Coffee Milk Is the Toast of Rhode Island


John Ferreira knows when he’s left his native Rhode Island--he can’t get a drop of one of his favorite drinks.

“You ask for coffee milk in any other state, and they look at you like you have three heads,” he said. “That’s when you know you’re not home anymore.”

Ferreira, 31, is a typical Rhode Islander: He went from mother’s milk to coffee milk, which is a contender to be the official state drink.


“It made you feel more adult,” said Ferreira, who had his first sip as a first-grader in Catholic school in Pawtucket. “Your parents drank coffee, and you used to sneak a sip when they weren’t looking. Coffee milk was a cool thing to do.”

Coffee milk is made from coffee syrup--instant coffee mixed with sugar and corn syrup--which then is stirred into milk much the same way its popular counterpart, chocolate milk, is made.

In May, the House voted 49-36 to make it the state drink, following the Senate, which already had approved a similar measure 36-6. Either bill has to reach the other chamber and be signed by Gov. Bruce Sundlun before coffee milk can reach official beverage distinction.

Rep. John Barr of Lincoln sponsored the legislation under the presumption that it would “bring a little levity”’ into the session. Instead, it faced the wrath of those who felt that Del’s frozen lemonade, a local brand, was a more appropriate drink.

“I drink coffee milk. My father drank it. His father drank it,” Barr said. “Del’s is a fine product. . . . But is lemonade uniquely Rhode Island? I don’t think so.”

Coffee milk is so uniquely Rhode Island that it barely has crossed state borders.

“It’s just been a product that seems to have taken hold here in the Rhode Island area,” said Cynthia Wall, part-owner of Autocrat Inc., the largest maker of coffee milk. “We have tried to promote it outside . . . but it’s difficult to get it off the ground. It’s such an unusual product.”

Wall speculates that coffee milk, which is touted as a children’s drink, is difficult to promote because not everyone feels comfortable giving children a coffee product, despite the fact that it has very little caffeine.

That doesn’t bother Nick Demou, the owner of the Modern Diner in Pawtucket, though.

“I have a 1-year-old son that’s been weaned on it,” Demou said. “My mother-in-law started it. He was fussy one day, so she decided to spike his milk. . . . He loves it.”

Demou, 36, has been serving coffee milk at his diner for years, and he said it’s the restaurant’s most popular flavored milk.

“We get people from other states, and that’s what they come in for,” he said.

Merrill Cornell, who moved to Sebastian, Fla., from Warwick more than a year ago, packed among his “valued personal possessions” four gallons of coffee syrup.

“I can accept the fact that Fenway Franks, Moxie and Kenyon’s Jonnycake meal are unobtainable in Florida,” Cornell said. “But life without coffee syrup is too bitter to contemplate.”

Cornell, 59, now has Autocrat send him a bottle from Rhode Island whenever his personal stock gets low.

“I’m convinced if people here in Florida were exposed to it, they’d learn to like it too,” he said. But, he said, “I’m not going to share my coffee syrup with anybody here.”

Ferreira, who now buys a bottle of coffee syrup every week, understands that apparent selfishness.

“When I went in the (military) service, waking up every day I missed coffee milk more than I missed my friends or my family,” he said.