Starbucks Dives Into Third Wave, Introduces the Flat White

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Starbucks added a new coffee expression to its core drinks lineup today, the Flat White, a seemingly benign act that has some coffee drinkers rejoicing, some whining and other scratching their heads.

“Well, you know … it’s not really new,” says your buddy, the self-appointed Coffee Sophisticate, eyes rolling to avoid any judgmental gaze. Truuuue, the Flat White has been around in Australia and New Zealand for more than 30 years, and the U.K. has happily picked up the habit. And while superior U.S. coffeehouses have been whipping them up without batting an eye for years, for the bulk of America’s Starbucks-goers, it’s new.

The so-called “Third Wave” of coffee has liberated the commodity, placing it on high with other such artisanal foodstuffs as wine, beer, olive oil, cheese, charcuterie and bread. Aspiring home baristas tinker away with bulbous siphons, cold-brewing in mason jars and time-guzzling pour-over—all so as to re-create the complicated coffeehouse drinks for which we now shell out $5-$10. The higher echelons of coffee snobs wear their drawn-out brew time like badges of honor. And that’s cool. Me, I just want it fast, hot and good. I’m as pleased to savor a caffé lungo in Italy as I am to quaff a “cawffee, regulah” on the New York City subway in one of those blue paper cups with the Greek writing.

Both movements have a new ally in Starbucks, which appears to be capitalizing on America’s dwindling patience and inversely increasing appetite for a customized, well-made cuppa, cocktail or [insert hip, ethnic street food here]. However, that ally is somewhat unexpected and perhaps not even welcome by some coffee aficionados. “There is … something deeply ironic about Starbucks offering Flat Whites in the U.S.,” writes’s John McDuling, “because the drink explains the chain’s miserable experience in Australia. … Australia already has a very sophisticated coffee culture—of which the Flat White is an integral part.”

So, what’s all the fuss about? While it might sound like the uber-latte—perhaps a double venti trough of frothed milk and a mere rumor of espresso?—but it’s really quite the opposite. I first heard the F-word when Sambalatte—arguably one of Las Vegas’ finest coffee spots—opened in Boca Park in 2010: “Sambalatte’s Flat White (halfway between latte and cappuccino) is a bargain at $2.75,” Vegas Seven food critic Max Jacobson wrote. “The espresso used to make it is a blend of Ethiopian Harrar for boldness, Brazilian for creaminess and Colombian for balance.”

Jacobson’s description is apt; the Flat White has a foot in both camps, being a double espresso combined with both steamed milk and “microfoam”—less milky, yet texturally silky. As with all things, the 800-pound Starbucks gorilla makes its own rules (you know, “tall” is small, “grande” is medium…). Its version ($3.75 for a tall) pairs two strong ristretto shots with whole milk that has been frothed for 3 seconds, as opposed to the usual 4 or 5. As another colleague commented on the latent strength of the drink: “I’m still high from my Flat White from 10 hours ago. I had two in one day the other week and thought I was going to have a heart attack.” So, you know, caveat emptor.

When I showed up at Starbucks before work this morning and ordered my Flat White, the staff seemed excited, and gathered around a senior barista for the demo. He pulled the shots, then went in for the foam that results in a macchiato-style dot of creamy white in a sea of dark tan—and kinda missed the mark. “Nuh uh,” he huffed, discarding the drink and starting over. “Not good enough.” I swallowed my shock, and happily took a seat to wait for the perfect Flat White a la Starbucks. “They’re actually gonna let us use our artistry now?” quipped one of the mentees sarcastically, delivering the goods and likely dreaming about what he might “draw” in that foam.

The arrival of the Flat White at my local ’bucks actually wasn’t my first eyebrow-raising experience there. A few months back, upon ordering a cup of special Christmas brew, I was informed it would take longer than the usual 30 seconds as my coffee would be prepared as a pour-over. “Wait—pour-over???” I was deeply impressed … until I was informed that this was now customary, that after a certain point in the day, orders for less-popular brews are to be filled one cup at a time so as not to have to brew (and likely later discard) an entire batch for the sake of one cup. Third wave for the sake of the bottom line. Hmph.

“Starbucks has been classing up its act in the last year or so, trying to appeal to coffee snobs and not just busy workers looking for a caffeine fix (or free WiFi),” writes in blunt response to Starbucks’ announcement about the imminent arrival of the new drink. Probably. In fact, almost certainly. But if chains and fast-food joints can co-opt the efforts of the socially responsible, boasting grass-fed-beef burgers; sustainable, organic salads; and handcrafted cocktails; and if Target can trot out clothing lines by famous guest designers … I must suppose (however reluctantly) that Starbucks can appropriate any coffee drink for its repertoire that it likes.

Who knows? If U.S. relations with Cuba continue to improve, perhaps I’ll be starting my day with a Starbucks Café Cubano?