Review: Starbucks Flat White

Jan 09

The holiday season is over, and that means the post-holiday winter season has begun at Starbucks. This is the time of year when the beloved holiday-themed drinks like the Gingerbread Latte fade away, so there’s always a new drink or two introduced to try to keep peoples’ interest.

Usually the new winter drinks are sugary, often some variation on the mocha or a new flavoring for lattes. But this year Starbucks is trying something different: the Flat White.

Not gonna lie, I had to refresh my memory on what exactly a flat white is. You can check Wikipedia or Starbucks, but the gist of it is that a flat white is a drink popularized in Australia that’s like a latte or cappuccino, but with ristretto (shorter) shots and carefully steamed milk that’s a finer, more “velvety” foam.

See what’s missing there? No flavoring, no syrups, no toppings, no fancy froufrou stuff. The key flavor in a flat white is the espresso itself. With a menu increasingly reliant on sugary sweet drinks, it’s nice to see Starbucks coming back to a drink where it’s the actual coffee in the spotlight.

I’ve mentioned before that I usually get my lattes and Clover coffees sweetened, but for the purposes of this review I ordered a flat white with nothing extra — just the drink as it’s normally made. And you know what? I don’t miss the sweetness. The flavor of the espresso is very nicely balanced against the milk, so the drink isn’t bitter or harsh to tastebuds accustomed to sweeter drinks. If lattes are your thing, definitely give the flat white a try.

There’s a couple of particularly notable elements to this drink, besides the lack of “candy”. First is the ristretto shots — these are shots of espresso that are brewed for a shorter length of time than usual, giving the shots a different character since the espresso coming out of the machine changes a bit over the course of the brewing process. For a while my “Starbucks Drinks Simplified” page stated that these shots couldn’t be made on the new superautomatic machines like they could on the older, more manual machines that were in use when I worked for Starbucks. Clearly this isn’t the case. Ristretto shots used to be something very rarely requested by customers, but if they’re promoting a whole drink centered on them then clearly the machines can handle it.

The second notable element is the milk. Setting aside all the talk about “microfoam” and “velvety”, the key thing for the barista is that the milk in a flat white is fiddly. Look, people who see pictures of lattes with those pretty hearts in the foam, or awesome pictures or whatever, come to me and say “can you do that?” and the answer is no, I can’t. Starbucks doesn’t train baristas in pretty foam techniques because the vast majority of customers just want their drink in a cup right now. They don’t want to wait for you to make a pretty heart on their drink and the twenty drinks ahead of them. Hell, they don’t even want to wait for you to heat up the milk. Handcrafting drinks with care is a constant struggle between the ideals of slow, individual attention and the impatience of a constant line of customers. But I kept an eye on the barista after I ordered and she did have to pay extra attention to the milk steaming. And when I popped the lid off, there was in fact the “white dot” in the foam that the Starbucks website crows about. The milk did seem to have a different texture than usual, too.

Put these together and you have a very unusual drink in the Starbucks lineup — a combination of a special, rarely-requested type of espresso shot and a more labor-intensive milk steaming and pouring process. To be honest, I’m glad all that work isn’t hidden under some kind of super-sugary flavoring syrup and whipped cream.

Options for customizing this drink would be similar to a latte: you can get it decaf, you can get it flavored, and you can order it with soy. You may not get the full experience with soy milk, however, since it has different steaming properties than milk and foams differently (which is to say, it’s hard as hell to get a good foam with soy). Likewise, if you ask for this drink with flavor syrup you’ll be hiding the best parts of it, so you might as well just order a latte. I suspect you can order a flat white on the rocks (iced), but that would just be an iced latte with ristretto shots — a drink which you can order more cheaply than the flat white.

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable drink. Even if you normally lean toward the sweeter side of the menu, give the flat white a try. You might find yourself liking it a lot.


  • What: Starbucks Flat White
  • Where: Starbucks locations
  • Options: Decaf or regular, hot or iced, choice of milk, flavoring syrups can be added (but if you get it iced, soy, or flavored you’re missing the point)
  • Verdict: A delicious variation on the standard latte, showcasing the taste of espresso.



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Drink Comparison: Latte vs Macchiato

May 23

Looking at the search terms people use to find my side gives me a pretty good idea about the puzzlements that puzzle the great wide coffee-drinking internet. Today I’ll elucidate what appears to be a common quandry among the search engine-using populace: Latte vs. Macchiato.

The latte, as I’ve said elsewhere, is the “baseline” espresso drink. It consists of espresso, steamed milk, and foam. If you order it “on the rocks”, that’s espresso, cold milk, and ice. If you want it sweet, you have to add something to make it sweet. Nice and simple.

The (espresso) macchiato is simpler ingredient-wise but a little more complicated to make: it consists of a cup full of milk foam with espresso poured in afterward, leaving a brown “mark” on top of the foam where the shots came through. I say it’s more complicated because not only do you put the ingredients in “backwards” from most drinks, but making good milk foam can take practice. Making a whole cup of good foam definitely takes practice. As with the latte, there’s no sweeteners here. It’s usually ordered by the number of shots (single, double, triple, etc) rather than the cup size.

You can order an espresso macchiato iced, but it’s not very common. Usually that’s a cup of ice, with warm milk foam on top, and espresso shots poured over the top. The combination of the warm foam and the ice will get you some weird looks, but if that’s what strikes your fancy then rock your drink however you like.

There’s a third member to this comparison, however, and it’s the much more commonly-ordered macchiato at Starbucks: the caramel macchiato. This is closer to a vanilla/caramel latte than to an espresso macchiato. It’s vanilla flavoring syrup, steamed milk, milk foam, espresso shots poured through the foam, and then a drizzle of caramel sauce poured on top. It’s a macchiato because you’re still “marking” the foam with the espresso (or vice versa), but it’s mostly milk rather than foam. Unlike both the latte and the espresso macchiato, it’s quite sweet. It can also be made “on the rocks”. If you order a caramel macchiato, I highly recommend you stir it well before drinking it so more of the caramel dissolves in the milk.

Which one should you pick? The latte is a solid standby for those who don’t want their drink too sweet but aren’t keen on the taste of nearly-full-strength espresso. The espresso macchiato gives you much more of the full taste of the espresso, with much less milk to water it down (this also makes it the lowest-calorie of the three). The caramel macchiato is a favorite of people who prefer sweet drinks and love the taste of caramel.

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Drink comparison: Misto vs Latte

May 13

While looking through the search terms that led people to my site, I noticed an interesting pattern: lots of people are searching for one drink “vs.” another drink, I assume to find out what the differences are so they know which one they want. Since I’ve spent over ten years trying to break down and simplify these things so people understand them more easily, I figured I should do some posts comparing drinks one-on-one. And I’ll start with the comparison that got me by far the most hits last quarter: Misto vs Latte.

Let’s start with the latte. The most “basic” espresso/milk drink, it’s just espresso, steamed milk, and a little bit of milk foam on top. If it’s iced, it’s espresso and milk mixed with ice. It’s not very sweet on its own; many people sweeten it with sugar or some kind of flavored syrup like vanilla or hazelnut. When breaking down the entire espresso drink lineup, this is the drink I start with, because a lot of other drinks can be described by how they differ from the latte.

The misto, however, is not an espresso drink. You may see it referred to more often as a cafe au lait, a “coffee with milk”. This drink is half regular brewed coffee (not espresso) and half steamed milk. Or in its iced form, which is less common, it’s coffee and milk with ice. There are two things that make this different from just getting a regular coffee and adding milk on your own: first, there’s as much milk as there is coffee, instead of being mostly coffee with a little milk added; and second, the milk is steamed, so the drink as a whole stays nice and hot. Like the latte, this drink is not sweet unless you add something sweet to it.

The difference between the latte and the misto/au lait is that the latte uses espresso where the misto uses regular coffee. Espresso is stronger and has a slightly different flavor, so while the actual volume of coffee in a latte is smaller the coffee-ness is just as strong.

Which one should you pick? I’m a latte junkie personally, so it’s usually my first choice. It’s also better if you want to add flavors to your coffee, or if you prefer the taste of espresso. However, if you prefer the taste of regular ol’ joe, or if you really want to savor the taste of the specific coffee being brewed, get the misto. The misto is also lower in calories than the latte, generally, because more of the volume of the drink is low-calorie coffee instead of higher-calorie milk.

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Reader Q&A (courtesy of search engines)

Nov 01

Since I haven’t worked for Starbucks in, oh, a decade or so, I don’t get as many questions about their drinks as I used to. Or questions about coffee in general, for that matter. But the unrelenting flow of people to this little corner of the internet shows that people are still curious, confused, and otherwise question-filled when it comes to the big green leviathan. And I’m here to answer whatever questions y’all have.

Now, people don’t actually¬†ask me things through this blog. Possibly because I have the spam protection turned up to 11, and possibly because I’ve hidden the associated email address and never, ever check it. But thanks to the magic of search engines, I can look into the things people have in their mind when they come here. Some of these things are already answered on the main drinks-explaining page, but some of them aren’t.

So here, in a hopefully-recurring feature, is …¬†Reader Q&A! Where I sift through the search terms that brought people to my site and answer them directly.

Q: is iced caramel macchiato sweet
Yes, it is. You’ll have to stir the everloving hell out of it before drinking it, though, if you want the caramel to mix with the rest of the drink. Caramel sauce doesn’t dissolve very well in cold milk.

Q: can you get an iced cafe misto
Technically, yes. However, this is basically an iced coffee with milk in it, so you’d be better off getting an iced coffee with extra room for cream and just putting the milk in yourself.

Q: caffe misto with soymilk starbucks?
Huh, people actually use punctuation on Google sometimes. Yes, you can get a misto with soy milk.

Q: how to remember how to make starbucks drinks
This is the biggest question I used to get from people applying to Starbucks. It can seem overwhelming at first, looking at that menu full of drinks, but there is logic behind it. Most espresso drinks are basically based around the latte (espresso with milk). For example, a mocha is a latte with chocolate. A caramel macchiato is a vanilla latte with a little less vanilla, the shots dropped in last, and caramel syrup. An americano is a latte with hot water instead of milk, and an extra shot. Frappuccinos are based around the coffee frappuccino — and if my recent visits to Starbucks are any indication, there’s usually stickers on the wall to help you remember the recipe. Shaken drinks are (I think) based around the shaken iced tea. The amount of syrup in any given drink size usually follows a pattern too. Don’t worry, you’ll pick it up pretty quick.

Q: what is a quad macchiato
Four shots poured into a cup full of milk foam.

Q: what’s a normal coffee at starbucks
It’s called a “coffee”. I know, right? You’d never guess that you can walk up to the counter and order a “large coffee”. It’s also sometimes called a “drip”. Cups are rarely marked when someone orders a coffee, since the barista usually just turns around and pours it, but when I was working there, on the rare occasion we marked a coffee it was “COD”, for Coffee Of the Day.

Q: what is an upside down coffee?
Uh … a reason to grab a mop? Caramel macchiatos can be made upside down (with the shots first), but coffee is just coffee. There’s no way to make it upside down.

Q: chocolate macchiato upside down breve
Espresso shots and chocolate with steamed half-and-half and extra foam. Basically a breve mocha with no whipped cream. Okay, so that’s not a question … but it sounds like a tasty drink.

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What’s the deal with the logo? What is that?

Nov 05

It's the company mascot, the Siren. Makes a certain amount of sense for a company named after the founder's boat.

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