Coffee Milk

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What do you get when you add coffee syrup to ice cold milk? In Rhode Island, you get the official state drink — coffee milk. While a few other beverages have also achieved a high level of fame in the Ocean State (namely Del’s Lemonade and Narragansett beer) coffee milk earned the official top spot in 1993 thanks to its “uniquely Rhode Island” reputation. A common argument goes that you can get lemonade or beer just about anywhere, but ask for a coffee milk outside of Rhode Island and its neighboring towns, and you’re likely to get a look of extreme confusion.

Mysterious as it may be to outsiders, coffee milk is a pretty obvious leap for anyone who’s had a glass of strawberry or chocolate milk. Sugary syrup (commonly made from instant coffee mixed with sugar and corn syrup) is bottled and added, a few spoonfuls at a time, to a glass of milk, then stirred, and enjoyed.

coffee milk autocrat

Rhode Island Coffee Milk

Aimee Seavey

Rhode Islanders have been slurping up coffee milk from local brands with gusto since the late 1930’s, when first Eclipse (based in Warwick) and then Autocrat (based in Lincoln) began selling bottles of the sugary, slightly-caffeinated syrup. In 1991, the “coffee syrup wars” finally ended when Autocrat purchased their long-time competitor, but rather than absorbing one brand into the other, they just keep making both. Actually, they make three. A third label, Coffee Time Syrup, is mostly sold to markets outside of Rhode Island. And in case you were wondering if they all taste the same, die-hard coffee milk fans will tell you (or they told me) that Autocrat is just a little bit sweeter.

Originally marketed at children as a way to get them to drink their milk, today the syrup is a favorite of both young and old, and transplanted Rhode Islanders take to the web to keep their kitchens stocked.

autocrat coffee syrup

A vintage newspaper ad for Autocrat coffee syrup.

While Autocrat might be the most familiar to coffee milk fans, newer local brands like Dave’s Coffee (a winner in the 2013 Yankee Magazine Editors’ Choice Food Awards) have their own following thanks to their all-natural syrups in original, vanilla, and mocha flavors made with no artificial colors, sweeteners, or high fructose corn syrup — and we can’t help but love the funky, retro packaging.

Want your coffee milk cold and creamy? Just add some vanilla ice cream and blend the whole thing together into a coffee cabinet (that’s a frappe to other New Englanders and a milkshake to those that are really from away). And if, by chance, you want your coffee milk and Narragansett beer together, the latter debuted a limited-edition Autocrat Coffee Milk Stout in 2013, blending the brand’s bittersweet milk stout with dark Autocrat coffee.

We hear it goes great with a Olneyville New York System hot weiner.

  • I was also born an raised in New Bedford. I lived on Rockdale Ave, right up the street from SILMO SYRUP. Loved my silmo! Was so very sad to see it close! I am now diabetic, but every so often have my coffee milk! Now! The difference between a milkshake and a frappe! A milkshake is the syrup and milk put in a blender to make it frothy! A “FRAPPE” is the same, but with ice cream added! Enjoy!

  • In Malden MA we used Lincoln coffee syrup that came in a clear glass bottle shaped like President Lincoln. The cap looked like a black top hat! My Grampa saved pennies in it! (Lincoln, of course)

  • I grew up on Coffee Time coffee syrup, my Grandfather turned me on to it years ago, I found Famous Foods famousfoods.com online one day when I was searching for some of my old favorites down here in Florida, they sell Coffee Time and also Autocrat.

  • When I was a child, I didn’t drink plain milk very well. My mother had Autocrat coffee syrup and Hershey syrup in the refrigerator all the time. I would drink a full glass with either one. I still see coffee syrup on the local store shelves here, eastern CT.

  • You can buy autocrat in Ct. I live in Ct my whole life and still buy it. I have 3 bottles sitting in my cabinet which I brought at a local supermarket. Walmart and Stop and Shop have it. If you live over near New Haven or Hartford and they don’t have it though head up to New London area or the casinos. All supermarkets up here have it.

  • linda

    My husband and I each used this since we were kids,(now 70) unfortunately can’t do the high fructrose. sorry

  • Aimee

    Hi Joe. Thanks for your comment! You’re right that Autocrat has been around since the late 1800’s, but they didn’t start selling the coffee syrup until the 1930’s.


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