Flat White vs Cappuccino – What’s the Difference?

Legend has it that the flat white started life as a failed cappuccino. Just like the invention of penicillin, the failure was a happy one. Ultimately it led to success and the creation of one of the world’s most popular coffee drinks.

Every morning, my partner and I make our way to our favorite coffee shop. He orders a flat white, I order a cappuccino. They’re pretty much the same size and just as caffeinated – perfect for the morning kick! The microfoam of a flat white is great for him, whilst the airy Italian cappuccino is ideal for me. 

My partner likes his coffee to be smooth, not too hot, and without the creamy taste of milk. The flat white has microbubbles that cut through and mix together with the coffee. This creates a smooth coffee-and-milk mixture that is perfect for his taste.

I like my coffee to be airy, filling and to give a kick of bitter acidity to give my tastebuds the energy they need to wake up. The cappuccino’s got exactly that. It’s a double shot of espresso in the bottom and a very foamy layer of milk on top. It’s also one of the hotter milky coffee drinks.

Unsure over which coffee is best for you? Want to know more about the differences between each? Let’s take a closer look at a flat white vs cappuccino – whatever you want to know, I’ve got you covered!

What is a Flat White?

A flat white is one of the more defined coffee drinks around. It tends to be more or less the same wherever you order it. That is, a warm 5.5 oz coffee drink with a 1:1.25 coffee to milk ratio.

There’s some disagreement around the origins of the flat white. About 50 years ago, either in Australia or New Zealand, baristas were experimenting with how to foam milk. One season, the cow milk just didn’t froth. This may have been due to a change in climate or in the grass they were eating that year. There was no way the milk would froth to those big, fluffy bubbles of a cappuccino. The cappuccinos came out flat instead. 

If you’ve ever tried to froth non-barista-versions of almond milk, you’ve probably seen this happen.

The way out, as the baristas discovered, was to be very careful with how to froth the milk. They figured out a technique that created microfoam instead of failed large-sized foam. Then, they sold it as a speciality: the microfoam folding into the coffee, cutting through all the bitterness of the coffee beans and giving the espresso a creamier texture. 

How to Make a Flat White

Getting that microfoam right is pretty tricky. It’s even harder if you’ve got non-barista milk-alternatives. So, if you’re a big fan of flat whites you’re best off investing in a bellman or milk steamer and an espresso machine. You’ll also need:

  • Milk (whole is best!) or a barista versions of cow milk alternatives.
  • Coffee (Because the microfoam cuts through the acidity of the coffee, a coffee with higher acidity is a good option. Try Kenyan coffee beans).

Get a medium-sized coffee cup and make your double espresso shot.

While the coffee is pouring, make the microfoamed milk. Pour milk into your pitcher, up to just under the “tap”. Place the wand of the bellman or steamer in the pitcher at an angle. Aim for a 50-60 degrees angle here – you’ll need to move it around until you get the sound (and the texture) right. The goal is to keep the wand at the right distance from the surface so to create small pockets of air in the milk. As soon as the pitcher gets too hot to the touch, your milk is done.

Tap the milk jug on the kitchen table a couple of times. Stir the milk inside it around, and pour slowly into your cup of coffee. You want to swirl the milk into the coffee, but keep your movements slow and smooth. That’s it, ready to enjoy!

What is a Cappuccino?

In Italy, a cappuccino is breakfast. As far as they’re concerned, the layer of milk on top is thick enough to fill you up.

What it really is does, however, differ, as with all traditional coffee drinks that have regional variations.

The one thing all variants have in common is the white milk “hat” on top. Sometimes this is topped off with cinnamon or chocolate powder. It’s also made out of microfoam in the sense that the milk is steamed rather than frothed. However, these bubbles are much bigger in the cappuccino than in the flat white. This gives the hat of milk the color of a Capuchin friar’s hood. Incidentally, this is where the name ‘cappuccino’ comes from!

In its home of northern Italy, a cappuccino is made from a double shot of espresso. It’s then topped with steamed, textured milk filling the 5.5-6 oz cup. It’s seen as unacceptable to have a cappuccino and a croissant together here!

As it made its way to the rest of the world, via Viennese cafés in the 1930’s, the coffee to milk ratio decreased. This was because coffee was quite expensive whilst milk was cheap. This is why you often get only one shot of espresso in a cappuccino in the United States. Sometimes, you’ll even find cappuccino with foam that’s so thick that it goes a few centimeters on top of the actual coffee cup!

How to Make a Cappuccino

Cappuccino is best suited for softer, creamer flavors of coffee, such as Brazilian or Ethiopian roasts.

Start off by making your single or double shot of coffee, and pour the milk in to your pitcher.

Just as with the flat white, you’re going to want to froth the milk really thick, so keep your steamer or bellman wand almost at the very surface of the milk. Move it around until you get the sound that seems to be the loudest one your steamer can make without the milk going everywhere, and turn the steam onto its highest. You want to froth the milk until it’s really thick but without burning it – the flavor you get when the protein bindings in the milk break, making the coffee taste bitter. 

When the pitcher is so hot that you have to quickly move your hand away from its side, the milk is ready to be poured into the coffee.

In contrast to the flat white, which you want to tap on the kitchen table and swirl around, avoid doing anything with the milk pitcher except a gentle swirl.

When pouring the milk in, first pour half of the amount of milk you’re going to use. Then, move your hand back and forth until you get the thick foamy layer in the pitcher to fall on top of the coffee.

Finish off with some cinnamon or chocolate powder if you’d like – or even vanilla sugar! 

What’s the Difference Between a Flat White vs Cappuccino?

Although the cappuccino comes both as a single and as a double shot, the general consensus is that the two drinks are very much similar.

They’re both made with microfoam and they’re both about 5.5 oz in size, fitting in a medium-sized coffee cup.

That said, the flat white ends up lower in temperature whilst the frothed milk of the cappuccino goes to the very edge of how hot you can go without overheating and burning it.

Another difference is also in how the milk is poured into the coffe. The flat white combines the milk and the coffee into one texture. Cappuccino on the other hand has three layers: coffee, less foamed milk, and finally the thick hat of the microfoam on the very top. 

Is a Flat White Stronger than a Cappuccino?

Traditionally, both a flat white and a cappuccino are made with a double shot of espresso and a 1:1.25 ratio of coffee to milk. This makes them equally strong.

In the United States and Central Europe, however, cappuccino tends to be made out of a single shot, making the flat white twice as strong as a cappuccino.

It all depends on the coffee shop and the place. In fact, in Italy you’d struggle to get a flat white at all, while in Germany the two are served almost the same – just as in New Zealand and Australia, where the flat white is born. 

Flat White vs Cappuccino Calories

Although it’s popular to count the calories in coffee drinks, the truth is that it boils down to how you make the coffee and what you have it with.

If you’re making cappuccino the American way, with a single shot, you’ll have more calories in a cappuccino. If you’re making them the Central European way, using a double shot in both and keeping the milk proportions the same, the calorie count will be the same.

However, the texture of the milk in a cappuccino makes it more likely to want to add sugar to it. So, if you like a sweet coffee but are trying to keep your calories down, choosing a flat white will make it easier for you to avoid that extra spoon of sugar.

When Should You Have A Flat White or Cappuccino?

Cappuccino is very much a morning drink, giving you the energy you need for your day and filling you up, but a flat white can be enjoyed in the morning just as easily.

Which one you choose and when is completely up to you, but I’d recommend trusting the Italians: don’t have a cappuccino with food, have it on its own. A flat white, on the other hand, is easy to digest with anything, so if you’re after that croissant or pain au chocolat, give the flat white a go!