it should be larger than the one used for a flat white to accommodate the extra milk. 

Therein lies the major difference between a latte and a flat white: a latte should have more milk than a flat white, thereby being a more diluted drink, with a weaker coffee taste. Unlike flat white tradition, which says it should be served with a double shot of espresso, a latte can be served with either a single or a double shot. Again, however, this could vary depending on the cafe you visit. 

The milk used for a latte will likely be similar to the milk used for a flat white, i.e. it should exhibit a velvety layer on top and be similarly aerated so that the barista can pour latte art. However, the top layer should also have a small layer of foam, which you wouldn’t get on a flat white. 

What Is A Cappuccino?

Some people may think a cappuccino is simply a flat white with some chocolate sprinkles on top, but that actually couldn’t be more wrong. It’s certainly similar, in that it once again sees a single or double shot of coffee layered with hot milk, but it’s the texture the milk takes on that sets it apart from flat whites and lattes. 

Traditionally, cappuccinos are small drinks, similar to flat whites (around 180ml) although in countries such as Australia, the US and the UK, larger versions are also available. The milk in a cappuccino should be partly steamed, similar to the milk in a flat white and latte, but with an equal part of foamed milk on top. This can sometimes be referred to as ‘macrofoam’, which differentiates from ‘microfoam’ in that the bubbles are noticeably bigger. 

It can then be finished with a dusting of chocolate on top. 

In most countries outside of Italy, the ratio of espresso to hot milk and foam is usually an equal 1/3 each. However, in Italy, a cappuccino is usually served with 25ml of coffee, topped with equal parts hot milk and foam.

While cappuccinos and lattes both contain a combination of steamed milk and foam, the fact there is less steamed milk in a cappuccino should result in it having a stronger espresso taste. 

Of course, despite what traditions dictate, each of us will have found our own personal preferences when ordering a coffee. Some may ask for a double shot latte in a small cup to strengthen the espresso taste, while others may ask for a ‘weak’ large cappuccino, which would see a single shot poured into a larger cup and finished with steamed milk and foam. 

If you’re still unsure as to how much difference the various methods of milk preparation will have on the taste of your coffee, pop into your local cafe and order all three to do a taste test. Or, if you want to try your hand making your own at home, check out some of the best coffee machines to buy right now and become a certified barista overnight. 

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