Ever since Starbucks and other chains and indie coffee shops began evolving espresso-based beverages in the last 20 to 30 years, the java game has been all about the new, to the point where a salted caramel macchiato or white chocolate mocha frappe now seem old hat. But in the tiniest state in the nation, Rhode Island (almost half the size of the next smallest, Delaware), there’s coffee drink that’s been all the rage for 100 years: coffee milk.
For those of you reading the phrase or saying it aloud and scratching your head, imagine making a glass of chocolate milk, but in lieu of squeezing chocolate syrup into a glass of milk, the syrup is truly coffee flavored.
Perhaps the nuttiest thing about this drink is how intensely local it has remained. I asked many people in the neighboring states of Connecticut and Massachusetts (and New Hampshire, just to see if it skipped over one), but—like most Americans—no one had ever heard of coffee milk before.
Lest you think it’s only found in certain metros, coffee milk was appointed as the official state drink of Rhode Island 29 years ago. There happen to be 20 other states that have declared their state drink to be nothing more than boring ol’ cow juice, meaning none of them—not even Pennsylvania, home of Hershey!—were creative enough to even elevate chocolate milk to official status. Coffee milk, meanwhile, is widely enjoyed across its home state, and it’s the de rigueur accompaniment to wash down Rhode Island hot wieners.
The main purveyor of coffee syrup is a brand called Autocrat Coffee. Shop the coffee syrup section of any grocery store in the Ocean State and you’ll also likely find Eclipse Coffee Syrup, which debuted in 1938 and actually beat Autocrat to market by a few years. Autocrat bought Eclipse over 30 years ago, thereby securing a near monopoly on the coffee confection. But for those seeking a more artisan version, there’s Dave’s Coffee.
Dave Lanning is a gray-haired posh native of Providence with the New England accent to prove it. He opened his own coffee shop in 1998 in Charlestown, a town in Southwest Rhode Island. (Keep in mind, it’s less than 50 miles from his other store in Providence, which sits in Northeastern Rhode Island.) Originally, Dave’s Coffee was a simple coffee shop. After a decade of buying coffee beans, Lanning started roasting his own. Next, he joined the coffee syrup fray—though I don’t think the Autocrat folks are all that worried. Lanning says he bottles some 1,200 “stubby” bottles every other week.
“I’ve drank coffee milk my whole life,” says Lanning. Here, it must be noted that, despite the flavoring, it’s not just for adults. In fact, as Lanning explains, it was designed for children from the start.
“It was invented in a pharmacy at a soda fountain,” he says. “The soda jerk tried to use leftover coffee by mixing it with sugar and then put the syrup in milk to appeal to kids.” Some native Rhode Islanders feel they’ve grown out of it, considering it’s offered alongside whole, skim, and chocolate milk in school cafeterias.
You could potentially overlook feeding something with coffee to kids a century ago. That said, coffee milk isn’t is all that caffeinated. Whereas a cappuccino or latte make a great morning pick-me-up (or a Ristretto or Cortado if you really fell far short of eight hours’ sleep), coffee milk is perhaps more of an afternoon treat to get you through that last hour of work (or, again, elementary school). The average cuppa joe contains 95 milligrams of caffeine. A double shot of espresso is closer to 130. But a tall glass of coffee milk tiptoes in at around 15 milligrams.
Whereas Autocrat and Eclipse are largely high fructose corn syrup with coffee extract, Dave’s coffee syrup uses cane sugar and a Brazilian coffee sourced specifically for its low acidity; as a tasty bonus, this coffee yields a creamy peanut butter flavor. The syrup is designed to add to milk—Lanning suggests 2 tablespoons per 8 ounces of your preferred milk or milk substitute (although he’s a purist and recommends whole milk for flavor and mouthfeel)—but it can also be the secret ingredient on oatmeal in lieu of honey, or be shaken into cocktails, or drizzled over a bowl of ice cream.
Not only do Rhode Islanders harbor this secret coffee drink that tastes like, well, coffee ice cream, but they’re hoarding them in their coffee cabinets. Wait, that came out wrong. Let me start over: there’s a milkshake made with coffee syrup that’s locally known as a “coffee cabinet.”
Notably, two old-fashioned drug stores with vintage soda fountains make coffee cabinets today: Green Line Apothecary in Wakefield and Delekta’s Pharmacy in Warren. These Rhode Island institutions blend ice cream (either coffee or vanilla) with milk and coffee syrup. Lose the syrup and you’ve got a regular ol’ coffee milkshake.
Add to this lineup Rhode Island’s Newport Creamery (eight locations), which does something awful. Not truly awful, but, well, in addition to making a coffee cabinet, the shop makes a “coffee awful awful.” This concoction replaces ice cream with ice milk, giving the drink a lighter body that sips like a frozen latte.
Coffee milk has gotten several modern updates over the years, including an appearance in coffee milk stouts (Grey Sail Brewing in Westerly uses Dave’s Coffee’s syrup), not to mention pumpkin spice coffee milk. However, the original remains rooted not just in the early 20th century, but steadfastly in Rhode Island.
When asked why he thinks this drink is the, uh, providence of his home state, Lanning gave it some thought.
“Good question,” he said. “For a long time, there was only one company making [coffee syrup]. It didn’t put national focus on that product. Then there’s confusion around what coffee syrup even is. If you Google it, you’ll come up with flavored syrups to add to coffee like caramel or Irish cream, so people imagine it’s a flavor for coffee.” Until search engines can figure out the state’s best-kept culinary secret, maybe coffee milk’s popularity will stick to Rhode Island.