Coffee milk, usually pronounced as if it’s one word, is literally milk flavored with coffee syrup. Yep, just like chocolate milk is made with chocolate syrup, there is a delicious substance called coffee syrup and folks in RI can’t understand why the rest of us aren’t obsessed with it, too. In fact, it’s a very popular purchase at Rhode Island’s Green Airport as former natives take bottles home with them when they visit.
As of July 1993, coffee milk is the official beverage of Rhode Island. Its origins are murky, but many suspect it has southern Italian roots. After tasting coffee milk, I can understand this theory. The closest thing to it that I’ve ever tasted was a magical iced coffee-slushee concoction served in the small mountain-top town of Altamonte, Italy in the southern region of Calabria, where I studied abroad during college. It’s definitely not made the same way — my beloved Italian drink was sweetened frozen coffee shaken with cream — but the taste is pretty similar.
Coffee syrup is essentially sweetened, concentrated coffee, and pours much like chocolate syrup. As a consumer product, it dates back to the 1930's and has remained pretty much unchanged since. The most recognizable brand of coffee syrup is Autocrat, which was also cited by every Rhode Islander I spoke with as their household favorite. To say that Autocrat is currently the leading brand isn’t exactly fair, since it bought out its closest competitors, Eclipse and Coffee Time, in the early 1990’s. All three brands are still technically produced by the company in Rhode Island, and are said to still have different secret formulas. Aside from a few smaller and much newer artisan brands, Autocrat is the only one you can readily fine outside of RI.
Which brand you prefer is often determined by where in Rhode Island you grew up, or which syrup your parents bought. That’s one thing that makes coffee milk so iconic. While the rest of us grew up drinking chocolate milk, because that’s how parents got kids to drink milk, EVERYONE in RI was drinking coffee milk — adults and kids alike. Its sugar and caffeine content were thought to be on par with chocolate syrup so it was still seen as a great way to get kids to drink milk, and everyone was happy. That sentiment continues today.
For a truly adult beverage, Rhode Island’s most recognizable beer brewer, Narragansett, partnered with the syrup company to create the Autocrat Coffee Milk Stout — a limited-edition full-bodied coffee-flavored stout beer that fuses the two iconic brands. It can mainly be found during the winter months, so look out for it when the weather starts to turn cold.
The coffee milk obsession isn’t limited to the standard milk-syrup mixture, or an illusive beer. Coffee milk ice cream and milkshakes are also popular throughout the Ocean State, and not to be confused with coffee ice cream. “Coffee milk ice cream has the flavor of the drink, which is unique and very different from the flavor of coffee,” said Rhode Island native and resident Lindsey Rutkowski. A milkshake made with coffee milk and ice cream is specifically referred to as a “coffee cabinet,” another unique RI tradition.
While Autocrat is clearly the most recognizable brand, it isn’t the only syrup in town. Dave’s Coffee, also a Rhode Island company, is a newer player in the market with a lot of local fan fare. Even Trader Joe’s is getting into the game with their own version. That may make it a little easier to find coffee syrup outside of Rhode Island. If that doesn’t do the trick, you can also find coffee syrups on Amazon, although you’ll pay a premium over local prices ($11+ vs. $5.99 at Star Market, for 32 oz.).
So this summer, you can skip the iced lattes and expensive pre-made coffee drinks. Take the old-fashioned route and mix your own coffee milk. (I like to shake mine with ice for a true Italian-inspired treat.) If you're hesitant to buy a 32-ounce bottle because you don't think you'll ever use it all, remember that there are a lot of other uses besides straight-up coffee milk. You can pour it over ice cream (mix it with chocolate sauce for a mocha version!). Add it to hot chocolate or any other beverage you're making (think cocktails! White Russian, coffee martini, etc). You can even use it in savory dishes. Add it to barbecue sauce, or mix it into a rub for coffee-roasted lamb. Anywhere you'd like a hit of sweetened coffee flavor, coffee syrup can come in handy.