An Ode to Coffee Milk, Rhode Island's Favorite Drink
“Ah, coffee milk. The state drink of Rhode Island. I love it more than anything.” That’s Sean Telo, chef at the newly opened 21 Greenpoint in Brooklyn, musing on the special beverage he grew up drinking, like any good Rhode Islander.
For the uninitiated, coffee milk consists of coffee-flavored syrup stirred into milk. It’s like chocolate milk, but made with coffee syrup instead. The result: something along the lines of coffee ice cream and totally amazing.
“I would describe it only by saying that it is the finest version of what flavored milk drinks can be. Chocolate syrup pales in comparison,” Telo continues.
The original recipe is two tablespoons of syrup for every cup of cold milk, and some places will even add ice cream to the equation and make a milkshake, known as a coffee cabinet in Rhode Island.
The drink became popular in diners across the state in the 1920s, thanks both to the state’s growing coffee-loving Italian American population and the ample local dairy supply, NPR explains. The two most popular brands of coffee syrup, Eclipse and Autocrat, competed for dominance until the latter bought out the former in 1991. Two years later, the state declared coffee milk the official state drink, and today, Autocrat is still the go-to. (If you’re wondering if other states have an official beverage, the answer is yes, and they run the gamut from Kool-Aid in Nebraska to cranberry juice in Massachusetts.)
“The shelves are overwhelmingly stocked [with Autocrat] at Stop & Shop in all different-sized bottles for [everyone from] the occasional coffee milk user to the gallon jug aficionado,” Telo says.
People make it at home, but it’s also a favorite at diners and restaurants around the state. Lisa and Champe Speidel of James Beard Award-winning Persimmon in Providence say it’s a special treat when they’re out.
“Our tradition is to hit Rod’s Grille in Warren, Rhode Island—a classic diner that’s been around since the 50s. They have coffee milk ‘on tap.’ It’s premixed, so it’s always the perfect coffee syrup-to-milk ratio,” Lisa says. The restaurant is also known for its “hot wieners,” which are “another Rhody classic,” Lisa explains. “Champe gets three 'all the way’ with a large coffee milk. As any local can attest, it’s truly the perfect pairing.”
If you’re not in Rhode Island, Autocrat isn’t easy to find, but you can buy it online at Amazon and Little Rhody Foods. To make your own syrup, Telo recommends brewing “super-strong coffee, stir in a grip of sugar, strain and reduce. Refrigerate until cold, and it should be syrupy and sweet. Then you just stir into milk. But I just buy the syrup online.”
Though the syrup itself contains no caffeine, coffee milk has an addictive quality, especially for anyone who grew up with the stuff. As Telo says, “I crave coffee milk more than coffee. The contents of my refrigerator at home are wine, Champagne and coffee syrup."
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