Around the world, people order “white coffees” every single day. But did you know that depending on where they are, the definition can actually change?
While in parts of the western world this refers to a coffee with a dash of milk, it could also be a unique roasting style, or even a beverage that contains no coffee whatsoever.
To find out more, we put together some of the definitions of the phrase, and spoke to some coffee professionals to discover exactly what it can mean in different parts of the world. Read on to learn about the different meanings.
You might also like our article on the future of plant milks and coffee.
What is white coffee?
Even in Europe and North America, the term “white coffee” can yield varying results depending on where you are.
In the UK, for instance, a white coffee is usually just a regular black coffee (instant or filter) with a dash of cold milk.
In the USA, however, the term “white coffee” is rarely used, if at all. Coffee with milk is simply referred to as regular coffee, light coffee, or coffee with cream.
Malaysia’s Ipoh white coffee
But what about white coffee outside of Europe and North America?
Ipoh is a city in northwestern Malaysia that has played a huge role in the country’s coffee culture over the years. Today, it lends its name to “Ipoh white coffee” – the name of a very specific and popular Malaysian style of coffee roasting.
Victor Leong is the founder of Lighthouse Coffee in Penang, Malaysia. He tells me that Ipoh white coffee has become ingrained in Malaysian coffee culture over the last couple of centuries.
He says that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many British tin mining companies set up bases in Ipoh, and the city subsequently became economically and culturally significant.
He says: “Drinking bitter and acidic ‘western-style’ coffee was a way of socialising and doing business with the mining company owners, but Chinese businessmen were generally unaccustomed to drinking it.
“The coffee was not palatable to the Chinese, so they modified the taste to suit their palate.”
White coffee was a more familiar alternative, supposedly favoured by Hainanese people who migrated to Malaysia (then known as Nanyang) during the late stages of the Qing dynasty. Since then, coffee roasters across Malaysia have created their own style of Ipoh white coffee.
Victor explains exactly what makes the coffee “white”.
He says: “The coffee is often a blend of robusta and liberica, which is roasted in a wok with margarine, sugar, and wheat.”
Around 90% of all coffee grown in Malaysia is of the liberica species. This species was introduced at the end of the 19th century, after a widespread coffee leaf rust outbreak killed most of the arabica plants in the region. It has since become naturalised.
“The sugars caramelise during the roast, and the light colour of the beans is why it is named white coffee.”
Victor adds that after roasting, the coffee is ground, brewed, and often served with condensed milk.
“It is a sweet coffee with rich caramel, nutty, and creamy flavours. The Chinese named it ‘white sweet coffee’ as opposed to the ‘black bitter coffee’.”
Lebanon’s yahweh bayda or “white coffee”
One of the most popular Middle Eastern coffee brewing exports is Turkish coffee. The unique brewing method can be traced back to the 17th century.
Turkish coffee is made by brewing incredibly fine coffee and water in a special pot called a cezve. Because the coffee is ground so finely, it is not filtered whatsoever.
Lebanese coffee, also known as yahweh, kawha, or kahva, is similar to the Turkish coffee that has made its way around the world.
However, alongside classic yahweh Lebanese coffee, there is also: yahweh bayda, or white coffee. But despite the name, yahweh bayda actually contains no coffee at all, and is consumed as a caffeine-free alternative.
Amin Younes is the CEO of Cafe Younes, founded more than eight decades ago in Beirut. He says that this white coffee “competes with Lebanese, rakweh, or Turkish coffee”.
He says: “When Lebanese people invite guests over, they usually offer coffee after a meal. If the guest does not care for the highly-caffeinated Turkish coffee, they offer white coffee instead, especially in the evenings.”
Although coffee can aid digestion after eating, a lot of people want to avoid caffeine intake – especially when dinners end later than expected.
Amin adds: “The white coffee recipe is simple. It is usually made up of water and a bit of orange blossom water, with or without sweetener, and is served in clear demitasse glass.”
Orange blossom water is naturally created as a byproduct of orange blossom oil. The water is often used as an aromatic additive or a flavouring in certain dishes in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. It can also be mixed with a sugar syrup and used as a sweetener.
Traditionally, Amin says yahweh bayda has been used as a treatment for stomach aches and indigestion.
“Some of the older generations believe that it soothes the nerves,” he adds.
The lightest roast of all
White coffee is also the name used to refer to another style of roasting which originated in Yemen. However, unlike Ipoh white coffee, Yemeni white coffee is made by lightly roasting coffee beans, grinding them, brewing them, and mixing them with a spice blend known as hawaij.
The coffee beans are roasted on low heat, and taken to a temperature point roughly halfway to first crack, where they are kept for some time. As the sugars don’t develop or brown, the temperature doesn’t get high enough for the Maillard reaction to occur. This means that the beans take on a yellow-orange tone, and remain very dense and moist.
You can also find this style of roasting in Indonesia, where it is called kopi putih. It has started to gain traction in other consuming markets around the world, including in the US.
Dan Olmstead is the founder and president of Poverty Bay Coffee Company in Auburn, Washington. He explains that the company decided to introduce this niche roasting style based on customer demand.
He says: “We were basically driven by demand from some of our largest wholesale customers. We did the research to see exactly what it was.
“It’s basically about halfway through a regular roast. The coffee starts off as a green bean and, as you roast it, it turns white, orange, and then searches through the different shades of brown. To me, it’s more ‘orange coffee’ than white coffee. The colour is yellowy-orange. It’s certainly not a stark white.”
Dan also notes that because the beans aren’t fully roasted, more of the innate caffeine remains in the beans. This, he says, is one of the reasons it became so popular.
He adds that customers struggle to grind it at home using a classic grinder. “We [have to] grind it and sell it ground. We use a large commercial grinder from a company out of Chicago that can go through around 6lbs a minute. It needs to be really strong to grind these beans.”
The grinder needs a strong motor and high torque to grind these dense, strong beans; with the wrong equipment, Dan says the grind will be totally imprecise.
He adds: “Most of our white coffee is natural processed Mexican or Central American beans. Using washed beans brings more acidity and a lighter flavour profile.”
Natural coffees are known for their sweeter flavour profile and heavier mouthfeel. For white coffee, using it over washed or honey coffees means minimising acidity to keep the flavour balanced.
Dan recommends that consumers brew this coffee using a pressure method, such as a moka pot. This brings out a sweet, nutty flavour. He also notes that it tastes more like a lighter tea than a classic coffee. It apparently also blends well with chocolate.
“You can make a really excellent, unusual kind of latte out of it,” he says.
Whether it is a style of roasting or a type of drink, white coffee holds a place in a number of different cultures around the world. But while some countries’ white coffees are simply lightened with milk, others are caffeine-free alternatives or unique historic innovations, born out of demand.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that white coffee isn’t an umbrella term for variations of the same drink, but rather a name shared by several drinks around the world that are entirely different from each other.
Enjoyed this? Check out our article on coffee roasting and experimental processing methods.
Photo credits: Josef Mott, Poverty Bay Coffee Company, Pixabay, Alamy
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