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It’s now loved all over the world, but who really invented the flat white?


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Australia’s coffee culture — a source of great national pride — is usually associated with the wave of Greek and Italian migrants who settled in Melbourne and Sydney following World War II. But it was very likely in regional Queensland that one of Australia’s favourite brews first took root.

This is the story of how Italian sugar growers in the Sunshine State are said to have inspired the “invention” of the flat white — a drink that would go on to become a global sensation.

Tracing this history shows a different side to how European tastes were imported to Australia beyond the capital cities. It also reminds us big trends can come from small towns, and that multicultural influence can be easily taken for granted in something as basic as your daily cup of coffee.

The Little Italy of Northern Queensland

Popular conceptions of Italian migrants in Australia are often focused on the wave of migration to the capital cities in the 1950s, overlooking the many migrants who were already settled in regional areas.

In 1891, immigration agent and businessman Chiaffredo Venerano Fraire organised a scheme to recruit cane cutters on behalf of the Queensland government. More than 300 Italians came to the region as a result, prompting chain migration and concerns about their ability to assimilate.

North Queensland became an even more popular destination in the 1920s, after the United States introduced quotas for Italian migrants. By 1925, Italians owned 44 per cent of the sugar farm in the Herbert River area.

The Macknade sugar plantation viewed from the Herbert River, Ingham, in 1874, with men from the plantation in the rowboat.(Wikimedia/State Library of Queensland)

These Italian communities expanded further after WWII, as did their cultural influence. The Australian Italian festival, established in 1995 by the Italian community in Ingham and Hinchinbrook shire, celebrates and preserves the legacy of Italian culture in the district.

What’s in a name?

There are many claims regarding the origin of the flat white, from England to New Zealand. But the best case for coining the term comes from Sydney cafe owner Alan Preston, who details his reasoning extensively online. While the origin debate rages on, Preston’s argument has the most solid historical evidence to back it.

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