It’s a curious union. In December, a sugary children’s drink from the 1920s and a beverage old enough to feature in the Code of Hammurabi joined for a brief and unexpected marriage.
This winter, Rhode Island’s only microbrewery, Coastal Extreme, decided to turn coffee milk, the official state drink, into a beverage for the 21+ crowd. “We beerified it,” said Adam Truesdale, the brewer of Coastal Extreme Brewery’s Coffee Milk Stout, “we took the local Rhode Island drink and made it alcoholic.”
And alcoholic it is, with a seven percent content. It’s a bit dusty, a bit thick, a bit pungent—miles from the aggressively saccharine and creamy coffee milk on the taste spectrum.
The Coffee Milk Stout—Truesdale’s first project for Coastal Extreme, best known for their beer Newport Storm—he researched both milk stouts and coffee stouts. An affable and earnest guy, he chatted excitedly about the science behind his concoction. Milk stouts are made with lactose, an unfermentable sugar. When yeast ferments the barley in this beer, it essentially rejects the milk. It doesn’t touch the lactose, “leav[ing] a residual creaminess and sweetness to milk stouts.”
For the coffee flavoring, Truesdale contacted Autocrat, Rhode Island’s producer of the coffee syrup that flavors coffee milk. Truesdale said that what really excited people was the union of Rhode Island’s coffee syrup makers to the state’s only microbrewery. “We are getting creative, trying to make a more Rhode Island product with another Rhode Island business,” he explained. “This is a movement supporting local business and locally grown products.”
Autocrat was founded in the late nineteenth century by Frank O. Field, a man with unabashed expectations for his product. According to The History of Autocrat Coffee, Field named his company Autocrat after reading a series of essays entitled “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table” in the Atlantic Monthly. Field named his product, hopeful that his coffee would also rule the breakfast table “with undisputed influence.”
Autocrat was based in Providence proper for almost 100 years before it moved to a larger space in Lincoln, Rhode Island. In their new 3.3-acre distribution center, 40,000 gallons of coffee syrup are made monthly. That’s enough syrup for approximately 31 million glasses of coffee milk a year; 31 glasses a year per Rhode Islander. And it’s probably only Rhode Islanders drinking it; coffee milk is hardly known outside the 401 area code.
Diners and drugstores in the 1920s Rhode Island first served coffee milk to give kids a softened and sweetened version of a grown-up beverage. However, its origins may be from the old country. In her book about Italian immigrants and cuisine in Rhode Island, We Called It Macaroni, Nancy Verde Barr wrote, “In Italy they often made a bitter coffee with grain. The brew was then heavily sweetened […] then the tradition of sweetening continued here.”
In the ’90s, Rhode Island State Legislature decided it didn’t have enough to debate and decided to select an official state drink, entering a heated three month-long debate between Del’s Lemonade and coffee milk. On July 29, 1993, the Rhode Island State Legislature announced that coffee milk was “the Official State Drink of Rhode Island.” There was one dissenting vote, however, from East Greenwich Senator J. Michael Lenihan, who announced, “I’m holding out for Narragansett beer.”
Now it seems that Mr. Lenihan might be appeased. Thanks to Newport Storm, beer and coffee milk have entered into a brief but significant union.
Truesdale said that loyal coffee milk drinkers have shown enthusiastic support: “The people at Autocrat said they could really taste the syrup.” He also said that at his beer tastings around the state “Rhode Islanders come up to me and tell me stories about how they have to send the Autocrat syrup to their son or daughter who lives in California or overseas, and they told me they are going to include this beer for them.”
Though the combination of lactose, espresso, and barley makes this beer taste forced, its novelty makes it exciting. “It’s popular with people who know what coffee milk is; Rhode Islanders. Rhode Island pride, that’s the whole motivation,” concluded Truesdale. Unconventional as it is, it makes sense in its own Rhody way.