Flat whites in America (also known as how to order a kiwi coffee in the US)

A flat white coffee from Deluxe in Wellington. Photo by dubh on Flickr.

A delicious flat white. Photo by dubh on flickr.

*Disclaimer* I have only been in San Francisco for two weeks, so these are just my initial impressions of coffee in the city. I am certainly willing (and  hoping) to be proven wrong – I’ll report back here if I am (see updates below).

I am happy to report I have discovered the magical combination of words which result in a flat white-ish coffee being produced by an American barista!

For those of you who don’t know, flat whites don’t exist in the US as coffees, so you can kiss your crèma-laden, perfectly poured silky-milk, tulip cup of heaven goodbye.

However, there is no need to despair. Most good* cafes are fine when it comes to extracting the espresso, so you just have to worry about the milk.  You can still get a likeness of your former coffee-of-choice, but to do so you need to combat these US coffee norms:

1 – Gigantic cups

Coffee is served in seriously large cups. The smallest cups are about the size of a New Zealand “large”.  Unless you like really milky coffees, ask the person behind the counter for your coffee to be made in the smallest cup they have, half-full. Really stress the “half-full”, because most places will simply not believe that you want your coffee that short.

2 – Single shot is the default

90% of places will serve a single shot of espresso as the norm. They charge you a bit more for a double-shot, but it is worth it. So go ahead and ask for a double-shot.

3 – Latte milk

The closest thing to a flat white over here is a latte, so you’ll need to order that.

However, I am yet to find any American barista who are able to produce the silky milk required for a flat white. Be aware that your coffee’s consistency may vary from dense foamy milk all the way through to a separated consistency of dry foam on top and liquid hot milk further down. Also note that US barista do not seem concerned with how they pour their milk, so you won’t end up with ferns, hearts or pretty designs on top.

I tend to order my coffee with soy milk, not only because it tastes delicious and nutty, but also because it is a bit sweeter and is more forgiving if there are imperfections in the espresso.

Bearing all that in mind, here are the magical words:

“Could I please have a double-shot soy latte in the smallest cup you have, half-full? I really would like it half-full because I don’t want to drink that much milk.”

And always tip generously for a better experience all-round.

For those of you who don’t know what a flat white coffee is:

The flat white wikipedia article is a good place to start

There is a flickr pool of photos of flat whites to give you an idea of what they look like.

*Good cafes are relatively easy to spot. Look for:

  • a line outside
  • a sign boasting of their local roastery
  • someone who looks like they know what they’re doing behind the machine
  • staff drinking the coffee they serve
  • look for Blue Bottle or Peet’s Coffee.


  • After several recommendations, I gave Blue Bottle another try;  it was great! Would thoroughly recommend.
  • In a strange twist, it would seem that ordering a cappuccino is a good way to get something resembling a flat white! In New Zealand these two beverages are pretty much opposite, but here they are *almost* the same thing.

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