Janet Lam-Graham

Flat white ☕

Product marketing analysis: A retrospective look at the flat white coffee trend

📖 5 to 10 minute read

1. Introduction

A flat white is a type of espresso-based coffee with milk that was invented in the 1980s in New Zealand and Australia. Its popularity grew in the UK around the mid to late 2000s with the rise of independent quality-focussed coffee shops in London; and it became the go-to choice for fans of artisan coffee. In the 2010s coffee shop chains like Starbucks and Costa started offering the flat white and the trend spread to towns and cities across the country. It now often accounts for more than 10% of coffee beverages ordered in independent coffee shops in the UK and has boosted profits for the coffee shop chains.

This article explores the flat white trend, essentially why we buy it: looking at its perceived value, the lifestyle it represents and its significance in our culture.

2. How the flat white was defined

There are different interpretations of what a flat white is. It was often described in comparison to well know Italian coffees: ‘similar to a caffe latte, but smaller and stronger as it has less milk and more espresso’. Or ‘not as frothy as cappuccinos, more of a silky texture.’ But as pointed out by coffee connoisseurs, the definitions of the flat white vary because people’s definitions of the latte and cappuccino vary.

So what makes a flat white?

Generally a flat white is served in a 150ml – 175ml tulip shaped cup (with saucer). It is made up of double espresso or ristretto shots and hot steamed milk. The milk is is foamed using a steam wand, creating tiny bubbles – microfoam. This gives it a velvety texture. The microfoam milk is free poured over the expresso, intertwining the liquids; and sometimes the barista would create patterns over the top – foam art – such as a heart, tulip, rosetta or swan designs.

Because of the subtleness of the milk, the flavour of the coffee comes through, which is why an artisanal-made flat white is appreciated by coffee connoisseurs.

3. Australia vs New Zealand

The origins of the flat white have been disputed by Australian and New Zealanders. In Australia, the European cafe culture flourished in the mid century, with the invention of the steam powered espresso machine and the influx of post-world war II Italian immigrants. Sydney cafe owner, Alan Preston lays claims on being the first to have the flat white on the menu of his Moors Espresso Bar in 1985; having moved from Queensland where cafes were serving “white coffee – flat“ since the 1960s and 1970s.

While in New Zealand, barista Fraser Mcinnes claims to have accidentally invented the flat white in a Wellington cafe in 1989 after making a failed cappuccino. A Kiwi flat white is said to be superior because of it uses purer milk, and espresso (rather than ristretto) shots means a stronger flavour.

Australian food historian, Michael Symons summarised it neatly when he declared that the flat white was a joint invention – started in Australia and perfected in New Zealand. It has spread all over the world with the opening of independent antipodean style cafes in cities like London, New York and Berlin; serving brunch and enlightening (or confusing) consumers about the flat white.

The first in cafe in the UK serving flat whites was aptly name, Flat White which opened in Soho London in 2005.

4. Riding the coffee waves

The flat white typifies the third wave coffee movement in the US and parts of Europe:

The first wave happened in the 1960s and was about mass consumption, defined by innovations like instant coffee.

The second wave introduced speciality coffee, emphasising the enjoyment of drinking coffee and it being a social experience (like the coffeehouses of 17th and 18th century). It is characterised by coffeehouse chains like Starbucks, Costa, Cafe Nero and Coffee Republic serving espresso-based drinks like cappuccino and caffe latte.

The third wave expanded on the second wave and is about offering higher quality coffee through ‘innovative brewing methods, lighter roast profiles and sustainability’. The coffee shops sell the story of the producers, roasters and baristas skills. Essentially consumers feel they are buying a more complex tasting coffee and are willing to pay a higher price for that.

The flat white became the signature drink of third wave coffee shops. And with that, the image of the flat white being a better quality coffee drink has stuck. So much so that when coffeehouse chains started serving the flat white they kept the higher price point, often 10% more than the price of a latte.

5. Flat white culture

The flat white became synonymous with ‘hipsters’: twenty to thirty-somethings living in gentrified neighborhoods usually working in the creative and digital industries.

The typical hipster did not identify as one, it was seen as a critical label. Perhaps at the core of this counterculture was a rejection of the materialism of the 1980s and 1990s that these millennials grew up in. Hipsters embraced things that were not popular at the time – indie music, thrift stores, farmers markets, and craft and sustainable products. The third wave coffee shops fitted those independent and artisan ideals and the flat white came to represent that.

5.1. Flat white-collar workers

The term ‘flat white economy’ coined by Cebr is used to describe the digital and media businesses and the ecosystem of independent shops, restaurants and coffee shops that opened up around them; to collectively inspire excellence and innovation. The flat white economy boomed during the Great Recession creating four times more jobs than the City lost in the financial crisis. Particularly in East London which attracted entrepreneurs because of the cheap rent, allowing them to build their tech startups and form the Silicon Roundabout.  The number of jobs in the flat white economy increased by 70% between 2004 and 2012 in London and it continues to grow, spreading to the North of England.

Laynes Espresso in Leeds

5.2. Wi-Fi and a dream

The english coffeehouses of the 17th and 18th century were public places for debate and innovation. Where business owners, poets and writers would meet to catch-up on the latest news and discuss ideas in a relaxed setting –  it was a more refined alternative to pubs. Influential organisations were established in coffeehouses such as the think tank RSA and insurance market Lloyd’s of London.

Then second wave coffee shop chains brought this social and workspace element back to the coffee culture in the UK and US, made easier with technological advances – laptops and wifi. Coffee shops today offer a more casual and lively place for freelancers and entrepreneurs to do their work, compared to libraries, shared offices and working from home. So in some way coffeehouses have gone back to being the informal innovation hubs they were known for in the 17th and 18th century. Admittedly most people working in coffee shops are sitting behind their screens, they are building connections and businesses online that are fuelling the (flat white) economy.

5.3. Spill the beans

The flat white’s association with the hipster lifestyle also helped to cultivate the stereotype of some millennials being entitled, superficial and lazy. Who were seen as wasting their time documenting their lives on social media, with selfies and snaps of food and coffee. Typical views were like that of an Australian property millionaire who expressed that millennials should stop buying avocado on toast and expensive coffees if they want to save money and buy a house.

Over the last decade, due to the Great Recession, earnings have lagged behind prices. And for many millennials burdened with student debt and this decline in average earnings, they struggle to save enough money for a deposit to buy homes like the baby boomer generation before them.

Therefore spending money on brunches and expensive coffees like a flat white can be seen as almost a short term escapism from the reality of their finances. At the peak of the flat white’s popularity, it was almost a mini status symbol of modern times: capturing and posting a perfectly crafted foam art of your flat white on Instagram hinted at an ideal cosmopolitan lifestyle that you were living your best life.

6. Caffeine fix

Like other hipster trends, the flat white went mainstream: it is served in (second wave) coffee shop chains and at a range of nationwide food and drink outlets – from fast food restaurants (McDonalds) to chain bakeries (Greggs) to pubs (Wetherspoons).

Coffee experts talk about the fourth and even fifth wave coffee happening now, mentioning trends like cold brew, nitro coffee, buttered coffee, milk alternatives and CBD infused coffees…the list is endless. Costa Coffee shop tried to introduce the ‘Flat Family’ a range of drinks with the word ‘flat’ attached to it – such as ‘flat mocha’ and ‘flat black’. Costa Coffee were criticised by customers who pointed out they were similar to existing coffees charged at a higher price point, principally the ‘flat black’ was more or less an Americano.

The flat white is no longer the latest coffee trend, but it is still in demand: It has become part of people’s morning ritual and is a permanent fixture in coffee shops. The flat white wasn’t a revolutionary product, but for many consumers it was a simple introduction to artisan coffee. It epitomises the trendy lifestyle and startup business culture of the 2000s and 2010s which has been captured by many and shared on social media: the composition of the flat white photo is usually in a flat lay photography style perhaps beside a MacBook and a journal on a marble coffee shop table: all a reflection of the zeitgeist. 

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