The World Is Flat White

Photo by Fahim Fadz

Photo by Fahim Fadz

“What’s a flat white?” I asked the Balinese barista. Her response involved microfoam, various types of espresso shots and calculus. Having already asked too much to back out, I ordered one. It blew my world wide open.1

The flat white is an Australian invention that’s been around Southeast Asia for the better part of four decades. It was the thing I missed most after I moved from Bali to the US. So imagine my pleasant surprise when it sprung up in Starbucks, which hails it as “bolder than a latte” yet “smoother than a cappuccino”—perfect for those of us who have declared neutrality in the longstanding latte-cappuccino feud.

I headed right down to my neighborhood Starbucks in Sparks, Nevada, and purchased a flat white. It was delicious. I thought to myself, “You mean that for the low, low price of $3.95, I can have this taste in my mouth every day? Done.”

Yet by the time I had finished drinking it at home, my enthusiasm had dissolved somewhere into the 16-ounce plastic cup. Because although Starbucks made the same drink I remembered, they had utterly failed to replicate the experience I had when I first drank a flat white. This is, I admit, an unfair standard to hold a coffee chain to. They’re in the business of selling caffeine and sugar to overworked Americans, not reproducing a Balinese coffeehouse.

America has been defined by its imports. It is, after all, a nation of immigrants, who brought with them food and furniture and ideas. Irish, Italians, Cubans and Chinese—all have left a mark on this country, not just with their products, but with their presence. You can buy a Cuban sandwich in Miami from an actual Cuban. The most commercial Irish bars still usually have an actual Irishman tending bar. And Chinese immigrants created perhaps the only authentically American food.

But I didn’t buy my flat white from Paul Hogan2—it was just a 19-year-old who no doubt believes the drink is from Austria and that Paul Hogan used to be a wrestler.3  The flavors of the outside world have been brought to me after first being divested of their spirit and divorced from their original context.

Context is important with coffee because I don’t enjoy coffee—I enjoy the ritual. The sound of steam, the scent of the beans, the feel of fingers around warm porcelain. Most of all, in those salad days when I first discovered the flat white, I enjoyed sitting at a communal table and listening in on five different conversations that, every 10 minutes or so, would overlap as everyone assessed the burning question: “Shall we have another?”

The flavors of the outside world have been brought to me after first being divested of their spirit and divorced from their original context.

But that is how it goes. I’ve eaten sushi in Sudan, visited Disneyland in France and eaten baguettes in Brazil. I count none of these as authentic experiences because they all prompted me to say, “It’s good—it’s just not the same.”

As I wrote in a previous post, I miss a world that is really real, and I want to believe that the authentic world exists somewhere out there, anywhere but here. Yet authenticity is not a hard and fast concept. Like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder. And somewhere, an Australian is reading this and saying, “They can’t make a decent flat white in Indonesia. It’s just not the same.”

  1. Said conversation took place at Seniman Coffee Studio, which I highly recommend if you’re a hipster, coffee snob, or, well just happen to be in Bali. []
  2. Paul Hogan is most famous in the US for playing Crocodile Dundee. He is most famous in Australia for not paying taxes on all the money he made playing Crocodile Dundee. []
  3. Because, you know, young people these days. []

6 Comments The World Is Flat White

  1. Norm

    You’re touching on at least two maybe three ideas here.

    Authenticity. It is one of those ideas that has probably been around since people have been telling stories. No matter what the time or place, [insert place name here] always was more about twenty years before.

    Experience of the moment. It is not just the the act but who was around and where. A can of Safeway Select beer may have been the best beer you ever had in your life, if the place, people and the time was special. If you haven’t eaten for a week, a bowl of oatmeal will be an unforgettable feast.

    Globalization. This goes back to Authenticity. Ever since humans learned to trade one thing for another thing (the first trade was probably between the sexes, men hunt and women gather, generally), we have been modifying our environment to make it better for our lives.

    Or maybe it’s none of those things, as Freud might have said, “Sometimes a cup of coffee is just a cup of coffee.”

      1. Norm

        Especially when it’s the only beer around and you’re thirsty. It is also better than Taiwan beer. Which even if it’s the only beer available and you’re thirsty is pretty rank.

  2. Bernardette Kasum

    It’s snowing outside and I’m brewing a cup of coffee. Can wait to hold the warm cup in my hands and watch the pretty snow fall out the window. One of these days I gotta try the flat white at Starbucks. I enjoyed reading this this morning. 🙂

  3. Ishta

    Hi Jeff, I’ve read a bunch of your writing this morning and enjoyed everything. Well done. Now that I know how interesting your work is, I wish I had talked to you more when you were in Kampala. Thank you for writing.


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