Rhode Island Showdown: Coffee Milk Taste Test

"In 1993, the state senate approved coffee milk as the official state drink of Rhode Island."

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[Photographs: Leah Douglas]

My childhood was shaped by frequent trips to Rhode Island. My mom's whole family lives there, and I came to view myself as basically an honorary Rhode Islander. Along with this identification came a deep appreciation for the many cultural traits that are unique to this small state. In my opinion, the most important Rhode Island touchstone is the state's official beverage, coffee milk.

Coffee milk has been around for decades, with roots in 1920s and 1930s diners. In the 1930s, Eclipse coffee syrup hit the market, followed soon after by Autocrat. The two ended their rivalry in 1991, when Autocrat bought the Eclipse brand and secret formula. Today, they produce both labels.

A taste for coffee milk is ubiquitous in most Rhode Islanders, and its presence on home and restaurant menus alike is taken as a given. In 1993, the state senate approved coffee milk as the official state drink of Rhode Island, solidifying its status as the head honcho beverage.

When I began attending college in Rhode Island, I was surprised and amused when all my friends were perplexed at the dual coffee milk/chocolate milk dispensers in the cafeterias. For me, coffee milk was a natural pairing to its more universally accepted and consumed chocolate counterpart. But after failing to explain coffee milk's importance over and over, and when asked for concrete proof of the drink's existence and deliciousness, I decided it was time for a definitive answer. That's right. It was time for a taste test.

The Three Competitors

  • Autocrat: probably the most recognized and commonplace syrup.
  • Eclipse: also an old standby.
  • Morning Glory: a newcomer to the scene.

Along with a panel of qualified tasters, I put each syrup to the test.

The Methods

The methods were straightforward, and OK, not that scientific. The "recipe" calls for two tablespoons of syrup for 8 ounces of milk. Because I was using half-size glasses, each glass got what I approximated to be one tablespoon. I figured my ample experience with both coffee milk preparation and tablespoon dolloping would ensure relative accuracy of measurement.

The Results

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Autocrat: Some comments from tasters included "sweet"; "you only get the coffee at the end"; and "this tastes like nothing." Overall, this syrup had a simultaneously cloyingly sweet and nonexistent flavor. Definitely didn't suit our coffee milk needs.

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Eclipse This syrup was a step in the right direction. Tasters noted that "it tastes like vanilla," and there was slightly more flavor. One taster even identified Eclipse as his favorite, pointing to it with a simple "that's good." Although to be fair, it basically tasted like Autocrat.

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Morning Glory: "Mmm...coffee ice cream!" "Tastes exactly like milky, sweet coffee." "Much more deeply flavored." Clearly tasters agreed that Morning Glory was the easy winner. Whereas the other syrups list high fructose corn syrup as the first ingredient, the only ingredients in this delicious product are cane sugar, water, and coffee. As it should be.

This taste test ended up easy to call. I'm not sure how receptive true Rhode Island natives would be to a dramatic change in their coffee milk recipe. But for anyone looking to experience a delicious version of a traditional beverage, Morning Glory syrup is the way to go. It's only available in grocery stores in the Northeast, but head to their website for a list of retailers.

About the author: Leah Douglas is a college student in Providence, Rhode Island. She's thinking of studying public policy, or ideally creating her own major related to food policy and studies. She's currently enjoying the challenge of mapping foodie destinations in Providence!

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