Rhode Island Coffee Milk

Frappucino for the Slow Food set?

by Ari WeinzweigRoadshow server holding a glass of Rhode Island Coffee Milk

Coffee milk is the official drink of the state of Rhode Island, but the Roadshow at Zingerman’s Roadhouse has adopted it as their own. If you’re driven by flavor, you’ll want to know that it tastes really good. If you’re driven by personal stories, you’ll want to know that coffee milk was actually invented by the uncle of Ann Arbor’s own Jan Longone about 75 years ago. Jan’s the woman behind the world-class Longone Culinary Collection that’s now housed at University of Michigan’s Hatcher Graduate Library.

Coffee milk formally became the state drink of Rhode Island in 1993, but it’s been around since the ’30s. Although it’s unlikely that no one other than Rhode Islanders have mixed cold milk, coffee and sugar, the good people of the nation’s smallest state seem to have latched on to it with a love and affection like English people have for tea. The first coffee syrup available for retail sale was a Warwick, Rhode Island based brand called Eclipse, which made its debut in 1938 and became known for the slogan, You’ll smack your lips when it’s Eclipse. I love the slogan, but the real story behind it came up when I was meeting with Jan. “You know, my uncle actually invented that,” she said. Well, actually I didn’t know. But I have no reason to doubt that he did. As a very careful and detail-oriented historian, Jan doesn’t spin stories out of hand. She closed her eyes, and said, “I can still taste it.”

Jan’s Uncle Meyer was a Russian-Jewish immigrant who loved to tinker with things. And, according to legend, he took the Rhode Island love for strong, sweet coffee—likely based in the heavy concentration of both Italians and Portuguese people living there—and turned it into a cold drink. We don’t have his exact recipe for the coffee syrup, which is the basis of the drink, but, apparently, he shared it with someone he knew, and the man absconded with it.

The coffee milk is a bit of a secret to most folks but it has long drawn “oohs” and “aahs.” The syrup is homemade, much as Jan’s Uncle Meyer might have done, and the Roadshow crew uses the Coffee Company’s Roadhouse Joe as the base. We mix up the syrup with the amazingly good milk and cream from Calder Dairy (over in Carleton, Michigan, the same stuff we use at the Creamery to make the cream cheese).

When do you drink coffee milk? Anytime and anyplace. If you’re not into hot beverages it’s a great way to get the day going. Pull up to the Roadshow anytime and ask for a taste or just order one up and drink a cool toast to Uncle Meyer and a Rhode Island classic.

Interested in our coffee drinks? Take a look at the Roadshow Menu!