A typical flat white with telltale textured milk. | Photo by Russell J. Smith

I don't remember the first time I ordered a flat white. I don't remember the first time I ordered a cortado. The excessive amount of caffeine I consume on a daily basis has surely fried those circuits in my brain by now, although I'm fairly certain one of the two was given to me by a kind barista at Catalina Coffee one morning when I couldn't make up my mind. What I do know that life before the two coffee drinks—found in Houston at places like Blacksmith, Southside Espresso, Inversion, and Revival Market—was a gloomy and dismal affair.

I never cared for lattes; too much milk. I never cared for straight up espresso; no milk at all. I usually settled for coffee with a touch of cream until my Goldilocks-like hunt led me to cortados and flat whites, where the ratio of coffee to milk was just right. However, I'm ashamed to admit that until today, I didn't really know what I was ordering when I asked for a cortado or a flat white—just that it was espresso and steamed milk in a petite cup and it was perfect.

I've tried to figure it out on my own in the past, of course. Some coffee shops serve one but not the other and I wanted to know why. More importantly, I wanted to know the difference between the two. To my untrained, non-barista eye, a cortado and a flat white seemed relatively similar. Wikipedia was, as usual, no help. Neither were the coffee blogs I attempted to read; I don't speak barista.

The coffee menu at Revival Market.

So this morning at Revival Market, where I fluctuate between ordering cortados and flat whites depending on what word tumbles out of my mouth first, I asked friendly barista/event manager Nick Panzarella to explain the difference to me.

"A cortado comes from Spain," Panzarella began. "It means 'cut' in Spanish. The milk isn't texturized—the Spanish don't texturize their milk like the Italians do." He showed me the metal cup of milk he'd steamed for my cortado. "See?" he pointed out. The milk was simply lightly steamed and didn't have any of the telltale froth or foam you'd see in a latte or cappucino.

"A flat white," on the other hand, "comes from Australia," Panzarella continued. It's a drink that's still relatively new in America. "The Australians learned their coffee-making techniques from Italian immigrants." So the flat white, it follows, contains textured milk—unlike the smoother milk in a cortado. That textured steamed milk is also much hotter, leading to a hotter cup of coffee overall.

A cortado, made with steamed but not textured | Photo by Kaleb Fulgham

Fellow barista Kyle VanDevender chimed in: "The amount of espresso is the same in both drinks," he said. "But the flat white is basically a small latte." It all started to click in my head. Of course I'd noticed that the flat whites I ordered tended to be hotter and thicker than the cortados and usually featured "latte art" on top. But all this time I'd chalked it up to variations between baristas and coffee shops, never understanding those were the chief, intentional differences between the two drinks.

I blame most of my confusion on how thick-headed I tend to be before my first cup of coffee in the morning. Panzarella and VanDevender went on to helpfully explain the rest of Revival Market's coffee menu as I sipped my cortado and took it all in. "A macchiato just means 'marked' in Italian," said VanDevender, "so it's an espresso that's 'marked' with a little foam on top."

I felt terribly excited about my newfound ability to make an educated order...at least until the coffee shops in Houston add more newfangled coffee drinks to their menus. I still don't know what a Gibraltar or a Guillermo is, and—for now—I don't care. I'll have a cortado please. Or maybe a flat white. 

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