January Coffee sits on the prow of a strip mall in Boulder, Colorado. Next door is a hair salon, a Michael’s, a Petsmart, a Walgreens; the Flatirons reflect off its window glass the same way they do for so many storefronts in the city of 108,000. But inside is something kind of weird. Or someone; really, it’s two someones: Kristi Persinger and John Imig.
For Persinger and Imig, January the month is as important as January the cafe. They met in January (2017), started dating in January (2018), moved to Colorado together in January (2020), and formed what would be the idea for January (the cafe) in January (2021).
In Boulder, small businesses live and die on their ability to cater to students and outdoor recreators. Besides the outsized student population, which swells in the autumn and spring, there are twice as many sporting goods and gyms here per capita than in anyplace else in the country. 18–35-year-olds stalk the medians of parking lots in plush running sneakers, darting between the doors of fitness studios and immaculate 4×4 SUVs, which crawl up every thoroughfare into the mountains.
January’s success here is predicated on neither of these things. Instead, the cafe is built on Persinger and Imig’s decades of experience working for specialty shops up and down the west coast, from Intelligentsia to Stumptown Coffee Roasters and many in-between.
“We wanted to create an environment that’s inclusive and equitable,” Persinger says. “Where everybody’s ideas are heard and there’s an openness to share.” Which, in January’s case, results in a graceful work environment where pressure is diffuse and everyone, regardless of background, is given the support they need and is paid and recognized for their role in making the cafe work, and a cafe where every customer is served the same great coffee without pretense.
“Working as a woman of color in coffee, I haven’t always necessarily felt that my work environments have been that way,” Persinger says. “So we have an internal goal to make this shop the best place that people have ever worked. We can try to make it a little bit better for ourselves, you know?”
Part of the way they do that is by encouraging a culture of openness and honesty.
“I don’t want people to feel embarrassed about sharing that they’re having a particularly bad day,” Persinger says. “I want to be understanding of that, because we’re all human, and the thing that we try to do is just lead with empathy in all that we do, and that makes just such a big difference in how everybody interacts here. And then our staff are all stoked to be here and really proud of where they work.”
Imig adds: “We’re open about our mental health with our staff and, and when they’re open with us about theirs, we can be supportive.”
Another part is by paying January employees a living wage. “Because we’re a new shop,” Persinger says, “we didn’t have a fully fleshed out budget in the beginning, but we knew that we wanted to pay everybody more than the current minimum wage.” In Colorado, that number is $9.54 for tipped employees as of this writing. “And we just kind of landed on a number that we thought we could afford to start, which right now is $13.”
“We started everybody at the same exact wage,” Imig says. Regardless of experience, their philosophy is that everyone at a shop “pulls their weight equally. Every job in the cafe is important and just as hard as another.” Just because one person’s a trained barista doesn’t mean that their colleague on register is doing any less. It also means tips are pooled and distributed evenly across employees.
And thought they haven’t fully figured out what their wage structure will look like in the future, beyond their current team of 11, which is up from just the two of them on opening day back in May of 2022. Eventually, if January continues to grow and expand to new shops, Persinger says they “want to think about how we can provide equity to people who are in it for the long haul.” The reasoning is that if employees of businesses are expected to take ownership over the success of their shop, they ought to have actual ownership over some part of it too.
As a very young, independently-owned and funded cafe, January’s able to offer living wages in large part because of how hard Persinger and Imig both work. After funding the cafe on their own, not taking salaries during January’s first three months, and each holding down a second job, they now work a comfortable, combined 160-hour work week. Today they pay themselves barista wages and walk around with bags under their eyes and dad hats to shield them from the high-elevation sun.
“We were trying to give as much to the shop as we possibly could,” Persinger says of the first few months. “In order to allow it to function and make enough money to be able to pay our staff well enough and, you know, afford to operate.”
In addition to being a great place to work, January is a great cafe. Because for however good Persinger and Imig try to be as owners, they are also absolute dorks when it comes to coffee. Just huge honkin’ coffee nerds.
January’s a multi-roaster that brings in coffee from across the country—they always carry Onyx, and have featured roasters like San Francisco’s Ritual, Dune out of Santa Barbara, and Mother Tongue from Oakland. They operate in the Australian model, offering a full-service menu of homemade food that’s all great—they make almost everything in-house, from breakfast burritos to the vanilla that goes into their drinks.
“We love great coffee, we love amazing food,” Persinger says. “And we wanted to be able to have both of those things in our shop. Because I feel like it’s just a more holistic experience when you can have an awesome breakfast burrito, that’s like the best you’ve maybe ever had, and great coffee.”
Then, she gets a bit conspiratorial, lowering her voice. “The craziest part is that we are a headless ventless kitchen,” she says. “So we can’t cook anything on a stove.”
Imig seems to nod. “We have to do everything in ovens.”
“So that was the thing that makes this so difficult,” Kristi says. “It’s sort of literal insanity.”
And while it’s true that making a full food program work with only an oven and a panini press is a kind of insanity, it can’t really be said that that’s the thing that makes January so difficult. Sure, having to scramble eggs in an oven is inconvenient and hard, but from an outside perspective, what makes the project of January so difficult is everything. What Persinger and Imig are trying to do, and what they do by necessity, is just difficult. All of it. From opening their doors with two weeks of operating expenses in the bank to working a double before taking off to their second jobs—it’s all difficult.
“There are days when we want to give it all up,” Persinger says. “Because I’m so tired, and I can’t do this anymore. And then some days where I’m so incredibly grateful for what we’ve created and seeing our literal dream come to fruition. It doesn’t get any better.”
Shylee Mosali has much to be proud of. As the first female coffee roaster in Iran, and one of the country’s most reputable coffee experts, she has faced considerable discrimination and injustice—and her main weapon to fight back is with knowledge, expertise, and a focus on quality. Today Mosali is proud that she can have conversations about specialty coffee with her grandfather, and that nowadays, her mother drinks high quality brewed coffee instead of the cheap stuff.
The journey to this reality was no easy road.
Shylee Mosali was born in Qazvin, a town near the capital city of Iran. A nerdy kid who overcame her shyness only to protect her younger brother from bullies, she lost her father at age 13. With this tragedy came great change, and she and her two siblings were raised by a single mother who worked and went to school at the same time.
Mosali took on her mother’s independence and determination. She grew up hearing the story of how her mother, armed with her first paycheck, bought her grandmother a piece of jewelry to mark her independence. But with a sense of tradition and obligation, Mosali followed a path towards becoming a doctor.
After two failed attempts at the medical school entrance exam, Mosali settled for a Clinical Laboratory Science major and a dream of an independent life in a large city. Armed with an education, and against the will of her conservative family, Mosali moved to Tehran at the age of 21. “I did it but I had no faith in myself and I was sad and depressed,” Mosali tells me, “but if I had told even a little bit about this to my mother, she would have forced me to cancel my plans and move back to my hometown.”
New to city life, Mosali slowly began to exercise the independent streak she learned as a child. She met a new group of creative friends, started dating, and began hanging out at a local cafe. Her time spent socializing in a cafe would soon prove to be more formative than any of her school classes.
With no previous experience and no expectations, she applied for a job at Sam Coffee Roasters and got it. Historically, her family would have found it shameful for an educated and financially stable woman to work as a restaurant or cafe employee—so Mosali hid this part of her life from her family.
Her first training at work was about coffee—what else?—and Mosali stunned the room by earning the top score among 50 coworkers, including the baristas. “Only two months passed and I already had a great feeling of being seen and appreciated at work,” Mosali remembers, “which definitely helped to be able to ignore the negative thoughts about me working in a cafe.”
Because of her educational background, the chemistry part of coffee science and botany caught her attention mostly and triggered her enthusiasm about the world of coffee. Cafe work was tough and her circumstances felt a bit strange, but Mosali excelled at her new secret cafe life. She did a lot of research, read many books, practiced a lot during training, and continued to rise through the ranks at work. After a few months, she was promoted to a prominent barista position at Sam Coffee Roasters in Tehran.
With this achievement in place, it was time to end the secrets, and to proudly invite her mother to the cafe to share her new home.
The visit was joyful. To celebrate, Shylee Mosali bought a piece of jewelry for her mother, just as her mother did for her grandmother when she went to work almost 30 years earlier.
Years passed, and Shylee continued to excel at Sam Coffee Roasters. After 36 months of prominent barista work, the company chose Mosali to train to become its next coffee roaster. This was a major moment for Mosali, and also represented an historic accomplishment in Iran’s male-dominated coffee community.
The truth is, Shylee Mosali is the first woman in all of Iran to work professionally as a coffee roaster, and for a nationally recognized, prominent company like Sam Coffee Roasters, the impact cannot be overstated. “I felt all that effort and hard work finally paid back,” she says. “It was a dream come true for sure!”
As Iran’s first female-identified roaster, Mosali sees herself as a node for future change in the country’s growing coffee industry. Mosali believes all human beings are equal and capable; this sentiment draws no line or distinction between men and women. She instead prefers to be evaluated for the quality of her work and expertise rather than her position as a woman. She also rejects the novelty that comes with roasting in Iran and instead sees coffee as an international phenomenon with no border.
“I strongly believe having sexist views in my profession or even limiting myself to a specific geographical location does nothing good for anyone. This can’t stop me from pursuing my dreams.”
Her curious and rebellious character is what led her to break social norms and taboos around cafe culture and coffee consumption, but for her, it doesn’t stop at Sam Coffee Roasters. With dreams of working for a big multinational coffee roastery chain and eventually starting her own small boutique roastery—perhaps far from Tehran—she strives to motivate and educate the next generation of Shylees in Iran. Until then, she’ll stay deep in the science of coffee, pushing boundaries, obsessing over flavors, and savoring her own quality time with the fruits of possibility.
Shahriar Azimi is a coffee professional and freelance journalist based in Tehran. This is Shahriar Azimi’s first feature for Spudge.
One of the most cinematic, atmospheric experiences you can have right now in the world of coffee is available 24 hours a day, completely free of charge, right inside your pocket. It’s on Instagram; specifically the Instagram of Gilly Brew Bar, a coffee company very much unlike any other coffee company I’ve come to know in my decade-plus reporting on the specialty coffee industry.
“We are not a coffee shop”, Gilly declares proudly, and frequently, on its official website and across social media. On the internet, Gilly feels as much like a literary or theosophical intellectual project as it does a beverage emporium. In the actual bar, you’ll find a dazzling seasonal rotation of drinks, each one anchored with intent and meaning evoking past and present thought leadership, reconfiguring coffee’s role from a status symbol or desultory consumption habit into something that echoes with deeper meaning: spiritual, health, mind, soul.
At first, it feels like doublespeak to say “We are not a coffee shop”, a Magritte-esque intentional absurdity: Ceci n’est pas une cafe. But interrogate this and you’ll see that Gilly’s founders, Daniel Brown and Nephthaly Leonidas, are building towards the intentional dissolution of long-established hierarchies, boundaries, and barriers presented by the traditional cafe experience. A reimagining of what coffee is, who it’s for, and how we experience it.
It’s an overused trope—”disruption”—the idea that entrepreneurs of any generation (though it’s been especially abused by Millennials and Gen Z) are building an approach to business culture that shatters preconceived norms and notions about, well, everything, from history to economics to culture. I say this by way of explaining that I don’t take using the term lightly; if you’re going to call someone disruptive in this day and age, you had better mean it and be able to back it up.
This is what Gilly is. They’re disrupting multiple threads in the modern coffee space with dazzlingly fluent simultaneity. We saw a spark of this in 2019, when Daniel Brown was nominated to the inaugural class of the Sprudge Twenty project, and have followed along in the years since as Gilly’s work has bloomed and blossomed. Today, perched on the precipice of opening their second full-time location, and going from strength to strength operating wildly popular pop-ups, the original Gilly Brew Bar in Stone Mountain stands in rare air for the American coffee experience. It’s simply one of the best coffee shops in the country, period, end of story—except it’s not a coffee shop. Remember? Look closer.
An in-depth conversation with Daniel Brown is an event and a privilege, something we’re thrilled to give pride of place on this editorial platform, Sprudge Special Projects Desk. Read on for a gently edited and condensed conversation between myself and Daniel Brown.
Jordan Michelman: Daniel — this is really a pleasure, thank you so much for speaking with me today. We have time to stretch out and talk for this interview, and I have a lot of things I want to get to, but first and foremost: how are things going for you and your team right now around Atlanta?
Daniel Brown: Oh man! We’ve been busy, honestly. Things have been crazy. We never really fully shut down here, man, but it’s been crazy. Fortunately, a lot of things for Atlanta and the country are headed in a better direction.
That’s good to hear. I want to know upfront because we’ve been following really closely on social media: where are you at in the process of opening at Peters Street Station in Atlanta?
Peters Street is still in the works. And what I mean by that is, the space is built out, but the inspections have come along slowly, and honestly, the biggest hold up now is with the inspectors. Inspections are never fun, you know, but what makes it even more interesting now is that all of our inspections have been virtual, which has been really dragging out the process. As of today, we have submitted our application to the county, and we’re waiting for our health inspection, and then we’ll be good to go. There’s no set date yet to open, but we’re shooting for this spring.
Tell me more about what you’re going to do there, and how Peters Street will differ from your first cafe at Stone Mountain.
So we’ll definitely stick to our core mission, which is to reimagine coffee culture and to help other people reimagine coffee culture. At Stone Mountain one of the ways we do that is with our elixirs, which are uniquely developed drinks based on seasonal timelines; we typically introduce 5 new beverages every three months. At Peters Street, we’ll have the elixir as well but they won’t necessarily come out with 5 new ones every three months. We want our drinks there to look more like a collaboration with the vibe of that community. Peters Street is located in Castlebury Hill, which is an arts district with a very active artist community, and the building we’ll be in actually has a gallery in the back where artists display and sell artwork, so our goal is to create drinks that are more customized around the pieces you can view in the gallery. This means a drink may not be on the menu for three months; it might be much shorter, and it will create an opportunity for innovation and customization around the ideas presented by the visual artists.
Yeah man, I think that it will be an amazing experience for people to visit the gallery then try something inspired by the art they’re looking at, especially with people who really value art—we want to captivate those kinds of people who would spend 10 minutes soaking in a beautiful piece of artwork and then be able to appreciate our interpretation of that in drink form. That’s where I’m hoping this concept goes.
Back at your Stone Mountain cafe, “James & James” was the theme for your winter menu, which is based around the biblical Book of James and the works of James Baldwin. We’ll talk about the next season in a moment, but honestly, this past menu deserves some conversation and thought first, because it’s fascinating. Where did the spark of this idea come from?
Our approach to elixir seasons have always stemmed from where we’re currently at as a company. We try to share a story based on what we’re experiencing, and with the climax of all the protests in 2020, we thought it would be amazing to stay on that highlighting someone like James Baldwin.
During his career, a lot of people had a hard time trying to figure out if James Baldwin was actually an activist or just a phenomenal writer? I think people still struggle with that, but ultimately we consider him an activist, because everyone has their own style and way of doing things, and he was able to reach a particular audience that people like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King weren’t able to capture. Baldwin did that with what his strengths were.
The truth is, activism doesn’t have to look like what Malcolm did or what Martin did; they did the job their way but Baldwin did it, too, and participated in activism through his word. We wanted to highlight a lot of his work with these drinks, and then we found some really cool parallels with the Book of James.
Essentially, the Book of James is a rebuke to the church, and James Baldwin, his writing was like a rebuke of America. We thought it was a beautiful way to share those stories, and to highlight our own rebuke to coffee culture. There is a narrative we have been painting since the very beginning, the idea that, simply, “We are not a coffee shop.” People ask us all the time what that means, and the truth is, for a very long time, coffee culture has had many negative associations as an early sign of gentrification, as a culture of products over people, the snobby barista persona. Of course, not everyone is like that, but we knew we didn’t want to be defined in that way. We wanted people to understand that wherever a Gilly Brew Bar is, we want to be about championing people. Looking at it from a hospitality standpoint where we get to serve the community we’re in. That means we get involved, we go to city council meetings, we meet our neighbors, and we embed our coffee and tea program into the needs of the community.
There are some wild flavor notes on the James & James menu — the drink “Chapter One” is compared to “soup on the rocks”, the “Chapter Two” is a “Marlboro Red” — those are really fantastic and unusual descriptions. I want to know more about the process you and your team go through in building these drinks and notes: how many heads are in on that work? How collaborative is it?
Once we kind of evaluate where we are—in our personal lives and as a team—then we start thinking about certain flavors that feel like might help interpret the story. These are seasonal drinks with seasonal ingredients, above all else. Most winters, we tend to go a little more nutty or savory, to match the season. We’re a small team creating these drinks: it’s me and two other people, including Nephthaly Leonidas, who is the co-owner at Gilly. She is a huge part of creating the seasonal menus, as well as one of our bar leads, Yvonne TK, who since the beginning has always shown interest in creating the drinks and has really taken a lot of lead to help us establish these menus.
The James & James collection was pretty much built on our discussions. It’s crazy, you know—I think a lot of people assume we have all these themes lined up, but honestly once the season ends we take a sabbatical. We step away from the elixir for two weeks or two and a half weeks, so we can rest and feel out the season for what comes next. It’s not a big team at all developing these drinks; once we establish the storyline and the key ingredients then we involve the rest of the team to help us dial in and evolve, building out the brew ratios and recipes, but at the end of the day, it’s about figuring out the key things that are standing out to us, and we just build off of that.
As a coffee company, a cafe, a social media presence—”a brand” for lack of a better whatever—Gilly really seems to lead by feel and emotion. You wear influences and inspirations on your sleeve and it’s very connective. How do you manage this approach to emotion with the actual work of social media posting, or menu building? Is the fusion effortless? Is it harder than it looks?
It can be difficult at times man! Our Instagram has become like a billboard for the elixir that season, they kind of work hand in hand. We’re thinking a lot about storytelling through social media, especially with the second location coming: where do we want to go? What do we want to create for that location? How do we intertwine that work, even if we don’t have similar menus?
Something we want to do now is to establish our own YouTube channel, especially after being featured by James Hoffmann’s channel. That’s something we’re going to go heavy on for storytelling, including menu exploration, how-to videos, and more to give viewers an understanding of the story from beginning to end.
Elixirs are this huge focus of what you do at Gilly. Some people would call them like, “signature drinks” in the competition parlance, or maybe “coffee mocktails” — why is that word elixir important to you?
That’s a great question. You know, my introduction to coffee was more from a medicinal standpoint. As a child I grew up with asthma—my mom would use coffee to open up the chest cavity when it’s hard to breathe. It’s amazing how coffee can do that! Caffeine opens up your chest, and this really helped me. So from a young age, I was able to develop a mature palate for coffee, and when it came to opening Gilly, especially since I didn’t come from a traditional coffee work background or previous experience in a coffee shop, parts of how I understood this product was different. And I want to express that from the very beginning.
I decided to call these drinks “elixirs” because that word, to its true definition, means a kind of house remedy, medicine or concoction that’s made to help you recover from an ailment. Your grandmother may have made you chicken soup; for me, in my family, we saw coffee and tea as a kind of medicine, and I wanted to choose a word that would help express and embed that in people’s heads. Coffee is not just something you consume or enjoy for the flavors. We also want to express that it is a medicinal product, that can be healing to your soul. And the storytelling is all a part of that.
You said “mocktails” – to me, that’s an imitation of a cocktail, which is itself a drink that’s meant to put you under the influence. That’s different from an elixir, which is really more of a libation. If you follow that definition, a libation is a beverage that’s been prepared for a higher deity. We try and pay homage to the creator of this product we’re using now, how it’s cultivated by farmers. We like to point back to the idea of there being a higher source that makes it possible for us to be able to share good news through a drink. That has always been a part of this work for us, the community and discussion it facilitates. It’s about creating a beverage that’s healing to someone’s soul. They may consume it in five or ten minutes, but it leaves a lasting impression.
I reread your Sprudge Twenty interview today in advance of our call — that’s always fun, to look back a couple of years ago and see where we were at, and then be able to pick back up some parts of that. This quote stood out:
That’s fascinating; not many Sprudge Twenties are talking about caffeine excess! Is this topic still on your mind?
I stand firm on that man! I think with anything, it’s best to do things in moderation. That’s why I answered your question that way back then—I stand firm on it. Even something like water, as pure as it is and healthy, drinking too much water can actually be an issue, you know? That’s why for people who are professional coffee tasters, like Q Graders, people who are constantly cupping and tasting, they have developed strategies to take care of themselves. Caffeine has effects! Just being able to monitor your intake, I think that’s a principle that should be valued with anything.
Another thing you say in that interview is:
My question a few years later is, do you think this is changing? And as you approach opening a new space in the city of Atlanta, how does this thought process inform that work?
I feel like now, right now, we have a lot more focus on — the phrase is “mom and pop” but I think we mean smaller business in general — now that there are more small business coffee shops, and fewer large chains coming into communities, I feel like that’s starting to change. The cool way to try and create that balance is to be involved in any community you’re doing business in. For the original Gilly Brew Bar in Stone Mountain, my wife and I thought it was really important to move to this community, to live here, even though it wasn’t what we actually *wanted* to do at all. My wife grew up here, and she was ready to move on, but to really help the community grow, we would need to do more than just serving the community by creating a dope coffee shop. We would have to get involved in a bigger way, to help make some of the necessary changes. There’s still a lot of racial tension that occurs here, and being a Black-owned coffee and tea shop, we knew that would disrupt certain things in the community, and so physically being here—meeting the neighbors, going to city meetings, building a relationship with city officials and council members—that really impacted our growth. People didn’t just look at us as this business that was trying to come in and change things for the betterment of profit. They saw us wanting to use what we had to shed light on some of the dark things this city is known for.
How do you measure that?
Honestly, and I can’t make this up man, but to this very day we have people who come into our coffee bar and say, “We scoped out the community and we’re thinking about moving here because of Gilly.” When do you hear about someone wanting to move to a community just because of a coffee shop? And it’s not just one kind of demographic coming in here—it is a huge, diverse representation of ages, ethnicities, young families, everything—people who tell us they love what we’re doing, and they want to try and get a piece of what you’re creating.
And what will that look like in Atlanta next?
With the Castlebury Hill community, it’s the same thing, man. We’re getting involved in the community meetings there, doing numerous pop-ups before we open, and letting people become familiar with our faces and names. We’ve done three pop-ups there already and I’m starting to know people by name. Those kinds of things play a huge role in this work. The only way you are really going to be able to meet the needs for a community is to first know what those needs are. And I think most coffee shops that come in and are profit-driven don’t necessarily think that way.
But to get back to your question—has the gentrification narrative in coffee changed—you know, I believe it will get better moving forward and has been getting better lately. I think a lot of business owners now aren’t necessarily trying to open multiple shops, and that will definitely help create that balance. When you have multiple locations and have to produce, produce, produce to meet demand, that’s where the disconnect happens, in my opinion. It’s hard to maintain a strong relationship with the community when you’re trying to meet demand.
You know, my goal isn’t to have 100 different Gillys around the world. It would be great to be able to share these stories with more and more people, but I have other ways I’m hoping to do that, and it doesn’t require me to open 10 stores in LA and 10 more in Chicago. To me, it’s more like, “slow and steady wins the race.” That’s what my grandmother always says, and I like to stay true to that. We have something here that’s such a gem, this concept, and my team and I, we want to be great stewards of the concept and not forget how we got to where we are. It all comes back to community. It’s a beautiful thing, man!
Jordan Michelman (@suitcasewine) is a 2020 James Beard Award winner for journalism, a 2020 Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards shortlist in the Emerging Wine Writer category, and a 2021 City and Regional Magazine Association Awards nominee in the Feature Story category. He is a co-founder at Sprudge Media Network. jordanmichelman.com
Once upon a time in Rhode Island, the boss for all New England organized crime lived and Godfathered in the city of Providence. The story goes that he and his cigar ran the third-largest crime family in the United States from a lawn chair outside a vending machine shop in Federal Hill, one of the city’s predominantly Italian-American neighborhoods. But you didn’t hear it from me.
Organized crime no longer dominates Providence. But a more enduring legacy has come from this neighborhood, in the form of a law, still on the books, that would have never been enacted if it were not for the arrival of Italian immigrants at the dawn of the 20th century.
Chapter four of Title 42 in Rhode Island law covers “State Emblems.” Rhode Island has 18 state emblems and most of them are what you might expect: flag, song, tree, bird, flower, fruit. A few are, perhaps, unexpected, like “state symbol of American folk art,” or “state shell.” Located between the state flagship and the state fish is emblem 15, state drink. Title 42, Chapter Four, Section 15 of Rhode Island law states, in its repetitive entirety:
“Coffee milk is hereby designated as the official state drink for the state.”
Title 42, Chapter Four, Section 15 of Rhode Island State Law
When it comes to state drinks, these United States are not very original. First, only around 30 states (counts vary) even have official drinks and in two-thirds of those, the official beverage is… milk, likely a nod to the importance of local dairy industries. The remaining state drinks are a mix of juices and soda pop, rounded out by strong showings from Alabama and California, whose official drinks are whiskey and wine, respectively. The official state drink of Indiana is water, tea in South Carolina, and Kool-Aid in Nebraska. We must forgive them; Kool-Aid was invented in Nebraska, and if you want to be precise about it, Kool-Aid is the state “soft drink.” The state beverage is…uh, milk.
Nebraska notwithstanding, and setting aside the thought that we might just be talking about flavored milk here, Rhode Island has the most interesting state drink if only because it includes coffee. But there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of coffee milk. Outside of Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts (where someone less diplomatic than me might say they suffer from Rhode Island envy), coffee milk is not really a thing.
It’s a super simple drink to make. If you’ve ever mixed two ounces of chocolate syrup with eight ounces of cold milk and stirred with a spoon to make chocolate milk, you know precisely how to make coffee milk. Pour two ounces of coffee syrup into eight ounces of cold milk, stir, and ta-da! You did it. Coffee milk.
Simple to make but not a simple story. To be both simple and complicated—maybe even contradictory and “hidden” at the same time—is quintessentially Rhode Island. These are fundamental attributes of my beloved adopted state.
Rhode Island is the smallest state in the Union (if every state was the same size as Rhode Island there would be over 3,000 states) but it has the longest name. The smallest state with the longest name has the shortest state motto, just one word: Hope. It’s a commodity here, hope is, and historically a necessity because Rhode Island spent most of its early years hoping Massachusetts wouldn’t invade to clean up what the Plymouth rockers, in their puritanical zeal, considered to be the garbage can of New England. Our state has been called worse.
Like coffee milk, the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, is not very well known outside the state but is considered by some, with good reason, to be the author of the American soul. Upon founding Providence, Williams created what was arguably the first true democracy in the world featuring a clear separation of church and state and aggressive religious tolerance. When he first paddled his canoe into what would become Providence, the Narragansett Native Americans greeted him with the oddest mix of old English and their own language, Algonquin: “What cheer, netop,” they said.
A rough translation of this multi-lingual greeting appears on cans of Narragansett beer today (the beer Captain Quint was drinking in the movie Jaws), brewed locally for 130 years: “Hi Neighbor,” is what the Narragansett were saying to Williams. Probably, you’ve never heard that story. Probably, you’ve never heard of Roger Williams. Probably, if you’ve ever heard of coffee milk, it is only because you live hereabouts or because you’re coffee people and everything coffee eventually catches your attention. Outside of New England, ask 10 people about coffee milk and you’ll get seven or eight blank stares.
Despite over 350 years of commitment to “openness,” Rhode Island seems to exert some type of centripetal force that keeps certain things to itself. Nearly 150 years after Roger Williams set down in writing, repeatedly, principles upon which America would be founded, he was virtually unacknowledged by the founding fathers of America, though they paid homage to John Locke, who studied the writings of Williams and often quoted him verbatim. Indeed, Williams has been called the “forgotten founder” of America. It’s almost as if Rhode Island is just too small to register in the greater consciousness of America, like everyone stops listening as soon as you say, “Rhode Island” because whatever comes after must be inconsequential. And yet, the state that offers no apologies for being called an island when it’s not an island, clearly has no inferiority complex. Rhode Island just doesn’t care what you think. Never has. We put a little sugar-laden coffee concentrate in our milk sometimes. So what? It’s this thing that we do.
The ingredients for the most popular coffee syrup that makes coffee milk reads like Buddy the Elf’s breakfast: High fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, coffee extract, caramel color, potassium sorbate. Note coffee’s place in that line-up.
Let’s say you’ve cold-brewed a half-gallon of coffee concentrate. Just add sugar for, I don’t know, the entire time it takes you to read this article, and you basically have the coffee syrup used to make coffee milk. A mere two tablespoons of coffee syrup, all on its own, without the milk, delivers 100 calories, 26 grams of carbohydrates, and 21 grams of sugar. Add milk and it’s basically ice cream. The absolute defining characteristic of coffee milk is that it’s sweet to a degree that is addictive and wicked good. To me, it tastes like frosted corn flakes. To taste coffee milk is to like coffee milk. You don’t really have a choice. What’s not to like? It’s milk. It’s sugar. It’s coffee. In that order. If we’re being honest about it, this is the combination of ingredients that launched the retail segment of the specialty coffee industry, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise.
While there is stunningly little information about the precise origins and development of coffee milk, most people who think about such things seem to agree that it came out of the Italian-American community in New England following waves of immigration at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. At that time, opportunities for immigrants in New England, and Rhode Island, in particular, were connected primarily to the textile industry, which helped the smallest state become a powerhouse during the industrial revolution of the 19th century, but it was always a quiet power. A hundred years later, if you asked anyone to name the top three most powerful cities in terms of organized crime, it’s likely everyone would name New York and Chicago, but few would name Providence, which occupied the number three spot. So why doesn’t the whole world know about coffee milk? Maybe we just don’t feel like we need to talk about it.
The first generation of any given wave of immigrants are usually working class, and one theory speculates that coffee milk emerged as a way to make use of spent coffee grounds among Italian immigrants. If you decrease the water to coffee ratio and increase the steeping time you can achieve a syrupy extraction from used coffee grounds, but you’ve moved into the bitter solubles. The most ancient cure for bitterness is, of course, sugar. Let’s just toss a bunch of sugar into our recycled coffee grounds while it’s steeping to soften the edges.
After a few decades as a home recipe, coffee milk moved into the mainstream, becoming a staple at New England soda fountains where each “soda jerk” no doubt developed their own methods for creating a syrup, moving to fresh rather than spent grounds, probably boiling the concentrate afterward and, at that point, not being shy with the sugar. The beverage became so popular that the Silmo Packing Company in New Bedford, Massachusetts, began to bottle coffee syrup. Silmo is usually credited with being the first to manufacture coffee syrup, but if you snoop around, you’ll find that D. Abelsen & Sons, located in Providence, beat them to it by a few years with their “Abelsen’s Arabian Coffee Syrup.” Rhode Island’s Eclipse Coffee Syrups began distribution in the late ’30s and in the 1940s, the Rhode Island company that would become synonymous with coffee milk, Autocrat, began producing a coffee syrup that would dominate the market for nearly 50 years.
Autocrat acquired Eclipse around 30 years ago, just before coffee milk was named the “official state drink for the state” after a modest political tussle (the official state sport) but has continued to manufacture and market the Eclipse brand in addition to Coffee Time syrup. Regardless of what brand you pull off the shelf, the ingredients of the syrup remain sugar, sugar, and coffee; or, if you are a born and bred Rhode Islander, sugah, sugah, and covee.
The packaging for all three brands is a little anachronistic, throwback design styles that are unintentionally hip now. It’s impossible to buy a bottle of traditional coffee syrup in Rhode Island without feeling like you are engaging in a nostalgic act, maybe even an act of loyalty to a time and a place that has started to fade away. There are new and, by almost any objective standard, improved players in the market, like Morning Glory and Dave’s, with ingredients that are a lot less Buddy the Elf sugar-centric and more focused on the quality of the coffee. To each their own.
All I’m saying is, we’ve got your coffee milk right here, and we don’t need to talk about it, this thing that we do.
As a first-generation Mexican-American working in specialty coffee, I welcome the overlap of the two cultures. Mexico is located directly on the Coffee Belt, the portion of our planet located between latitudes 25 degrees North and 30 degrees South—the only part of the world where coffee can grow and thrive natively. Even then, Mexico’s influence on coffee is far greater than most realize.
Have you ever stopped by a cafe and ordered a mocha or a mochaccino? Thanks to the Olmec civilization of Southern Mexico, cocoa was domesticated in Mesoamerica long before Columbus made his debut. By the time Hernán Cortés arrived in 1519, cocoa (and by extension chocolate) was in such high demand, it was seen as a gift from the Gods by the Olmec, and a spoil of war by the conquistadors.
With chocolate and other decadences finding their way into second-wave coffee, it makes sense that horchata would also find a foothold in modern cafes. One look at the bottled coffee aisle of any upscale supermarket shows that the sky’s the limit when it comes to horchata-inspired beverages. From horchata lattes to horchata cold brew, and even horchata chai, each interpretation is more intriguing than the last.
That being said, just because a coffee company labels a drink as horchata doesn’t necessarily make it so. As Mayra Aceves of Leche Co. so eloquently states, “You can’t just add cinnamon to [coffee] and say it’s ‘Mexican Style.’”
Mayra Aceves and Steven Mecedo are the driving force of the Anaheim, CA-based Leche Co., a Latinx-owned and operated cold brew company specializing in dairy-free milk alternatives. Together, they make all of their leches (Spanish for “milks”) and cold brews fresh daily, with a special emphasis on Latin American ingredients. “What’s happening now with coffee happened first with beer,” says Aceves. “A lot of these breweries were based in San Diego, with a big Latin culture there, [and] asked, ‘What is the consumer going to look like; let’s make it for them.’ None of these beer companies were owned by people of color.”
“It was mostly these chocolate-flavored stouts,” Aceves continues, “and none of them tasted like Mexican beers. Again, it was just chocolate and cinnamon. Horchata flavoring was just like a milky stout with cinnamon and vanilla, and you wonder—is that racism? You know. we eat other things, and we drink other things; we had to immigrate to this country and adapt to what America had to offer.”
“Every family has their own recipe; every town its own version.”
Gilberto Cetina, Chichen Itza Restaurant
So what is horchata? Gilberto Cetina, founder, and chef of Chichen Itza Restaurant in Los Angeles describes horchata as being like mole sauce. “Every family has their own recipe; every town its own version.” To paint a broader picture, horchata is a part of the drink family known as aguas frescas, literally translating to “fresh water.”
“Aguas frescas come in a wide range of flavors in Mexico since we traditionally used whatever we had available,” writes Gonzalo Guzmán, owner and chef of Nopalito in San Francisco. “Sometimes orange juice with a little sugar and water, sometimes tropical fruits like bananas blended and diluted, and oftentimes dried rice steep overnight in water to soften and blend into a milky version we call horchata.”
Aguas frescas, as we know them today, are the brainchild of one Doña Casilda, founder of one of the mainstay booths of the Oaxacan 20th November Marketin 1890. She is best known for a horchata variation that has since become synonymous with Oaxacan cuisine, utilizing a splash of red cactus fruit syrup, toasted walnuts, and sliced ripe cantaloupe.
Flor Heras, owner and chocolatier for Reina Negra, a chocolate bar in Oaxaca, Mexico, describes Doña Casilda’s recipe as el agua de lujo de horchata, or the horchata of luxury.
“The thing with horchata is that everyone can develop their own recipe,” Heras tells me. “But the basics of horchata are sugar, cinnamon, and ground rice. You must pre-infuse a night before to create a texture that looks like milk. But in reality, it’s not milk. People add milk to give it a thicker texture, but if you do your process well—of hydrating the rice, straining it well, and grounding it up well—you don’t need to add the milk.”
“Horchata is very traditional,” Heras continues, “and if you come to Oaxaca you must drink horchata as an agua fresca, not as a mix for another drink. I would never put it with coffee, as it does not sound appealing to me. Horchata has cinnamon, and cinnamon tends to kill all the flavors of many drinks.”
Most commercially available horchata coffee drinks in the United States use a coconut and cinnamon base to emulate the texture and flavor of the traditional recipe. It’s much less labor-intensive to substitute coconut milk with a dash of cinnamon than it is to undergo the traditional process that Heras describes.
Although coconut and cinnamon are both ingredients used liberally in modern Mexican cuisine, neither are actually native to Mexico. Coconuts can be traced back to the islands of the Polynesian Triangle and cinnamon to Sri Lanka. While all three cultures are known for decadent food and liberal use of spices, all three cultures also have their own pre-established traditions and values.
Horchata in coffee deserves more respect and recognition than what it’s experiencing currently—a dash of cinnamon or coconut milk does not a horchata make—as does any ingredient we choose to mix into our beloved cafecitos (Spanish for “little coffees,” specifically implying an endearing manner).
Not everything is horchata. But everything horchata is a gift from Mexico.