Skip to Content

What does a root beer float contain?

A root beer float, also known as a black cow or brown cow, is a delicious and refreshing beverage made by pouring root beer over a scoop of vanilla ice cream. This tasty treat has been around since the late 19th century and continues to be a popular soda fountain and diner drink today. But what exactly goes into making this classic float?

The Main Ingredients

As the name implies, the two key ingredients in a root beer float are root beer and ice cream. Let’s take a closer look at each of these components:

Root Beer

Root beer is a sweet, carbonated beverage that is usually made from a combination of sugar, water, caramel color, vanilla, anise, molasses, and the root extracts sassafras, wintergreen, and/or sarsaparilla. Other flavorings like licorice or birch bark may also be used. The exact recipes vary between brands and regions, but the key ingredients are the roots, herbs, and spices that give root beer its distinctive flavor profile.

Some of the most popular root beer brands used for floats include A&W, Barq’s, Dad’s, Henry Weinhard’s, Hires, IBC, and Mug. These mass produced root beers are widely available and have a sweet, mild flavor that complements the vanilla ice cream nicely. More artisanal root beer made by microbreweries can also be used, lending unique flavor notes like ginger or maple to the float.

Vanilla Ice Cream

Quality vanilla ice cream is the other essential component of a root beer float. The rich, creamy vanilla softens the crisp carbonation of the root beer while also contributing its own signature sweetness and velvety texture. Any good quality vanilla ice cream or vanilla bean ice cream can be used to make a tasty float. Many diners use soft serve vanilla ice cream since it blends extremely well with the root beer. Other options include premium ice cream brands like Haagen-Dazs or Ben and Jerry’s.

No matter what type of vanilla ice cream is used, the ideal scoop size is generally 2-3 ounces. Too much ice cream overwhelms the root beer, while too little doesn’t achieve the desired creamy texture. The ice cream and root beer should be well balanced in each sip.

Optional Toppings

While root beer and vanilla ice cream are the two essential components, a variety of tasty toppings can be added to make your float extra special. Some popular options include:

  • Whipped cream – A dollop of airy whipped cream tops off the float with a fluffy cloud of sweetness.
  • Cherries – Both maraschino cherries and fresh cherries complement the vanilla ice cream’s flavor.
  • Chocolate syrup – Drizzled over the float, chocolate syrup provides a sweet contrast to the root beer.
  • Chocolate chips or shavings – Sprinkled on top, melted chocolate chips enrich the ice cream.
  • Crushed nuts – Peanuts, walnuts, or almonds add crunch.
  • Sprinkles – Colorful sprinkles make any float more fun.

Other possible float toppings include caramel sauce, butterscotch, crushed pretzels or cookie crumbs, maple syrup, and shredded coconut. The combinations are endless for customizing your root beer float creations!

The History of Root Beer Floats

Now that we know what the key ingredients are in a root beer float, let’s take a look at the fascinating history behind this iconic beverage:

Origin in the Late 1800s

The earliest root beer float recipes first emerged in the late 19th century. During this era, soda fountains were popular establishments that served carbonated beverages like root beer along with ice cream treats. Some inventive soda jerks decided to combine the two by pouring root beer over scoops of ice cream, creating the first “root beer floats.” They were also commonly called “black cows” or “brown cows” at the time.

One of the earliest documented references to this delicious concoction is from an 1890 edition of the Flavoring Extracts Manual published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This suggests root beer floats were likely invented sometime in the 1880s.

Rise of Mass Popularity in the Early 1900s

In the early 1900s, root beer floats started showing up on soda fountain menus across the United States. Fountain staff competed to create the most elaborate ice cream and soda pop combinations. The Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial in 1919 that praised soda jerks as “alchemists of soda water” for their foamy float creations.

During Prohibition in the 1920s, floats likely surged in popularity as a legal and refreshing treat. The A&W Root Beer company is credited with bringing the floats into the mainstream through their franchised restaurants. By the 1950s, root beer floats were firmly established as an American classic.

Regional Differences Emerge

As the popularity of root beer floats spread, some regional differences emerged in recipes and naming conventions:

  • In the Northeast U.S., they were commonly called “frappes”
  • In some southern states, floats made with Coke rather than root beer were favored
  • On the West Coast, a scoop of ice cream topped with fizzy water was called a “snowball”
  • In Australia and New Zealand, any soda float combo is referred to as a “spider”

But throughout most of middle America, the standard combination of root beer and vanilla ice cream reigned supreme.

The Float Lives on Today

Root beer floats remain a staple drink order at old fashioned soda fountains and diners to this day. The simple combination of creamy vanilla ice cream blended with crisp, bubbly root beer creates a uniquely satisfying sensory experience. This classic treat continues to delight kids and adults alike over a century after it was first invented.

Major brands like A&W and Stewart’s still highlight the root beer float on their menus. And it’s easy to make your own float at home with quality store-bought root beer and ice cream. The next time you crave a little nostalgic comfort food, try this old-fashioned sweet treat!


So in summary, the core ingredients that go into a classic root beer float are frosty vanilla ice cream and fizzy root beer. Quality and balance between these two components is key. Adding fun toppings like whipped cream, cherries, or chocolate sauce contributes even more flavor. The origin of root beer floats traces back to soda fountains in the late 1800s, where the drinks surged in popularity nationwide by the early 1900s. Simple yet satisfying, this sweet drink combo continues to be enjoyed more than 130 years after its invention!