For most of the caffeinated world, coffee and milk are two separate entities, mixed in the morning as a restorative hot beverage: coffee the base and milk the modifier. Rhode Islanders turn the concept on its head, serving coffee-flavored milk as a cold, stand-alone beverage any time day.
Coffee milk is said to have roots in the heavy Italian immigrant population that arrived at the turn of the century. In 1938, the manufacturer Eclipse began churning out a sweet, caffeinated syrup that became legendary in ice cream parlors and diners across the state. By the early 1940s, Autocrat had emerged with its own recipe — the two brands became the Coke and Pepsi of an obscure regional product. The two duked it out until 1991, when Autocrat purchased Eclipse.
In 1993, the state senate passed a bill cementing coffee milk within the pantheon of weird Rhode Island legislation — it’s now the official state drink. Eventually, other boutique coffee syrup brands began to surface, and they’re pretty darn good. While we won’t be declaring this our own personal official beverage, coffee milk is a nice substitute for that rare day when you’re craving a cold glass of chocolate milk or you find yourself in a 1950s-themed diner. It’s also a good way to turbo charge an iced coffee or gussy up vanilla ice cream. Here are some choices to try at home.
The Original Gangster of coffee syrup. Saying anything bad about it kind of feels like hating on your grandpa. But this is 2014, so we don’t have a problem telling you that this major brand, though the most widely available, is also loaded with high-fructose corn syrup. It tastes sweet and vaguely of convenience store coffee. A classic, for sure, but not the one you serve to any real Italians.
Morning Glory Coffee Syrup
Here’s a mule to get behind — family-owned, southeastern Massachusetts-based Morning Glory stripped down the original Eclipse recipe to include only coffee, cane sugar and water. The results? Damn good syrup, the kind you’ll find on the shelves of Whole Foods and smaller speciality markets. They suggest using it in milkshakes, frappes and as a topping for ice cream. We suggest including more frappes in your diet.
Dave’s Coffee Syrup
Based out of Westerly, RI, Dave’s Coffee is a local, small-batch roaster that also makes a variety of coffee syrups: original, vanilla, mocha, decaf. The coffee that goes into their syrup is cold-brewed and then simmered with natural cane sugar. Dave’s is the most evolved of the coffee syrups, and the cool, snub-nosed bottle doesn’t hurt their image.