You’re not really being ripped off, according to a caffeine expert.
If you regularly buy coffee, you’ve probably noticed that a flat white will often set you back more than a latte or cappuccino. At Starbucks, for example, a medium latte and cappuccino both cost £2.25, but a flat white is priced at £2.60. Visit a branch of Costa, meanwhile, and you’ll pay £2.15 for a small latte, £2.25 for a small cappuccino, and £2.40 for a small flat white.
This is despite the fact that flat whites are generally smaller (they contain the same amount of coffee, but less milk).
But according to coffee expert Chloe Callow, this doesn’t necessarily mean that customers are being ripped off. The editor of Caffeine magazine says that while flat whites don’t cost more to produce than other coffees, they do require more skill to make properly – which makes the slightly bumped-up price a fair deal.
Callow tells The Telegraph that a good flat white should be made with milk steamed into a ‘microfoam’. This means that the bubbles in the froth (made always with whole milk, natch) are so tiny that they can’t be seen, creating a silky-smooth texture as you sip your coffee.
Microfoam is also necessary if you want to create latte art – the intricate, pretty designs you get on top of your flat white. Only properly trained baristas can master the foamy artform, which requires extra investment from coffee shops.
However, Callow says that the “perceived value” of a flat white also helps to raise the price. Flat whites didn’t start to creep onto the menus of cafés in the UK until the late Noughties, and are still widely viewed as being ‘trendier’ than many other coffees.
“These customers are not just buying a flat white. They’re buying into a lifestyle,” she says.
“The [flat white] trend stemmed from the rise of independent coffee shops in London – think of the stereotype of the tattooed barista. There are loads of them now, but… the flat white was less accessible back then, and seen as something a little bit different.”
Even though flat whites are now widely available, Callow says that they still feel special.
“The flat white is a small luxury but it’s still affordable – it’s perceived as niche, and above and beyond the everyday,” she explains.
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It seems that this feeling of exclusivity is what coffee connoisseurs are looking for in 2017. In September, BBC News reported that investors in major coffee chains such as Costa were being warned that the market may soon reach ‘saturation point’, thanks partly to the growth of artisanal coffee shops.
Speaking to the Guardian, Jeffrey Young of coffee industry analysts Allegra, said: “We are in the fifth wave of coffee, a new era of professional, well-funded businesses set up by smart people that appeal to millennials and people with discerning tastes who want quality and fresh food and nice design.”
Big chains like Costa, Starbucks and Caffe Nero may try to emulate the feel of an independent coffee shop by introducing flat whites, brick walls and ‘vintage’ sofas, said Young, but this was unlikely to be enough to change their fortunes.
“The coffee industry needs to put its foot on the innovation accelerator and to work a lot harder to deliver value,” he said.
But whether you enjoy your flat white at a tiny ‘craft coffee’ shop on Saturday morning, or grab one from a crowded branch of a major chain on your way to work, you can rest assured that you’re not being overcharged. Phew.
For more on 2017’s biggest coffee trends, from mushroom coffee to nitro cold brew, click here.
Images: Tyler Nix / iStock