Flat White vs Cappuccino: Every Difference You Need To Know

Flat White vs Cappuccino: Every Difference You Need To Know

What's the difference between the flat white vs cappuccino? If I had a penny for every time I heard, “Well, they're basically the same thing,” I'd have enough money to buy at least three of them.

Most people get this totally wrong.

Let's go over the big differences between flat whites and cappuccinos so you're not left in the dark (and at risk of offending an Australian on accident). Here's what we'll cover…

  • The origins of cappuccinos and flat whites
  • How the milk foam makes the drinks taste pretty different
  • How Starbucks has ruined most people's ideas of the two drinks

This one's a doozy.

Flat Whites 101

Let's start with the flat white, a modern (and controversial) classic. The debate over its origins goes something like this…

New Zealand says Derek Townsend invented the drink at DKF Cafe in 1984. Australia denies that story and claims the “flat white” drink was coined by Fraser McInnes in 1989 (15 years later) in Wellington as a way to describe badly-made cappuccinos.

For both countries, it's a matter of serious national pride. But which story is true? We'll probably never know.

Oh, and legend has it that Derek Townsend could make 1,500 flat whites per hour. That's 25 drinks per minute… just try to imagine how unreal *cough* that would look.

What Exactly Is A Flat White?

While there's no clearly defined standard for a flat white, Sprudge conducted a fascinating survey that revealed what Australians and New Zealanders consider to be authentic flat white.

Here's what they discovered:

  • 70% of people say it's a 5.5oz to 6oz drink
  • 59% say the espresso should be a normal double shot
  • 51% say in a cappuccino-size ceramic mug is the right way to drink it
  • 65% say there should be “just a bit” or “barely any” foam

To summarize: a traditional flat white is a 5 to 6-ounce drink with two shots of espresso and just a tiny bit of foam.

Most specialty coffee shops will serve a flat white that's somewhat like this, give or take a couple of ounces of milk.

The Taste And Texture Of A Flat White

The espresso counts for roughly 25% of the drink (1.5oz), so the coffee flavor is stronger than a normal American latte.

The milk is the thing that really makes it different from a cappuccino though. With barely any microfoam, it's quite “milky”. The steamed milk is smooth and sweet, but it doesn't have that velvety creaminess you get with the foam.

Flat Whites At A Glance

  • Origin: New Zealand or Australia (but probs NZ)
  • Ratio: 1.5oz Espresso, 4-5oz Steamed Milk, 0.5oz Microfoam
  • Strength: Medium
  • Taste: Milky, Espresso, Smooth
  • Service: Ceramic Cappuccino Mug

Why Is The Starbucks Flat White Different?

Okay… we're just as clueless as you on this one.

Starbucks has a knack for taking traditional drinks, changing them into something completely different, then keeping the traditional name.

The Starbucks flat white uses two ristretto shots (where they cut the shot earlier so that it's tangier) and comes in 12-20oz sizes.

Nope. Nothing like what we just discussed.

And nobody knows why they do it.

Cappuccino 101

The cappuccino goes way back, long before the espresso machine, and has two origin stories:

The first is that Italians started calling their coffee with cream and sugar a cappuccino because it reminded them of the light-brown color that the local Capuchin monks wore. The second origin story is that cappuccino was simply the Italian form of the kapuziner drink—just coffee, cream, and sugar—that came from Vienna (modern-day Austria).

Which story is historically accurate? Nobody knows for sure.

We like the monk story.

What Exactly Is A Cappuccino?

Once espresso machines were created, the cappuccino evolved into a drink with espresso, whipped cream, and cinnamon or chocolate. Yup… pretty different.

The modern cappuccino we all know and love is actually a pretty recent invention, formed somewhere around the mid-20th century.

The general idea is that it's 33% espresso, 33% steamed milk, and 33% microfoam. Most coffee shops still serve it in its traditional size, 5-6 ounces.

Pro Tip: Go to Italy and watch locals drink cappuccinos. It takes them about 3 seconds to finish one… and those drinks are HOT.

The Taste And Texture Of A Cappuccino

Because cappuccinos are one-third foam, there's less liquid milk to cut the intensity of the espresso. In fact, it's a 1:1 ratio of coffee to steamed milk in a cappuccino, compared to a 1:3 ratio in a flat white… which means the cappuccino is noticeably stronger.

And the texture is very different too!

A cappuccino's microfoam is thick and dense (especially compared to the super thin layer of foam on a flat white). It's creamy, fluffy, and gives you a good milk stash (got milk?).

Cappuccinos At A Glance

  • Origin: Italy or Austria
  • Ratio: 2oz Espresso, 2oz Steamed Milk, 2oz Microfoam
  • Strength: Medium-Strong
  • Taste: Fluffy, Espresso, Creamy, Balanced
  • Service: Ceramic Cappuccino Mug

Wait… Starbucks Ruined The Cappuccino Too?

Well, that's up for debate.

Starbucks actually keeps to the 1:1:1 ratio (roughly)… they just make it a lot bigger: between 12 and 20 ounces. So is their cappuccino “real”?

We'll just say that specialty coffee shops tend to have dramatically more creamy microfoam compared to Starbucks (theirs is very meh), so we prefer the smaller, specialty version.

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Flat White vs Cappuccino: Which Should You Pick?

Both drinks are excellent picks, but quite different. Here are some questions to help you choose the right one for you.

Do You Want A Strong Or A Lighter Drink?

Flat whites have more milk to dilute the espresso, so they tend to taste a bit toned down. Cappuccinos don't have as much steamed milk though, which makes them taste a bit stronger… and when we say stronger, we really mean “considered the perfect balance of coffee and milk by most of the world”.

  • I want a stronger (balanced) drink: cappuccino
  • I want a smoother, lighter drink: flat white

Do You Like Thick, Fluffy Microfoam?

Flat whites have just a small hint of microfoam on their surface, but they're really designed to be a milky drink. Cappuccinos, on the other hand, are all about the foam. A great specialty coffee cappuccino's foam will be thick, fluffy, dense, and creamy.

  • I want big, creamy fluff: cappuccino
  • Meh, give me the liquid milk: flat white

What About Making Flat Whites And Cappuccinos At Home?

Both drinks are pretty easy to make at home. You really just need a coffee grinder, an espresso machine, and some practice when it comes to pulling shots and steaming milk.

It's not hard to get a thick foam for cappuccinos, but it takes a lot of practice (like dozens of drinks) to get a super-smooth and creamy consistency like you'd find in a nice cafe. This makes flat whites easier to make overall since you don't have to worry about that perfect microfoam.

But the biggest factor in good espresso at home isn't actually the milk… it's the coffee beans.

Bad coffee will always make bitter, gross drinks. Specialty-grade beans are fresh and tasty—even your ‘bad' cups of coffee will taste good.

Additional Reading:

The 10 Best Light Roast Coffees

10 Best Espresso Roast Coffees

What Country has the Best Tasting Coffee?

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