Flat White vs Cappuccino – How Different are They?

You’re standing at the counter of a coffee shop, gazing up at the items on the menu. You figure you’ll go with your usual cappuccino. 

But then your eyes wander to the item beneath that, a flat white. 

You then ask yourself, 

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

Read on in order to discover the subtleties that make these two drinks unique.

Flat White vs Cappuccino – A Quick Comparison : 

The common ingredient shared by flat white and cappuccino is espresso and milk. The difference lies in the treatment of the milk.

A flat white is smoother and has a lighter feel, while a cappuccino is less acidic and has a creamy texture.

What's A Cappuccino?

Cappuccino by Little Sparrow in Melbourne

The cappuccino of old looked quite different from our modern version and was first served in Italy sometime prior to World War II. It originally featured a Viennese flair and was made up of milk, espresso, whipped cream, and chocolate shavings. 

Meanwhile, the cappuccino we recognize today eliminates the toppings, scaling it down to the purity of milk and espresso only. 

It was around the 1980’s that cappuccino first became known in the United States. 

Today, there are various cappuccino variations such as wet cappuccino, dry cappuccino and bone dry cappuccino.

Read More : Dry vs Wet Cappuccino – What’s the Difference?

Composition of a Cappuccino

Composition of Cappuccino Coffee

A cappuccino is made up of equal parts of foam, steamed milk and espresso shots.

It’s generally served in a 6 oz cup, meaning this traditional format is slightly smaller than a latte.

Read More : Latte vs Cappuccino – The 2 Most Common Coffee Compared

The star of the show when it comes to a cappuccino is the topping, the element that sets it apart from the rest. There is still steamed milk present in this drink, but it’s nestled beneath the cap’s signature mountain of foam. 

Sometimes a cappuccino is featured in a glass cup so that you may enjoy the aesthetic of the layered result.

Barista Tip : When done well, you’ll experience a noticeable divide between the frothy top, steamed middle and finish of espresso.

What is A Flat White?

Barista Pouring A Flat White

The flat white is the new kid on the block compared to other types of coffee. It was invented in 1984. 

We don’t know for certain whether New Zealand or Australia first produced this variation on an espresso drink. But rather than splitting hairs about who did it first, it’s easier to say that both discovered this beverage around the same time which is the most likely explanation. 

Flat Whites Can Vary from Shop to Shop

Though the flat white will always be comprised of espresso and milk no matter where you order it, the exact turnout will differ.

I first noticed that everyone had a different opinion about how it should be made while working at my first barista job. I heard that a flat white was set apart by the fact that the milk was poured over a single shot of espresso (no mention of any milk particulars).

These simplistic definitions aren’t completely wrong as each touches on an aspect of the drink’s traditional format. 

However, these are not what make a flat white unique. 

Let’s set the record straight on what those non-negotiable elements really are by looking at the flat white’s composition.

Composition of a Flat White

Composition of Flat White Coffee

A flat white is made up of steamed milk with 1 or 2 shots of espresso beneath it (we will get to this in the next section).

Unlike a cappuccino or a latte, a flat white does not contain milk foam at the top. Some baristas would leave a little milk foam at the top, but that’s about it.

Read More : Flat White vs Latte – Find Out the Differences

After the milk is steamed for a flat white, it’s then free poured which ensures the milk and espresso become thoroughly mixed, rendering them indistinguishable from one another when you take a sip. 

Flat whites are often adorned with latte art and a good barista will be able to create art even without a great deal of foam. Once again, it all depends on where you order it.

Barista Tip : The goal is for the milk in a flat white is to be more velvety in texture rather than thick with foam.

A Flat White Can Have 1, or Even 2 Shots of Espresso

The misconception that a ristretto shot is necessary is an understandable one. 

A ristretto shot is produced when less water filters through the beans during extraction, resulting in a stronger, more concentrated taste. 

However, in a flat white, the delusion of the espresso (or the lack of it), is actually dependent upon the amount of milk added. 

Traditionally, a flat white is served in a 5oz tulip cup so after the shots are poured, there isn’t a whole lot of room left for milk. 

Less milk added to the espresso equals a more concentrated drink. 

Sarah Lee Headshot

About Sarah Lee

Sarah Lee is a former barista who discovered the power of coffee while maintaining a rigorous dance and writing schedule. She trained as a barista in the third-wave coffee industry, receiving in-depth instruction about how to assemble traditional espresso drinks and perfecting her latte art skills.