Rhode Islanders love the taste of coffee—without all the caffeine, that is. It’s not exactly decaf that reigns supreme in the Ocean State. Instead, it’s a concoction known as coffee milk.
Various coffee milk recipes trace back to early 19th century English cookbooks, and Louisiana has its own version of coffee milk (four parts milk to one part coffee, replete with loads of sugar). But the singular syrupy goodness that lines Rhode Island supermarket shelves was likely brought over by Italian immigrants. They came to work in the state’s textile mills in the late 19th and early 20th century, and they loved coffee. But not just any coffee: It was sweet, slightly bitter, and especially heavy on the milk. In the 1930s, diner and drugstore owners started mixing leftover coffee grounds with milk and sugar. As time passed, it became less coffee with milk and sugar and more milk and sugar with a dash of coffee.
Two Rhode Island-based companies, Eclipse and Autocrat, also began producing coffee milk syrup commercially in the 1930s with great success. The drink wasn’t just a favorite with adults: Autocrat, which was marketed for children as a daily serving of milk, became a favorite with youngsters, too.
Coffee milk syrup does contain traces of caffeine (14 mg per serving) from the coffee extract that’s added to high fructose corn syrup and caramel color. But given that your average cup of joe has 95 milligrams of caffeine, you’d have to drink about seven cups of coffee milk to get the same buzz.
Starting children on coffee milk seems to work: Rhode Islanders are leading consumers of coffee ice cream, and coffee gelatin enjoys some popularity, too. No wonder coffee milk is the state’s official drink.