Have you ever been to a coffee shop and ordered a flat white or maybe even a macchiato? You might have heard these terms thrown around the shop, but what do they really mean?

If you are a regular coffee drinker, you likely have at least some idea of the difference between a latte and an espresso or a cappuccino. You might be less familiar with the subtle differences between two drinks that are on opposite sides of the spectrum: the flat white and macchiato.

Matching your coffee to your mood is important, but not all drinks are created equal.

Here’s how to tell the difference between these popular beverages so you can enjoy your perfect cup of joe every time.

When it comes to flat whites and macchiato, each of them gives a special experience. Flat white is one part of espresso to four parts of milk, topped with an even coating of microfoam, while macchiato is two parts of espresso to one part of milk.

The methods used to make these drinks are different, but they still have their best time, location, and person.

History and roots of the flat white coffee

Flat White

Interestingly, a flat white theory originated from Italy and a coffee shop in Sydney, Australia. Alan Preston, a shop manager, in 1985, made a drink that resembled a latte, but for the distinctive flat layer of microfoam on top; thus, the term “flat white.” Microfoam is essentially a thick version of milk foam, whisked until it produces microscopic bubbles.

What is a flat white?

The flat white is almost like a cappuccino or a latte. You can see a creamy, light caramel mix of milk and espresso in a glass with no real layers but a shallow layer of milk foam, which may or may not have a stylistic style. The aroma is still dominated by the espresso smell, while the milk serves as a stimulating taste.

It’s not the same thing as white coffee, though (which is a coffee bean originating from Yemen.)

To appreciate this drink, you need to know a little bit about the Australian coffee culture. Most of the culture of the Aussie café is the direct product of Italian immigrants. As such, the Australian cappuccino looks very typical, with a lot of foam sitting on a carefully mixed bed of milk and espresso.

But as the coffee culture progressed, consumers and baristas started to taste more espresso with less foam and milk. Instead of a small drink with a cool foam dome, they wanted it to have a flat surface – that’s why it was a flat white.

History and roots of the macchiato

The typical macchiato itself represents a simple espresso drink that has been “stained” with milk. This initial macchiato was a way to find pleasure in espresso, with no serious, full-bodied taste. Italians traditionally drank a macchiato as a way to ease into midday espresso. Generally, it will be served in a small cup of demitasse.

This trend is common in many European countries, although most people in North America are much more accustomed to latte macchiato. Starbucks has made famous latte macchiato, selling it with a variety of flavors and add-ins.

What is a macchiato?

Macchiato is a powerful coffee shot with only a little milk. Originally from Italy (and translating to stain or mark), it is fair to say that the universal comprehension of macchiato is an espresso shot with a small piece of milk. But depending on where you’re in the world and what cup you’re using, you may get something slightly different.

One way is to “mark” an espresso with a small amount of steamed milk. This tiny drink (2-3 ounces total) is a classic Italian drink; if you were to walk up to the Venetian coffee bar and order a macchiato, that’s exactly what you’d get. A small amount of milk will add a little sweetness and help to soften some of the more strong coffee.

A typical macchiato can come in a glass that exposes the layers. The espresso layer is normally at the bottom, preceded by a dollop of foamed milk.

Nowadays, though, latte macchiato—the traditional chain of coffee shops—begins with milk on the rim.

Latte macchiato means “stained milk,” and this drink is simply a glass of milk that you “stain” by pouring espresso over it.

It has the same ingredients as caffè latte, but it is made and served differently. A great latte macchiato comes in a tall glass, and you can clearly see the layers of foam on the top, the espresso in the middle, and the milk on the bottom.

What is the difference between a macchiato and a flat white?

person holding cup

It can’t be easy to pick between specialty coffee drinks where the amount of espresso to milk varies. But it’s pretty straightforward to pick between a flat white and a macchiato since they provide a popular contrast. These two coffee drinks are worlds apart from how they are served, how they smell, and of importantly, how they taste.

The quantity of milk and foam is going to transform the way the espresso tastes. Milk is made of water, lactose and fat. The water dilutes the tastes of the espresso. Sugars help to balance any bitterness of the coffee. The fat coats the tongue, minimizing the sensation of dry or sour taste. The more milk you add, the more these variables can influence the taste of the espresso. The fats in the milk hang on to the aromatic compounds, which will prolong the finishing of your coffee.

Without a doubt, if you like a cup of coffee, any of these drinks would suit your fancy. The ratio of espresso to milk, however, gives them a good comparison. In a spectrum of straight milk at one end and straight espresso at the other end, if flat white drops marginally towards the milk end, the macchiato will come very close to the espresso end.

It offers a robust taste of espresso, which is only a little softened by velvety steamed milk.

The flat white is less daring in its espresso taste than the macchiato while better than a latte. I prefer to think of it as a serious latte, and the microfoam leaves the taste buds with a pleasant creaminess.

Which one is better?

It’s a matter of choice to pick between a flat white and a macchiato. It would be wrong to raise one over the other. After all, every coffee lover has his or her tastes. However, each of these drinks has its own time and place.

For those who are now joining the espresso world, a flat white would be a great option. It’s a softer, milkier treat than a macchiato.

For people who want a rich hint of concentrated coffee, muted only by a tiny amount of milk and foam, the macchiato is your best bet.

I like macchiato the most when I need a nice afternoon pick-me-up. Some days, I want a flat white because I choose to take responsibility—we can’t have a luxuriously smooth latte all the time.

The value of espresso drinks is that they always have a spot in our lives. Anyone can modify and experience it however they choose whether it’s a flat white or a macchiato. What coffee drink are you going to try on your next coffee adventure?