How the flat white was invented

The flat white is a New Zealand invention. That's according to Derek Townsend, founder of Karajoz Coffee Company, who says he knows this to be true because he invented it. 

In 1981 Derek and some friends opened, what he claims was, New Zealand's first real cafe. 

The DKD Cafe was up a flight of stairs at the back of Auckland's Civic Theatre building, in a space that had been vacant since the 1920s. 

They'd bought and repaired a busted espresso machine from an Italian restaurant on Victoria Street and started serving espresso coffee in the style of European cafes of the time.

"I say I started the first real cafe [in New Zealand]. When I started, there was no cafe culture, there were one or two pioneers before me but they came and went," Derek says.

How the flat white was invented
Photo credit: Newshub

The DKD was inspired by the cafes of Italy and France. Places to meet and share ideas. 

"I felt that the cafe was an egalitarian vehicle, if you like. People of all types, from all walks of life, could come and meet under one roof. We had all kinds of people. The only place I ever advertised was in the [Auckland] Police Gazette,"  he says, with a half-smile.

Derek's friend, who had been working as a barista in Melbourne, brought back the names of coffees upon her return to New Zealand. 

"You had a short black, a long black, a cafe latte, a cappuccino, and the flat white was just a long black topped up with cold milk. In those days, there was no history of espresso-based coffee in NZ," Derek says.

"I started making it [a flat white] with hot milk and I started saying to the customers, 'try this and if you don't like it I'll make you another'. Well nobody ever asked for another."

Then the milk technique developed.

"My technique, the original technique, is a short espresso and then I stretch the milk 500 percent if I can, and it makes it sweeter and creamier.

"That was my job, standing behind the coffee machine every day, making coffee. I stopped counting after two million," he says.

"After that, you sort of get a sixth sense for it and so I just started experimenting and from the experimenting came the espresso with creamy milk. I got the other coffee makers to start making it that way, then they went on to work at other cafes and it spread around the country."

How the flat white was invented
Photo credit: Newshub

So, while the name itself might be an Aussie import, having been used to describe a plain black coffee with milk since the 1960s, it's Derek's original technique of stretching the milk to that velvety cream-like consistency - the flat white as we know it today - which has spread across the country and, eventually, across the Tasman.

These days you can find a Derek Townsend-style flat white as far afield as the USA.

"But you try and find a good coffee in America, it's really, really difficult," says Derek. 

How the flat white was invented
Photo credit: Newshub

He reckons Kiwi coffee is still among the world's best.

In Derek's professional opinion, for all our isolation down here at the bottom of the world, for many of us, it's no more than a short trip down the road to find a world-class cup of coffee.