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Coffee Milk: A Living Piece of Rhode Island Drink Culture

Its population may hover just around a million souls and its square footage may be hardly bigger than a postage stamp, but Rhode Island doesn’t do anything by half measures. Chalk it up to a Napoleon complex or just a colorful Yankee quirk, but the denizens of the nation’s smallest state have always worn their provincialism as a point of pride—and never more so than when it comes to food. Where else are “murder burgers,” “awful awfuls” and “doughboys” part of the local lexicon? Or do diners insist that the perfect pairing for a snappy chili dog (or, in local parlance, a “New York System Hot Wiener”) isn’t a frosty lager, but a cold glass of milk spiked with sweet coffee syrup?

That concoction, by the way, is known as a “coffee milk” and in 1993 was officially decreed Rhode Island’s official state beverage, narrowly edging out another Ocean-State original, Del’s Frozen Lemonade. Popular since at least the 1930s, the drink remains a fixture at kitchen tables and diner counters across Little Rhody and along the state’s borders on the south coast of Massachusetts and the Connecticut shore, not merely as a nod to nostalgia, but a living piece of the homegrown food culture. At Olneyville New York System, the iconic family-run Providence greasy spoon that was awarded the James Beard foundation’s American Classic award in 2014, the classic order is two “all the way” wieners and coffee milk. Indeed, the proprietor, Greg Stevens, reports that coffee milk still outsells every other beverage on the menu combined. And though its charms may be little known beyond New England, it turns out that coffee milk—like the scrappy region from which it sprung—has had a mark on American history that’s both outsize and undersung.

But more on that later. First, what it’s not: Don’t confuse coffee milk with a coffee milkshake. Rhode Islanders refer to that heartier concoction of ice cream, milk and coffee syrup as a “cabinet” (supposedly because that’s where soda jerks used to keep their blenders), just as their neighbors in the Bay State and points north call it a “frappé.” A properly made coffee milk is light and sweet, a seamless combination of cold milk and sweet coffee syrup married by just a spoon and centrifugal force.

At Olneyville New York System the classic order is two “all the way” wieners and coffee milk. | Photo by Michael Piazza.

Melting-Pot Roots

Like the egg cream—the mixture of chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer that could be considered its New York kin—most of coffee milk’s origin stories have a whiff of the apocryphal. But this much is known: As a group, Yankees have a predilection for coffee-flavored dairy delights that is old and well-documented. Coffee jelly—dark, bitter cubes of coffee gelatin topped with a heap of sweetened whipped cream—was a menu staple at Boston’s iconic Durgin Park restaurant since its beginnings in the 1820s. According to the 1949 issue of Confectionery and Ice Cream World, 15 percent of all the ice cream consumed in New England that year was of the coffee-flavored variety (though still a novelty elsewhere at that time). Robert C. Hibben, executive secretary of the International Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers, was reportedly so flabbergasted by the local appetite for the stuff that he quizzed a gathering of members in Boston about it. More recently, Massachusetts native chef Matt Jennings wrote that a diet of coffee frappés made from Brigham’s Ice Cream was his “gateway drug” to the adult pleasures of caffeine.

But coffee milk’s roots reach even deeper. Both The Cook’s Dictionary and Housekeeper’s Dictionary and The Brooks Culpepper’s Herbal Improved, published in London in the 1830s and 1840s respectively, contain recipes for a “coffee milk” that’s made by boiling a dessert spoonful of ground coffee in a pint of milk for a quarter hour, then “clearing” the concoction with a shaving or two of isinglass (a fish-derived gelatin). Apparently the brew was regarded as a “very fine breakfast,” especially for those disposed toward afflictions of the lungs. The Brook’s Herbal even contains a recipe for coffee syrup, made by infusing a pound of coffee in two pints of water—hello, cold-brew concentrate!—then adding sugar and simmering for eight hours before straining, cooling and bottling. By the Civil War, a taste for the stuff had crossed the pond: Godey’s Lady’s Book published a recipe for coffee syrup that was advertised as a perfect (and conveniently portable) pick-me-up for weary troops.

How did coffee syrup make the leap from soldier’s brew to statewide staple? In the first 30 years of the 20th century, a huge influx of Italians and Portuguese immigrated through the port of Providence, drawn by the promise of ready employment in the region’s textile mills. Most popular historians posit that it was the intersection of the immigrants’ taste for strong, bitter coffee and the virtue of thrift embraced by both the newcomers and the old Yankee community that gave rise to a local habit of making concentrated syrup from leftover brews that would otherwise go to waste. Indeed, the concept of a cold, sweetened coffee drink wouldn’t have been a novelty to the Italians and Portuguese; just consider the caffe shakerato of Southern Italy—a refreshing mix of espresso, sugar, ice and sometimes cream, shaken vigorously until smooth and frothy—and mazagran, a popular Portuguese sweetened, iced coffee drink that has roots in Algeria.

Sweet coffee milk could also have been a handy way to smuggle milk into the bellies of children. In her history of Italian-American food, We Called It Macaroni, Nancy Verde Barr describes how Southern Italians had a habit of heavily sweetening their dark brews. “The children drank what the parents did,” she says. “[And] the tradition of sweetening continued [when they came] here.”

Food writer David Leite, who grew up in a Portuguese-American household during the 1960s in Fall River and Swansea, Massachusetts, recalls that coffee milk was a staple of his childhood. “My family lived in a triplex house with my grandparents and godparents and cousins, and every time I’d go in to visit my godmother, she’d always have a Viceroy cigarette hanging out of her mouth and a coffee cup in her hand—always!” he says with a laugh. “While she drank her coffee she would pour me a cupful of milk spiked with this sweet jet-fuel syrup. I always felt so cool and grown-up, sitting there sipping my ‘coffee’ with her.”

In the early ’40s, the Autocrat company of Lincoln, Rhode Island, launched a coffee syrup. | Photo by Eric Medsker.

In its early days, Rhode Island coffee syrup might have been a homemade affair, but by the time Leite was being weaned on the stuff, a few enterprising local companies had long since begun marketing commercial versions. Brand loyalties ran deep, and towns and neighborhoods formed de facto coffee-syrup allegiances, which in true Rhody fashion, they argued with a passion.

First on the scene was Silmo Packing Company, founded in the South Coast town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, by Portuguese-Americans Louis Silva and Carlos Desouza Morais. Silmo began selling coffee syrup in 1932; six years later, Alphonse Fiore added coffee syrup to his product line at Eclipse Foods in Warwick, Rhode Island, and started to give Silmo a run for their money. Finally, in the early ’40s, the Autocrat company of Lincoln, Rhode Island, joined the fray. With cheeky cartoon ads and eye-catching red and yellow bottles adorned with the cheerful image of a chirping bird, Autocrat soon dominated the scene. “There were little cliques,” remembers Leite. “If you lived up north you might drink Eclipse, but on the South Coast it was only Autocrat, all the time.”

Autocrat eventually bought Eclipse, and though the company continued to produce the syrup under a separate label, the rivalry was largely diffused. Finally, in 2014, after four generations as a family-owned and operated business, Autocrat itself was purchased by Finlays, a sprawling British tea conglomerate that consolidated the syrup and extract business even further. Still, even today, the red and yellow Autocrat bottle with the birdy on it is a fixture in thousands of Ocean State kitchens.

Modern Offshoots

In the age of artisanal everything, it’s no surprise that even in little Rhode Island, recent decades have seen some stylish, small-batch upstarts hit the market. David and Mary Sylvia began making Morning Glory Coffee Syrup out of their Dartmouth home in 2001, using a recipe that had been a staple in David’s family for nearly a century. What started as a lark—just a few dozen bottles to distribute as Christmas gifts—was met with such unbridled enthusiasm that the couple decided to take the project to the public.

Key to the Sylvia’s vision was crafting the coffee syrup in as pure a manner as possible: Unlike the Autocrat of today, Morning Glory contains no additives or high-fructose corn syrup. “We had young kids when we were starting out,” David explains. “So it was important to us to make something we’d want our family to drink.” They were also the first local makers to introduce a decaf coffee syrup. “Customers tell us it reminds them of old Silmo syrup, which was the local brand here around New Bedford,” says David. “It has that old-fashioned soda-fountain flavor.”

Dave Lanning launched Dave’s Coffee, a specialty-coffee bar, in 2006. | Photo by Michael Piazza.

Today, Morning Glory is available online as well as at a number of local farm stands, supermarkets and even Whole Foods, and the Sylvias say sales hover around 15,000 bottles a year. “Obviously, the country loves coffee, and it’s not a big leap from a ‘regular’ cup of Dunkin’ Donuts to a coffee milk,” David explains. “Honestly, our biggest barrier to growth is that, outside of Rhode Island and the South Coast, almost no one has any idea what coffee syrup is.”

Dave Lanning grew up in Warwick, Rhode Island, and remembers cartons of coffee milk being a fixture at his grade school cafeteria. In 2006, he launched Dave’s Coffee, a small specialty-coffee bar in the same old farmhouse where he and his wife owned a clothing boutique in Charlestown. As Lanning’s coffee business took off, he expanded, opening a headquarters in Narragansett and another retail outlet in Providence. Finally, in 2012, when the company began roasting its own beans, Lanning decided it was time to try his hand at making a modern coffee syrup—and like the Sylvias, he was committed to avoiding inferior ingredients and preservatives. “I really wanted to focus on the quality of the beans, and to only use coffee and cane sugar,” he says. “It took some tinkering, but we ended up with a formula using nutty, chocolatey Brazilian beans that pair so perfectly with the sugar.”

Though Lanning’s syrup was initially stocked only at Dave’s Coffee outlets, the dark, rich taste—not to mention the stylish amber glass bottles in which it was packed—generated immediate buzz. Now, Dave’s coffee syrup has a thriving wholesale presence, primarily within New England—but also in a few high-design locations beyond, like Magnolia Market, the Waco, Texas–based shop owned by lifestyle moguls Chip and Joanna Gaines, as well as select Whole Foods.

Over the state line in Connecticut, a hands-on, homegrown coffee-milk tradition is still carried on at Smyth’s Trinity Farm in Enfield, and Arethusa Farm Dairy in Bantam. In North Stonington, just a stone’s throw from the Rhode Island border, farmer Brianne Casadei combines Dave’s coffee syrup with milk from her pasture-raised herd of Jersey cows to make bottles of Grade A cream line Terra Firma Farm Coffee Milk, which she sells at her farm’s dairy as well as local markets. Vat-pasteurized, non-homogenized, and topped with a thick and luscious layer of cream, this is no ordinary hash-house cupful. “Our farm is just a few miles from the Rhode Island border, so really, making coffee milk was a must,” Casadei explains with a laugh. And because the milk from Casadei’s grass-fed herd is naturally high in butterfat, it has a rich sweetness that’s the perfect partner for coffee’s bitter edge. “It really tastes like a coffee milkshake,” says Casadei. “What’s not to love?”

coffee milk cocktail
The Little Rhody cocktail at Violet. | Photo by Eric Medsker.

Lately, coffee milk has even found its way to the hip precincts of New York City’s East Village: Matt and Emily Hyland met in Providence during their college days, and their acclaimed new restaurant, Violet, is an ode to Rhode Island and to that treasured time and place. That coffee milk is, of course, a part of that place shows itself in little ways: The rotating dessert menu sometimes includes a special option—like cheesecake with coffee milk syrup—that nods to the official Ocean State drink, and diners sitting at the chef’s counter are presented with a small shot of coffee milk with their checks. Or if you’re in the mood for something stronger, there’s an off-menu coffee-milk cocktail—a blend of Trinidad rum, Autocrat coffee syrup, coffee milk and fresh nutmeg that adds up to a sort of a Rhode Island Russian.

Hometown Treat, Global Reach

But maybe you’ve never set foot in the Ocean State and wouldn’t know a New York System Wiener if you tripped over it. Why does coffee milk matter? Here’s the thing: it may be a provincial drink, but it’s also been a remarkably influential one.

Consider this: In 1992, George Howell, a specialty-coffee pioneer, owned a small chain of cafés in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called the Coffee Connection. Howell and his marketing director, Andrew Frank, were looking for a way to boost their shops’ sales during the steamy New England summers when, according to a 2012 profile in Boston Magazine, their knowledge of the Yankee taste for cold, creamy, coffee drinks led them to start tinkering with iced cappuccino concepts. Eventually, Frank settled on a formula using ice, espresso, milk and coffee syrup that could be prepped in a soft-serve machine. Who did Howell & Co. hire to supply the coffee syrup? None other than Rhode Island’s own coffee-milk king: Autocrat. Finally, they picked a name: Frappuccino—a playful amalgam of cappuccino and frappé, the New England slang for milkshake. Maybe you’ve heard of it?

In 1994, Starbucks acquired all of the Coffee Connection cafés—plus the rights and recipe for the Frappuccino—for the tidy sum of $23 million. And the rest, as they say, is history. Autocrat continued making coffee syrup for Starbucks for years, and the unfathomable success of that product also spurred the company to expand and upgrade their wholesale and commercial coffee syrup business, selling flavorings to companies all around the world that were suddenly eager to cash in on the global iced-coffee boom.

Twenty-five years later, Frappuccino sales still account for 11 cents of every dollar Starbucks makes. If you’ve bought a bottled iced coffee or grabbed a supermarket carton of coffee ice cream sometime in the past two decades, there’s a decent chance an Autocrat syrup was inside it. And it all started with a tiny state with a passion for “light and sweet.”

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