Growing up in Southeastern Massachusetts on the border of Rhode Island meant that our kitchen cabinets were usually stocked with coffee syrup. This staple stood among the ranks of other flavorings like Nestlé Quik, Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup, and Ovaltine, all of which turned an ordinary glass of milk into the pure delight of any child. Like many insular children, taking the food at their tables for granted, I wasn’t aware that coffee syrup was a regional commodity and that kids all across America were without of the thrill of coffee milk.
Conceived in Rhode Island during the 1930s, in the days of drugstore soda fountains, coffee milk was a concoction of milk flavored with leftover coffee grounds and sugar. This innovation became so popular that a number of companies developed their own coffee syrup product in the late 30s and 40s that would compete for years on supermarket shelves throughout Southeastern New England. Cartons of ready-made coffee milk could be found in dairy coolers among the whole, skim and chocolate varieties, and was offered as in diners and school cafeterias throughout the region.
The two coffee syrup brands that were prevalent during my childhood were Eclipse, and the confidently named Autocrat. Of the two I preferred Autocrat which came in an old-timey, coffee-colored bottle with a vibrant yellow label that featured Autocrat’s signature red bird. I so enjoyed coffee milk that on the rare occasion that we were out of coffee syrup, my caffeine withdrawal prompted me to concoct my own, mixing Folgers instant coffee, sugar, and hot water that I’d stir into a tall glass of milk. This desperate alchemy resulted in a gritty, though not wholly unpleasant, version of the beverage.
I became aware of the idea of regional cuisine only after moving from Massachusetts to Connecticut in my early teens. I discovered the absence of my old hometown favorites, like chouriço and chips sandwiches, Hoo-Mee Chow Mein, stuffed quahogs, and Autocrat coffee syrup. If I wanted a glass of coffee milk, I’d have to resort to my experimental Folgers brew. Though my new home in Connecticut was only a 2 hour drive away from my former turf, a difference like this made me feel like I was in another country at times. Luckily, I visited my family in Massachusetts often enough to revisit my favorites, now with a new appreciation.
As an adult living in New Haven, now having lived in Connecticut longer than I had in Massachusetts, I met Ray, a Yale grad student from Providence, Rhode Island. Having grown up only twenty miles away from each other we instantly bonded over the regional curiosities from our former hometowns. We compared vernacular while conjuring our long-lost accents. We exchanged phrases like “grab a drink of watuh from the bubblah,” and “wicked pissah.” We reminisced about the food and drink that we missed from our past lives. Naturally we discussed coffee milk. Ray reminded me of a dense ice cream drink popular in among Southeastern Massachusites and Rhode Islanders that was made using coffee syrup, coffee ice cream and milk. He knew the drink as a coffee cabinet, and I knew it as an Awful Awful, revealing a regionalism within a regionalism.
With a renewed longing for coffee milk, I revisited the milk augmentation aisle in my local supermarket. There among the Bosco and Nesquik was Autocrat! I added it to my cart along with a small carton of milk and enjoyed my first coffee milk in years.
The smell of freshly ground coffee is one of my favorite olfactory experiences. However, the drink that follows never seems to live up to the intoxicating aroma. I’ve always felt that it should taste more like coffee milk, a light and sweet, with the subtle coffee aroma. This explains my lifelong need to milk and sugar my coffee to a Dunkin Donuts level of light and sweetness. I once worked at a local coffee chain that took pride in the quality of its roast and attempted to instill this pride in its employees. Each new employee was sent to a “bean class” at the company headquarters where they were educated about the coffee-making process from bean growing to brewing. We learned about the roasting process and trained to detect the subtle taste and aroma nuances in different blends and roasts with the discriminating palette of sommeliers. I came away from the experience being able to recognize the difference between a good cup of coffee versus a bad cup of coffee. Ultimately, my unsophisticated palette still finds that no matter the quality, both are too bitter and acidic for my liking, and is easiest to consume with a generous amount of cream and sugar. As I’ve gotten older, I have scaled back on the sweetness and lightness of my coffee a bit. This change is met with some reluctance, but I recognize its necessity as I enjoy my teeth where they are, and doubt that I would find diabetes much fun. That being said, I do still keep a bottle of Autocrat coffee syrup on hand. I’m not much of a milk drinker these days but mixing it with almond milk does the trick
In 1991 Autocrat bought out Eclipse, its former competitor, becoming a truly autocratic presence in the coffee syrup market. In 1993, Rhode Island State Legislature crowned coffee milk “The Official State Drink of Rhode Island,” an accolade that Autocrat proudly displays on its label. Kids across America needn’t be deprived of the thrill of coffee milk a minute longer as coffee-syrup has started popping up in grocery stores all over the country, and can be enjoyed worldwide thanks to the internet.