Babies are weaned on the stuff. School cafeterias stock it by the half-pint. You can order a glass at any local diner, donut shop, Burger King, or McDonald’s, and you can buy it at the supermarket and the 7-Eleven. Coffee milk, a pale butterscotch-colored concoction of milk and coffee syrup, has been a Rhode Island staple since the 1940s. Six years ago, despite vociferous protest by the lemonade lobby, it was named the state drink. Rhode Island stores sell premixed coffee milk in cartons, but purists prefer to blend their own, using two tablespoons of coffee syrup for every 8 ounces of milk.
Coffee syrup is a thin, dark blend of corn syrup, water, and coffee extract, plus a few preservatives, but specific ratios and extraction techniques are well-guarded secrets. To an out-of-stater, the distinctions between syrups are about as great as those between Oreo and Hydrox cookies. The two most popular brands of syrup are Autocrat and Eclipse, both now made by the same company. Autocrat outsells its counterpart (it dispenses enough coffee syrup every year to make 20 million glasses of coffee milk), though each has its own loyal following—as does Rhode Island’s Best Coffee Syrup, made by the Rhode Island Fruit & Syrup Company.
Coffee milk existed as early as 1858, when the Delekta Pharmacy, in the Rhode Island town of Warren, began making its own syrup and mixing it with milk. But no one knows who came up with the original idea. Certainly Rhode Islanders have long had a taste for coffee; some students of the subject propose that the state’s Italian and Portuguese immigrants, with their love for dark, rich coffee roasts, may have had some- thing to do with it.
Faintly sweet and Mastroianni smooth, coffee milk is the Rhode Islander’s drink of choice at lunch with a burger or an egg salad sandwich. The most authentic accompaniment, though, is another local delicacy: the Rhode Island wiener, a smallish hot dog garnished with meat sauce (not chili), raw onions, mustard, and celery salt. It’s easy to spot the out-of-towners. They wash down their wieners with Coke.