The Sydney History of the Flat White
Researched & Written by S.J.Will copyright 2015 - Images copyright Alan Preston 2015
Extracts from Interviews with Alan Preston copyright 2015
Alan Preston, age 29, most likely making a Flat White in 1985
Moors Espresso Bar Menu
Flat White 2nd under Cappuccino
Looking into Moors. 2GB and Channel 7 Voice Over Man, Bruce Ferrier, pictured
First Oz Pub Espresso Bar 1988 - Flat White on the menu
Cantarella Bros. supplied the only Vittoria neon sign in existence at the time
Preston's 2nd effort in Sussex St 1986, the eponymous Bar Prestoni - Flat White on the menu though
Number 4 of 7, Pailou Bar, in Pailou Plaza
Flat White on the Menu
Looking out to Sussex St
ALP HQ across the road
Pictured: Bruce Ferrier, Voice Over Man, and the 2 Founders of Australian Himalayan Expeditions
Alan Preston setting up a new Cafe 2011
Alan Preston operating 2 Group Gaggia Lever Handle Espresso Machine
Salisbury Cafe 2014
Flat White on the Menu
Flat White ready to drink
Flat White - note the tide marks
Flat White - Done right, tide marks to the last sip.
In the early Summer of 1985, Alan Preston (aged 29) took a lease on a shop at 394 Sussex St. Haymarket, Sydney, having relocated with his wife Susan and 2 daughters Danielle and Renee to Sydney from Brisbane.
Preston was originally from North Queensland and had long been an Espresso enthusiast having been acquainted with the iconic NQ Main Street Cafes which had become a feature of NQ Cane Towns.
These cafes were funded by the invariably Italian Sugar Boom Millionaires who had ridden the Cane Fields to unrivalled prosperity. They had maintained strong links with Italy and by the late 1950s, their sons had opened Italian Style Cafes on the Main Streets of Cane Towns such as Ingham, Innisfail, Ayr, Home Hill and indeed, all over the Sugar Boom Towns of North Queensland.
Townsville was the commercial heart of this highly prosperous region.
Italians in the cities were also pioneering Espresso in their communities (The Cantarella Bros notably import a 3 group Gaggia to Sydney in 1954) but it is the Nth Qld Italians who have the money and the numbers. The Italian Cane farmers had struck it rich and were the first group of Post War migrant Italians in Australia to start to shape their surrounds in the image of the 'Old Country' as they financially dominated the cane towns.
Achille Gaggia’s 1948 Lever Espresso Machine was making over the European Cafe world.(Gaggia is the true start of Espresso) By the end of the 1960s, Australia's head count of Espresso Machines was 3rd, after only Italy and Spain with the majority of those machines in North Queensland, and so it was that Oz Espresso has it's origins in North Queensland more so than the Cities. In 1954, a 3 Group Gaggia was worth about $30K in today's money, so there weren't many takers. The Nth Qld Cane Farmers were amongst the few Italians on the Planet who could afford them. Italy itself was still severely constrained by the devastation of the 2nd World War so the NQ sales would have been significant to Gaggia, who established an agency in Sydney (Boema) in 1956. Boema would send lever espresso machines on the famous "Sunlander"up to the canefields.
The NQ take on Espresso in the 60s & 70s was a cross cultural hybrid. Preston noticed the beverage “White Coffee – flat“ as it had occasionally and uniquely appeared on the NQ menus. He coined the term 'Flat White' in 1985 and put Flat White second after Cappuccino, on Moors Espresso Bar’s Menu.
There is no earlier record or example of the term before this.
Moors Espresso Bar was Alan Preston's first cafe.
The original NQ menus were thus -
Black Coffee -
White Coffee -
The following extract from Alan Preston
"It seemed natural to me to do what had already been done with Long Black and Short Black so I abbreviated NQ's White Coffee – flat, to Flat White when I did Moors' menu in 1985. I don't surely know if I really was the first to do so but I can prove I had Flat White on my permanent menus starting in 1985. People say it was here it was there, but no one seems to have any proof do they? Am I the only Cafe owner in Australia who had a camera back in the day? If you reckon I didn't do it and you know who did, then stump up some proof. One thing is guaranteed. I did it before the Kiwis. It seems to me that if I said I invented the Flat White in 1969, then the Kiwis would say they did it in 1968. I have asked them to send me any authentic verified photo of their claim to have had Flat White on their menu's pre 1985 but nothing as of today's date. I note that their primary claimant, McInnes, is adamant he had Flat White on his menu by 1989. Well it had already well kicked on by then. Proveably all over Sydney by 1989 but he wants Starbucks to pay him royalties! Most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."
Alan Preston 2015
Moors Espresso Bar is the Flat White's debut, as far as we can ascertain. "White Coffee - flat" seems to have become extinct around North Queensland by 1985.
We are unable to find any evidence of it existing after the 70s but anecdotal stories suggest that it was served here and there from the 60s. New Zealand Espresso culture does not really start until the late 1980s and many say the early 90s. It comes directly from Australia in any case. They seem to forget that Samuel Marsden sailed from Botany Bay in the first place. Last time we looked there were Marsden Streets all over New Zealand. Lever Handle collectors aren't scouring NZ for their old machines. Why is that? They don't have any! We are well sick of them bragging that they are the last word in Espresso and that the rest of us are morons who wouldn't know a good cup of coffee if it rose up and bit us on the arse! Alan Preston invented and then perfected the Flat White long before they ever thought of it.
Australia, proveably, has the second oldest Espresso Culture after Italy going back to the 1950s. Because of the North Queensland Italian Cane Farmers particularly, and also, the Melbourne and Sydney Italian communities who brought Bialettis in their luggage.
After opening Moors in 1985, in the following 5 years, Preston opened 6 more Coffee Outlets, all with Flat White on the Menu. This is where the Flat White gets it's Sydney start.
The fact that he did put Flat White on the Moors menu is not in dispute and can be readily proved by eyewitnesses and photos.
The original Moors Espresso Bar photo is the first example of Flat White on a Cafe Menu. The New Zealand claim to the Flat White is unsustainable as it is commonly referenced as 1989, 4 years after Alan Preston's first 4 Flat White Outlets.
It was a New Zealand Sign Writer named Ron Smythe and his daughter Sharon, who did the Signs (Hand Brushed) at the first 4 Preston Coffee Outlets - Moors, Bar Prestoni, The Star Hotel and Pailou Bar so, yes, Kiwis did have something to do with the origins of the Flat White. (Tracked down to Yessabah NSW, last heard of, he had given up Signwriting to become a Country Singer)
The photos were taken by various people and there are many photos of Moors from the '80s (There are over 100 photos of the 7 Coffee Outlets which are all verifiably taken in the 1980s).
After establishing Moors, Preston opened Bar Prestoni in 1986, 200m up Sussex St at Windsor Plaza and also put Flat White on the menu.
He then took over The Star Hotel in 1987 and became Licensee of the Hotel, living on the premises with his family. The Star was closed down for a dramatic make over. It was re opened in 1988 with Flat White on the menu of Australia’s first Pub Espresso Bar.The old Dining Room was converted to the Star Espresso Bar. Much of the fitout was done by VZ Engineering. Jackson Chan, a prominent Chinatown Architect designed much of the makeover. He still trades as an Architect in and around Chinatown.
The Star was very much a Trade Union/Labor Party Pub.
Bob Carr was leader of the Opposition at the time. Labor Identities, Mark Latham & Peter Sams organised a Re Opening Party and Bob Carr turned up to be served the first beer and cut a ribbon draped over the new Neon Bar & Grill sign.
The BLF crashed the party and knocked Carr over.
Typical Labor stuff. Many Journalists at the opening night so the newly refurbed Star Hotel got plenty of ink in the papers the next day.
The following extract from Alan Preston -
"I am and was, the original Flat White enthusiast and to this day it is the only way I drink Espresso. I have very strong ideas about what, exactly a Flat White is and how it should be consumed. I would give Flat White lessons at the counter and the Flat White drinkers would bring back their cups for inspection of the correct sip mark rings down the cup. Made correctly, the beverage will fall off the side of the cup and the tide marks will endure to the last sip. The number 1 trick with a Flat White is to coax the oil onto the top as much as possible during the milk pouring. Always Leave a Flat White to stand for several minutes before drinking carefully.This allows the top (the meniscus) to thicken and adds texture to each sip. NO SPOONS OR SUGAR TOLERATED. My memories are of obedient customers leaving their Flat Whites to stand and then drinking them to my exacting instructions.
It follows naturally that I pushed the Flat White and because the coffee was so good, we soon had a sizeable following.
When we opened Bar Prestoni, Moors only got busier. I always look back and think that I made the best coffee I’ve ever made at Bar Prestoni, ground floor of Billionaire, Harry Triguboff's Windsor Plaza. He walked by one day and told me how nice the fitout was. Being in Chinatown,I was picking up some of the values, so I'd spent a bit on granite and marble and it caught his eye. Moors' fitout was all wood, still nice though.
The water pipes were new into the building and I had an excellent 3 group No Stop Faema. A wonderful old machine, a genuine bridge between a Lever Handle and the ensuing automatic machines of today. Wish I still had it. I was also starting to experiment with the first batch of sub micron water filters and, importantly, Orazio Cantarella was still overseeing the roasting and the beans were always dripping with oil. The fools who roast now, under roast to the point of stupidity. You cannot make sweet tasting coffee with under roasted beans! (I know it's starting a fight with them but they will not be told).
After opening The Star, we then took a Bar in a Food Court on Sussex St called Pailou Plaza. As you would expect, I put Flat White on the menu. It was onerous trading 4 separate outlets so when the opportunity came to buy a Freehold Hotel, The Chamberlain Hotel, we sold up behind us to raise the cash.
So then came the 2nd Pub, The Chamberlain Hotel, cnr Pitt and Campbell Sts. We bought the Freehold in 1989 from John Spalvins Adsteam. He was busy buying David Jones so sold off all his Brewery Holdings in one line. The Chamberlain Hotel was an old Heritage Listed 3 storey Reschs' Brewery Pub , built in 1894. Seemingly well located, right next to the emerging World Square and around the corner from Paddy's Market. Even though the priorities were changing, I still put an Espresso Bar into the refurb, and Flat White on the menu"
Alan Preston 2015
Then came 2 more cafes, Cafe Mono, under the Haymarket Monorail Station and next to the Sydney Entertainment Centre. This Cafe seated 300 and when the shows were on it filled to capacity. By this time so many other Cafe Proprietors had seen and heard about Preston's Chinatown presence that the Flat White was starting to turn up on the menu of new and old coffee ventures.
The last Sydney Cafe was Java Jive Espresso Bar on George St. Flat White on the menu.
"My daughters were losing their Queensland identity having come down to Sydney at ages 5 and 6. During Footy season they weren't sure if we went for the Maroons, so after some thought, we sold up and went back to Brisbane."
Alan Preston 2015
Since the original incarnation of Flat White on Moors Espresso Bar's menu, The Flat White has conquered the world. If you take Alan Preston out of the chain, it wouldn't have happened.
How to Make a Flat White Correctly
Note the Flat White images to the left.
Made correctly, the meniscus endures to the last sip, enhancing the drinker's experience.
The tide marks are clear evidence that the beverage has been correctly made. Leaving a Flat White to stand for 3 minutes allows the meniscus to thicken and it will then slip off the side of the cup.
Latte Art was never part of Alan Preston's original Flat White and he says Art reduces the flavour of a Flat White, allowing the flavour of the milk to pollute the meniscus, Rather, Preston mandates that the maximum amount of oils in the meniscus creates the most desirable flavours, which, translated means - NO ART!