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What’s the difference between cappuccinos and flat whites?

Written by Phil

A coffee enthusiast and traveler, Phil primarily spends his days thinking and writing about coffee. He also writes for HittingEject.com where he explores ideas of culture, psychology, and travel, and occasionally dabbles in horror.

Lately, it seems no matter where you go, you’ll find the “flat white” on cafe menus. I first came across it in 2015 when I was in Australia. By the time returned home to Canada, it was everywhere. Despite Aussie friends trying, their explanations never really cut it, so here I am explaining what I found about how cappuccinos, lattes, and flat whites are different.

All have a shot of espresso. Cappuccinos are mostly microfoam with some liquid milk; Flat whites are all steamed milk (sometimes); Lattes are steamed milk with a thin layer of microfoam.

This description is the down and dirty, as I don’t believe in burying the lead to keep you around. But if you want to know more, here are some further explanations.

What is Microfoam?

Microfoam is that highly desired form of milk where it is made of thousands of extremely small (aka micro), stable bubbles. It’s desired because it’s a lighter, velvety smooth, wet foam. In contrast to “macrofoam,” also known as dry foam, where the bubbles are easily distinguishable from each other and less stable.

To make it, you need to have a steam wand partially submerged near the surface of the milk, allowing for a combination of air and milk to mix in a way that allows the gas and liquid to mingle.

One trick I learned as a barista was having the coldest milk you could find.

If your milk has been sitting out and you’re desperate, some people would put ice in the frothing pitcher, swirl the cubes around a few times to make the metal cold, then dump the ice and add the milk. Some may call this blasphemy because of the possible water-milk combination, but again – desperate times.

It takes a bit of practice to get it right because going too deep under the surface will get you no foam – just steamed milk. Too close to the surface and you’ll get dry foam, which is unstable and sort of like bubbles you blow with a straw.

After some practice, you should be able to consistently create a thick layer of stable, delicious microfoam near the top, though this may depend on the kind of steam wand you have.

The first home espresso machine I had came with a pretty terrible steam wand with a large plastic head, which made creating microfoam quite difficult.

Where did Cappuccino come from?

The short answer: Italy and Vienna. But it’s a more complicated story than that. The name comes from the Italian word for a friar of the Capuchin order. They were named this because of the hoods they wore; hood in Italian is “cappuccio”. -ccino at the end of something connoted it being a small thing… so yeah, think about what a babyccino is: a small baby?

Funny enough, capuchin monkeys also took their name from the monks. But the reason the drink took the word was because of the color their robes shared with the beverage, which the Capuchin monks deliberately wore to distinguish themselves from Augustinians, Benedictines, Franciscans, and other orders.

So, how did the drink first come about? Long ago, European coffee was made in a similar way to how modern-day Turkish coffee is made: brought to a simmer, sometimes with sugar added. In the 1700s, it became popular in Britain and France to filter the beans from the coffee.

Then in the 1900s when espresso machines were just beginning to gain some ground, cappuccini (as they were then called in Italy) started to become popular in Italian cafes and restaurants across the country. They were limited in their scope because espresso machines were mainly found in specialized cafes.

After WWII, there were further advancements in espresso machinery, allowing the world to enter the “Age of Crema”, and the war allowed American soldiers to experience the Italian way of making coffee. Thus, it became a thing.

To make things slightly more complicated, modern cappuccinos can also come in either dry or wet forms. Yes, a dry drink that’s not alcoholic.

The wet form has more steamed milk, while the dry form has more foam and very little milk. Keep this in mind when we get to flat white.

What’s the story for Caffe Lattes?

It seems these beverages originated in the home, with no mention of them until the 20th century. The french have their own term, café au lait, used in cafés from 1900 onward, but it differs because it is made with drip coffee and steamed milk instead of espresso, steamed milk, and a layer of microfoam.

Big difference, right? Well, it seems people fight about these sorts of distinctions, so I’ll try to stick with the accepted areas.

In Italian, latte means “milk”, so ordering one will get you a glass of milk. That’s why you need “Caffe” in front of it. Thus, it appears to simply be coffee with milk, since that’s what the two words mean.

It’s not clear how it became one of the standards in cafes, but it may have something to do with the Moka pot, which became the standard way of making coffee in Italian households.

Moka Pot

If you’re not familiar, it’s one of those metal pots you put on the stove that heats the water in the bottom compartment, forcing steam up through the coffee grinds in the middle, and settling in the top compartment as a strong coffee that is more similar to espresso than to most drip coffees.

That’s where I believe North America, with all of our drip coffee, probably thought “eh, different enough” and we differentiated it from café au lait.

What is the deal with Flat Whites?

So flat whites, the coffee that annoys me to no end.

Why? Because for years and years we had cappuccinos and lattes, and now we have this new kid on the block – which often sells for more money – and is almost indistinguishable from the other two for most people.

Hell, the fact that I’m even writing this to clarify the confusion just shows how difficult it is to tell the difference between them!

But after looking into them, they seem to be just steamed milk, maybe with some foam on top. What’s that sound like? A cappuccino… which is why it might be without the foam. It’s silly.

Its origin may have been from the mid-1980s in Sydney, Australia, where it became a permanent part of the menu at Moors Espresso Bar. People thought it was a joke. You see, in Australia, they categorize coffee as white coffee (with milk) or black coffee (without).

Canberra, the Australian capital, had signs saying “flat white only” during a seasonal problem with milk cows that apparently prevented the milk froth from forming.

Oh, but look out! Drama alert!

New Zealand, aka Australia’s Canada (I’m Canadian, so no hate, Kiwis), claims it for their own.

There are three separate claims in NZ: one in Auckland claiming they offered it as an alternative to the Italian latte; another, also in Auckland, who claims to have prepared it first; and a final one in Wellington which claims it was a result of a “failed cappuccino”.

I gotta shake my head and laugh at the last guys. Like.. did they try to make a cappuccino, then try this whacky new invention and think “My god! We’re on to something new here!”

Seriously though, try them both side by side. Who would suddenly add that to the menu under an entirely new name?

The earliest reference, according to Wikipedia, is in a British film in 1962, Danger by my side, where a detective is heard to have ordered a “flat white coffee”.

Guess we’ll never know for sure.

Whatever the case, it’s nothing to write home about, but now at least you know the difference.

My last lingering question:

What’s the difference between a dry cappuccino and a flat white?

Macrofoam, Dry

Remember when I mentioned dry cappuccinos and flat whites? Well, apparently a dry cappuccino is supposed to be the “opposite” of a flat white.

They’re both comprised of the same components with different foam, so “opposite” seems like the wrong word. The difference, which seems to vary depending on the source, is that a dry cappuccino has dry macrofoam, while the flat white is velvety, wet microfoam.

Some people seem to use “microfoam” and “frothed milk” interchangeably, so it can be confusing. Just grant that they’re different things as just defined, and let’s call it a day.

EDIT: So after further research, I’m still somewhat confused about this. The most defensible position I can find is that a flat white and a latte are almost identical, but a flat white would have no foam on top. That means it’s comprised entirely of steamed milk and espresso. Though others have argued it’s an espresso-and-microfoam-only beverage. Honestly, it’s entirely too convoluted, but the argument that it’s basically a latte seems the strongest to me. And if you doubt the disagreements about the beverage, check out the disagreements.

Microfoam; velvety smooth, wet, and stable

Recap

  • Cappuccino: smaller than a latte; espresso, a little milk/cream, and a lot of microfoam/frothed milk.
  • Latte: steamed milk, espresso shot, little microfoam
  • Flat White: smaller than latte; all microfoam, and an espresso shot.

If you’re a coffee fanboy, please clarify this because the many sources I looked at all seemed to be conflicting, some defining a dry cappuccino in essentially the same term as a flat white.

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