Rhode Island's official state drink. Really, it's true!
What is coffee milk?
Coffee milk is simply milk mixed with coffee syrup. You know chocolate milk? It's like that, but coffee flavored. Some people pronounce it as one word: coffeemilk.
The origin of coffee milk
No one knows for sure, but coffee milk may have its origin with Rhode Island's Italian immigrants. According to Nancy Verde Barr, author of the cookbook We Called It Macaroni: An American Heritage of Southern Italian Cooking, "In Italy they often made a bitter coffee with grain. The brew was then heavily sweetened. The children drank what the parents did. The tradition of sweetening continued here..."
In Southeastern New England the concoction migrated from immigrant kitchens to the menus of diners and drugstores in the 1920s and '30s. The lure of the grown-up beverage, combined with the one-two punch of sugar and caffeine, made the stuff a sure-fire hit. Kids liked it because of its adult mystique and because it tasted good. Parents liked it because it was a way to get their kids to drink milk.
In 1932, the Silmo Packing Company of New Bedford, Massachusetts, began marketing a more refined version of the gunk, dubbed "coffee syrup," under the Silmo name. Founded by Louis Silva and Carlos Desouza Morais, the company's name was a combination of the two founders' surnames.
Eclipse Food Products of Warwick, founded in 1914 by Alphonse Fiore of Providence, began energetically wooing milk-mustached consumers in 1938 with in-store demonstrations of their syrup and liberal use of their slogan, "You smack your lips if it's Eclipse." Another company, Autocrat Coffee of Lincoln, family-run since 1895, followed with their own sugary coffee extract in the 1940s. Autocrat's slogan is "A swallow will tell you."
In 1963, Eclipse was purchased by Globe Extracts of Hauppauge, Long Island, which soon after also bought an independent New Hampshire syrup producer called Coffee Time. Both brands continued to be manufactured in Eclipse's facility on Pilla Drive in Warwick. By the late 1980s, Eclipse and Autocrat were running pretty much neck and neck in the race for the Rhode Island coffee syrup dollar, although each, when asked, would claim to have cornered seventy-five to ninety percent of the market.
Globe Extracts was eventually acquired by a British company, Borthwicks plc, in 1990. Borthwicks then took a little over a year to decide it didn't really want to be in the coffee syrup business. Eclipse may have been the Rhode Island pioneer, and they may have had the catchier slogan, but that didn't stop Autocrat from jumping at the chance to swallow up Eclipse by buying out their brand name and secret formula. Coffee Time was part of the deal, as well, and now all three brands are manufactured and marketed by Autocrat and are readily available around southern New England.
In April 2014 Autocrat was acquired by James Finlay Ltd., a U.K. company that deals in all parts of the tea supply chain. With the addition of Autocrat's coffee extracts, Finlay doubled the size of their business in the U.S. In July 2015, Autocrat's corporate name was changed to Finlay Extracts and Ingredients USA, while retail products continue to be marketed under the Autocrat brand name.
As for Silmo, it also changed ownership several times, then changed names, to MilkMate, in 1996. But despite efforts by the new owner to expand distribution and raise the brand's profile (including a partnering deal with Radio Disney), the company couldn't compete with the Autocrat juggernaut and went out of business around 2000.
Those who are in the know claim there is a definite difference in taste between the various brands. Some say that Eclipse is the sweeter of the two Rhode Island brands, while Autocrat has more coffee bite. Others say the opposite. Lovers of Silmo claim that brand was the coffee-est of them all. Either way, coffee milk is just the thing to wash down a hot weiner or three.
The coffee milk sphere of influence
Can a taste for coffee milk really be geographically defined? Consider these anecdotes from a 1981 Providence Journal article: At Riccotti's Sandwich Shop in Pawtucket, they actually gave up serving chocolate milk because, according to the owner's daughter, Ruth Lima, "It doesn't sell. We had to throw it out." At the same time, Riccotti's was going through two to three cases of half-pint coffee milks a week. On the other side of the coin, the Salois Sanitary Dairy, 660 Cottage Street in Pawtucket, once took part in a taste test in a Long Island school. "The chocolate milk took off like there was no tomorrow," vice president Bob Salois stated. "The coffee milk wouldn't move. We had to take it back."
A 1988 ProJo article noted that cartons of Franklin, Massachusetts-based Garelick Farms coffee milk outsold their chocolate milk by a ratio of nine to one. Yet attempts by the various syrup manufacturers to expand into markets outside Southern New England almost always received the same sort of cold reception as at the Long Island school.
One should not make the mistake of thinking that the power of coffee milk is limited by geography, however. Maybe it's the caffeine, or maybe it's the nostalgia factor, but people who moved to other parts of the country decades ago still crave it, some after even decades away.
...this stranger-than-fiction tale comes from a Warwick couple who wish to remain unnamed: Driving to Florida to visit a brother in Pensacola, they made a lazy loop through Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama, dispensing bottles of coffee syrup to a daughter in Richmond and old friends in Atlanta as they passed through. (They had left Warwick with a twelve-bottle case of syrup in the trunk.) At a motel in Alabama, with seven bottles remaining, the woman made a phone call which was overheard by the motel desk clerk. "I can tell from your accent that you're from Rhode Island," said the clerk, explaining that she had lived for a time in the state. Then she said, "What I miss most about Rhode Island is the ocean and coffee syrup." No lie. "Well, my husband and I just looked at each other and giggled," recalls the woman from Warwick. "We went out to the car and came back with one of the bottles we had left. Was she surprised! Well, she hugged us and we all started laughing. So we got to Pensacola with one less bottle for my brother, but it was certainly worth it."
—"Coffee milk tastes like home sweet home," by Katherine Imbrie, Providence Journal, February 17, 1988.
Coffee milk isn't the only coffee-based product that Rhode Islanders enjoy, they also purchase an inordinate amount of other hot and cold coffee beverages, coffee ice cream, and even coffee-flavored gelatin. As of 1990, in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, coffee ice cream was second only to vanilla in popularity. While we can't say that Rhode Islanders are the largest consumers of coffee products in the nation, they're pretty close.
"We sell the equivalent of twenty million servings of coffee syrup a year in the greater Rhode Island area, in a population of 1.5 million."
--Richard M. Field, Jr., fourth-generation president of Autocrat, Providence Business News, November 2002.
By the way, in Rhode Island, syrup mixed into milk is known as a "milkshake." If you put milk, syrup, and ice cream together, it's a "cabinet," but that's a different story altogether.
The path to greatness
With the acquisition of Eclipse by Autocrat in 1991, the stage was set for the ultimate coffee milk coup. On March 23, 1993, Lincoln Representative John Barr (D), at the behest of Autocrat Coffee, introduced a resolution in the Rhode Island House designating coffee milk as the official state drink. The representative from Middletown, Minority Whip Bruce Long (R), objected, saying, "I just feel that if the state is going to anoint a drink, that it should be studied by a committee." The fact that Long happened to own the Del's Lemonade franchise for Aquidneck Island, he claimed, was not a factor in his objection.
Despite Long's attempts to derail Autocrat's scheme, a Senate Special Legislation Committee had already signed off on the deal by April 1. The lone dissenting committee member, East Greenwich Senator J. Michael Lenihan (D), quipped, "I'm holding out for Narragansett beer."
The resolution came back to the House on May 7. Twenty-five minutes of mostly lighthearted debate preceded the vote.
Barr argued, "Coffee milk is a part of Rhode Island history... Coffee milk is unique to Rhode Island. Is the state of Rhode Island known for coffee milk or known for lemonade?"
"Coffee milk is not alone in its stature of being a uniquely Rhode Island product," countered Long. "An awful lot of people like Del's and an awful lot of people like coffee milk."
When it came time to vote, Long, as a Del's franchisee, recused himself. When the results were counted, coffee milk was the clear favorite, 49 to 36. But the drama wasn't over yet, as Long pulled a parliamentary maneuver that would delay moving the bill to the Senate for two legislative days, allowing opponents a chance to urge reconsideration of the vote.
The delay was evidently for naught, however, for although we haven't yet dug up the details of the Senate vote, we know the ultimate outcome. The Rhode Island Legislature pronounced coffee milk the state's official drink on July 29, 1993.
A victory party was held at Autocrat's Lincoln headquarters on August 27, at which about eighty-five company employees whooped it up, modeled coffee milk t-shirts, mingled with legislators, and knocked back half-pint cartons of Autocrat coffee milk. Del's Lemonade was not invited.
So strong is Rhode Island's attachment to coffee milk that the Providence Journal recently suggested that it may even have helped the cause of justice. When Joseph Mollicone, a bank president blamed for triggering the state's banking crisis in the early 1990s, unexpectedly returned to face felony charges after a year on the lam, a Journal headline asked: "Was it the coffee milk, Joe?"
—George Brown, Editor, Old Rhode Island magazine, October 1993.
Coffee milk on demand
Ex-Rhode Islanders and Rhode Islander wannabes don't have to suffer without coffee milk just because they're geographically challenged. Order coffee syrup online from FamousFoods.com or Amazon.
And if you miss the heady taste of Silmo Syrup, don't despair, there are actually two brands that are said to approximate the old recipe: Farm Girls' Madeira Park Farm Gourmet Coffee Syrup and Morning Glory Old Fashioned Coffee Syrup. Both can be purchased through their websites. Madeira Park Farm makes small batches fresh to order, and ships across the country.
Another newcomer to the market is Charlestown-based Dave's All-Natural Coffee Syrup, which appeared in 2012 and comes in three flavors: original, vanilla, and mocha.
In Rhode Island, coffee milk is available just about everywhere—diners, convenience stores, delis, donut shops, supermarkets, dairies, creameries, souvenir shops, and of course, in your own home!
How to make coffee syrup in five easy steps
- Start with enough fresh-ground coffee (the richer the better) to make four cups.
- Brew the coffee using only two cups of water.
- Mix the brewed coffee in a saucepan with an additional 1/4 cup of water and three to four tablespoons of sugar or sweetener.
- Bring the contents of the saucepan to a vigorous boil. Boil until reduced to about one cup of syrup, stirring occasionally.
- Transfer syrup to a small jar and refrigerate.
How to make a coffee milk in nine easy steps
- Fill a large glass with fresh cold milk.
- Add a liberal amount of coffee syrup to the milk.
- Wipe up the milk that overflowed because you started with too much.
- Stir vigorously.
- Take a good-sized gulp of coffee milk.
- Make a face.
- Add more syrup.
- Stir vigorously.
- A selection of places in Rhode Island to find Coffee Milk
- Weaned on Coffee Syrup by Linda M. Young.
- Coffee Milk: A Living Piece of Rhode Island Drink Culture by Sarah Karnasiewicz.