The birth of the cool

By Greg Dixon

Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to read is true. Well it might be true. We are, you must understand, about to enter another dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a metaphysical plane as vast as the imagination and as timeless as coffee with milk.

It happened in the middle ground between 1980 and 1990, between science and inspiration, and it lies between the pit of an industry's dodgy memory and the summit of one man's bold claim. This is the dimension of the flat white ...

A short black history of coffee

In the beginning, there was the bean. Some time after the bean came the dancing goats. According to folklore, Kaldi, an Ethiopian shepherd boy who was clearly a slacker, misplaced his small herd of goats.

This, you imagine, wasn't a good look. So it was no doubt self-preservation which drove Kaldi into the hills in the cool shadows of early morning to search for his missing charges. It being the Horn of Africa, the day soon turned slightly hot. The hunt became exhausting, sweaty, an agony.

As Kaldi climbed, he must have cursed his luck. We can't say for sure of course, but in the way of these things it is likely that just as our shepherd boy was about to give up the ghost on his goats, he stumbled over the brow of a hill and there they were, dancing.

Kaldi, a slacker but clearly not slow, soon grasped the reason for the uncanny capering.

The goats had been noshing on a bush bearing red, bean-like fruit. Our now-starving shepherd boy joined them and soon he was gambolling too. It's at this point a passing imam - yes, his arrival on the scene is admittedly a trifle convenient - spotted the carry-on, demanded explanations and then a sampling.

Soon he, too, was hooked. It was only a matter of time before someone, an Arab in all probability, thought to boil these precious beans to create qahwa or coffee. The rest, as they say, is history. A civic duty

A long time after the dancing goats, but still a long time ago, Derek Townsend - the man who lays claim to inventing the flat white we drink today - came home from his OE. On his travels, the surfer, university drop-out, salesman and Aucklander had been to Europe and Australia (the civilised and the uncivilised worlds, you might say) and, much like generations of Arabs and Europeans, had discovered a liking for lounging about drinking coffee.

In the early 1980s, Auckland didn't do lounging. It did booze barns and coffee lounges. It was true that former Th' Dudes manager and cinema owner Charley Gray had opened The First and Last Cafe in Symonds St the decade before. But really this was the era of the tray. You pushed it, first past the sandwich bar, then the sweets cabinet and finally the pie warmer before arriving at the till with a ridiculous melange of food.

Here you ordered a cup of the bastard spawn of the bean, filter coffee. It looked like sump oil but didn't taste quite so well, even with milk and loads of sugar. Townsend the entrepreneur saw an opportunity.

The first real coffee shop, Kiva Han, is said to have opened in Constantinople in 1475. Auckland got its first somewhat later, in the early 1980s. It was called DKD Cafe. With school friend Darrell Ahlers, girlfriend Karen Bell and sundry helpers, Townsend ended up creating an Auckland icon in a long-unused room up two flights of steep, narrow stairs at the back of the Civic Theatre.

It was a late-night joint, yes, but it was also an ideal for living based on the lofty, lefty values Townsend had picked up reading John A. Lee and Mickey Savage as a kid. "I had this vision of what DKD should be," the 48-year-old says. "It was really this space in which things could happen. It would be a great leveller, so you would get wealthy and poor and intellectual and not. That was the ideal, all types of people meeting in the space rather than going to the pub or an expensive restaurant." It was to be a socialist experiment, then. But with coffee.

Strangely, it worked. On any one night, Townsend recalls, Doug Myers' wife might be seated next to the mad Maori guy who was quite famous for being mad but also for having an enormous "A" (for anarchy) tattooed on his forehead. About them, on any given night, there may have been students and hippies and yuppies and wasters and musicians and artists.

The room, all mismatched furniture, was something like a stage. There was ever-changing art on the walls (Colin McCahon apparently featured the week of his death), which you could sometimes buy. There was live music too, including the world-famous-in-Auckland act, an old-timer who'd strum an out-of-tune guitar while free-form "singing" in an out-of-tune voice.

Anything could happen and sometimes did. One night a DKD dishwasher called Todd, who was just 16, arrived wearing a full, old-fashioned diving suit. Darrell Ahlers says he doesn't know why, but thinks "someone might have told him to dress appropriately". Still, if DKD was a wild - or at least wildly existential - sort of hang-out, it had one rule: you had to be in the door by midnight, or you wouldn't be served.

Even if you were Elvis Costello. He was turned away for arriving at five past. "It was," says Townsend, "this bizarre sort of fantasy." If his ideal for DKD worked, he actually had no idea, in the beginning, about how to work a coffee machine. The novice trio had bought an ancient espresso machine, a 1940s or 50s La Chimbali, which an engineer mate got working. It didn't come with instructions on what to make or how.

A friend called Nicky, a psychiatric nurse, had worked a bit in cafes in Sydney. She gave Townsend and Ahlers a list of names. One of them was "flat white".

Thanks for all the fish

The people's coffee - at least in name - had arrived. But the flat white wasn't DKD's speciality. That was hot chocolate served in a bowl with a chocolate fish on the side. They called it a "Fish in a Bowl", and sweet as it was, it sold by the gallon. Ahlers remembers making plenty of lattes and cappuccinos too. But not everyone wanted coffee that white in the early days. "People would say 'that's too milky', or they'd never heard of these terms," Ahlers says of lattes and cappuccinos. "They'd just sort of look at you and say 'I just want a coffee'. We'd click and say 'black or white?'

Then we'd make them a long black and just add a bit of cold milk for a white one." Craig Miller, Auckland cafe stalwart and owner of roasters Miller's Coffee, says he originally took flat white to mean a double espresso with a jug of cold milk on the side. "When I opened Belaroma in Albert St, if someone asked for a flat white, that's what I made because that's what I thought it was. Then someone said 'oh no, a flat white has hot milk'.

As far as I could tell, they'd been in Australia. [They'd] probably had coffee served in a glass with the hot milk, which I have a feeling was called a flat white over there." Chris Priestley, who co-created then owned the Atomic cafe coffee and roasting brand for years before selling it, says he remembers making something he called a "Sydney flat white" at his famously good but long-gone cafe Kerouacs in O'Connell St.

"The Sydney flat white meant much more milk," he says. "Maybe there were flat whites already in Sydney at that stage, but I don't know for sure. It all gets a bit murky around about then."

Through the fog, Townsend remembers producing flat whites at DKD that were simply long blacks with a splash of milk. However, his days of making them at DKD were over little more than two years after the cafe opened. Ahlers and a new partner kept the icon going in the Civic until 1999, when it was forced out due to the building of the SkyCity Cinema multiplex. DKD moved to O'Connell St just in time for the CBD's big, pre-millennial blackout.

Ahlers shut the doors after a couple of years, but the DKD name survives today as a coffee-roasting business also run by him. Meanwhile, the flat white had evolved into the coffee that obsessed a country.
A seed is planted

There was no eureka moment. The flat white we drink now evolved in, of all places, a garden centre in Remuera, according to the self-proclaimed father of the flat white. After quitting DKD, where he reckons he'd made at least a million cups - and having no desire to make a million more - Townsend spent a year or so playing at being an artist.

However, a pregnant girlfriend forced him back into the workforce and back to the espresso machine. In 1988, he set up a cafe in Kings Plant Barn on Orakei Rd, near the railway line. "It was a little cafe, it had no signs, no real walls. They were just sort of these floppy plastic walls - and it was surrounded by water. I didn't know whether we would be successful."

But within three months the cafe was the busiest in Auckland, or so he claims. "I made all the coffees. I think you can really drive the business up with coffee, you can make it so beautiful that people will come from miles to have it."

Townsend began producing flat whites with just 30ml of coffee and 150ml of steamed milk, which he began "stretching" so that it was flat and rich rather than foamy. "I could make it quite creamy ... I made them for customers and said 'this is something new, if you don't like it, I'll make you a normal one' - and I never had a person come back. "Then I got my staff to start [making them], and then they went to other [coffee] shops and before you knew it ..." Yes, the rest is history.

Flat (white) denial

"Whatever Derek Townsend said, just disregard it," says Michael Allpress, owner of Allpress Espresso. He laughs, but is possibly not joking. He's not the only local baron of the bean to do this. Chris Priestley, whose Atomic Cafe on Ponsonby Rd is now called One 2 One, laughs, suggesting Townsend is "a little bit self-promoting".

Townsend's old partner Darrell Ahlers also calls him a "self-promotion vehicle", while Craig Miller giggles too: "My memory is that Derek's always said [he invented the flat white]. Whether or not it's true ... huh!". Townsend, who stopped making flat whites and start roasting coffee under the name Karajoz in 1997, certainly promotes himself, and his claim.

Ask him about the doubters and Townsend gets ever so slightly defensive. But you can't argue with his logic: "Where did it come from if I didn't make it?" Does he care if his contemporaries and competitors don't believe him? "No, it's sour grapes ... ... I'm blessed with a reasonably photographic sort of memory so I can remember exactly ... I know exactly where it came from."

Flat (white) Earth

Mmmm, the mild taste of controversy. But there seems no bitter aftertaste, only amusement and a slight burp of irony - this being another dimension, the inventor doesn't even drink his claimed invention. "I started with the cappuccino, which in 1981 was the new thing, and that's what I still drink ... or espresso," says Townsend. "I like a macchiato too, which is like a shrunken flat white.

It's delicious but you have to have sugar in that. But I've never drunk flat whites, never." Maybe not, but it's now New Zealand's drink. As so-called cafe culture has spread, during the last decade or so, from Auckland to the backblocks, the flat white has reached an unrivalled ubiquitousness.

The people's coffee has even begun spreading milky tentacles around the globe as New Zealanders have proselytised the true meaning of good coffee. Indeed, since 2005, a cafe calling itself Flat White has been spreading the faith from London's Soho. Do they care in London who invented the flat white? Much like the story of the dancing goats, veracity doesn't matter.

A good yarn is a good yarn. But here's a final thought: is the flat white just a latte in a smaller cup? "It is really," says Derek Townsend, the inventor of the flat white. Possibly.

Derek Townsend on how to make the perfect flat white ...

With the flat white you don't want it too foamy, you want it to be creamy, so you hold the foam back and pour the milk from the bottom of the jug. The milk at the bottom is nice and creamy, the milk at the top is foamy. You can use a knife or a spoon [to hold the foam back], personally I like the spoon ... it becomes a matter of personal preference.
You can see as your pour that the milk is nice, flat, velvety, creamy and delicious.
It also extremely important to pour the milk immediately, not let it sit.
I like to add a light dusting of sweet chocolate to a flat white because it just adds a little touch of something to it ... it just makes it that much better.

- NZ Herald

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