11 Regional Twists on the Root Beer Float
On a hot day, nothing hits the spot quite like a root beer float. The combination of root beer, vanilla ice cream, and whipped cream creates a heavenly, decadent drink, but not all locales use the same recipe. Here are 11 regional twists on the root beer float.
1. BLACK COW WITH BROWNIES AND PRETZELS
One origin story for the root beer float has it that Frank Wisner, the owner of a Colorado brewery, invented the dessert in 1893 after realizing that the snowy Colorado mountain peaks looked like ice cream floating in soda. Another version says that Wisner owned a mining company, and he invented the root beer float after noticing that the full moon over the Colorado mountains looked like a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
No matter how he came up with the idea, Wisner called his creation—root beer plus vanilla ice cream—a black cow, which today can refer to a classic root beer float or cola with vanilla ice cream. Colorado keeps the traditional black cow experience alive thanks to Boulder’s Oak at Fourteenth, which serves a popular black cow with brownies and pretzels in addition to vanilla ice cream.
2. BROWN COW
A brown cow, which is a variation on a root beer float that uses chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla, is perfect for chocolate lovers. Depending whom you ask, a brown cow (sometimes called a chocolate cow) can also refer to a root beer float with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup or a float made with cola instead of root beer. Martha Stewart’s brown cow recipe uses vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup, whipped cream, and chocolate sprinkles.
3. PHILADELPHIA STYLE FLOATS
A different root beer float origin story attributes the dessert’s invention to Robert Green, a Philadelphian who replaced sweet cream with ice cream in soda water in the 1870s. Philadelphia’s The Franklin Fountain continues that tradition by serving homemade root beer floats, Philly style. And though The Franklin Fountain is just over a decade old, it is the real deal—it’s so authentically Philly that Benjamin Franklin’s printing shop was once on the same street (and yes, the soda fountain is named for the founding father).
The Franklin Fountain’s employees make their own root beer syrup by mixing water, whole vanilla beans, cane sugar, brown sugar, blackstrap molasses, cinnamon, star anise, birch, and sassafras. They also make their own ice cream, which has no eggs for a less dense texture. A mix of Mexican vanilla and Madagascar vanilla goes into the ice cream, which, when added to the root beer syrup and soda, makes for a perfect summer dessert.
4. ADULT FLOATS
You can find hard root beers (containing alcohol) around the country, and these adult floats offer a mature twist on the traditional float. Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream to Not Your Father’s alcoholic root beer to make your own adult float, or, if you’re into vodka, try the Smirnoff root beer float. Or, visit New York City’s Bell Book & Candle, which serves a mouthwatering root beer float, brewed and fermented on site (alcohol optional), and topped with whipped cream and a cherry.
5. ROOT BEER-FLAVORED ICE CREAM
Why use plain old vanilla when you can spice things up? Given all the unique, obscure small batch flavors of ice cream that exist (ricotta pistachio and lavender tarragon ice cream, anyone?), it’s no surprise that root beer flavored ice cream is a thing. At Jeni’s, you can get root beer ice cream along with a glass of Boylan’s root beer, or pair root beer ice cream with créme soda. Thankfully, Jeni’s has scoop shops all over (in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, Charleston, Columbus, and Cleveland), so you can indulge your sweet tooth wherever you are.
6. CUSTARD FLOATS
For an extra thick and creamy root beer float, try using vanilla custard instead of ice cream. Chicago has a long history of soda fountains (dating back to the 1890s), and Scooter’s Frozen Custard in Chicago continues the tradition with their root beer float. Made with Scooter’s own vanilla custard and root beer from Sprecher’s (located in Milwaukee), these custard floats are a foamy, delicious treat.
7. ROOT BEER FREEZE
Ever tried a root beer milkshake? The root beer freeze is a float with the root beer and ice cream mixed together. Whether you drink it with a straw or eat it with a spoon, the root beer freeze is seriously refreshing. It was previously available at Sonic Drive-Ins (although it may still be on the secret menu in some locations). If you’d rather make your own at home, just puree ice cream and Barq’s root beer in a blender.
8. GELATO FLOATS
For a denser root beer float experience, try using gelato instead of ice cream. Chicago’s Au Cheval makes root beer floats with Berghoff's draft root beer and malted vanilla gelato from a local ice cream and gelateria named Zarlengo’s. To make your own gelato float, combine your favorite root beer with stracciatella gelato. The vanilla base and streaks of chocolate will make the drink a mix between a black cow and brown cow.
9. CREAM SODA FLOATS
A&W is synonymous with root beer. Founded in 1919, the company has sold the flavorful drink to root beer lovers everywhere. To make a cream soda float, put a scoop of ice cream into a glass of A&W’s carbonated cream soda. The soda contains yucca extract, which gives the drink extra foam and flavor.
10. BOURBON FLOAT
A type of adult float, the bourbon float is distinctive to the south. In Alabama, strict liquor laws mean that chefs and bartenders need to get creative with their craft liqueurs. The bourbon root beer float at SpringHouse in Alexander City, Alabama has two scoops of bourbon ice cream, Buffalo Trace bourbon, and a house made root beer syrup. The syrup consists of sassafras root, molasses, wintergreen extract, sugar, and spices (clove, coriander seeds, star anise). To replicate at home, opt for Abita root beer, which contains Louisiana cane sugar for an authentic southern twist.
11. MEXICAN BROWN COW
Washington’s Mora Iced Creamery imports dulce de leche from Argentina, where caramel is an insanely popular flavor, but the company’s Mexican chocolate ice cream tastes just as authentic. A mix of dark chocolate, nutmeg, and cinnamon, the Mexican chocolate ice cream makes a perfect companion to American Star root beer, which happens to be one of the few root beers available in Mexico.