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    The Science Of The Root Beer Float
    By Hank Campbell | August 19th 2010 06:18 PM | 2 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    A few days ago, while talking about mundane business issues, I learned that today, August 19th, was the birthday of that famous childhood delight, the 'black cow', what would later be called a root beer float.

    If you are not up on your carbonated beverage lore, root beer hails from the root of the sassafras tree or the sarsaparilla vine.  When the root mixture is mixed with water, sugar and yeast, it is sweetened and the yeast generates carbon dioxide and carbonates the water.

    Are you running out to buy some sassafras now?  Good luck.  It's been outlawed since 1960 due to pesky issues like causing cancer in rats so now people use sassafrol, without the oil that is considered dangerous, or ginger, birch bark, dog grass, who knows what else.   No one is really sure because root beer recipes are closely guarded secrets.

    If you want to make your own, there are two methods; natural and forced carbonation.  Obviously our ancestors used the natural method and put brewers yeast in a bottle but today we have dry ice so in a soft drink emergency you can make root beer in 20 minutes.   Basically, if you don't have your own ingredients you can just buy root beer extract, mix it with sugar and water (to taste) in whatever container you have.   Then you (carefully) add dry ice and cap it.  If you are using a gallon jug, unscrew the cap a little every few minutes so it doesn't blow up.  Seriously, it will blow up.   In 15 minutes it should be a carbonated delight.

    science root beer float
    Our root beer float science experimentalists, Angela and Jackie from the Regus office in Folsom.  They are both awesome and invited me over for the root beer float.  What?  An office building that throws root beer float parties for tenants on the birthday of root beer floats?  Told you they were awesome!

    Or you can do it the way George Washington did and it will take about 7 days.

    The history of root beer

    The ice cream soda seems to have been invented in 1874 by Robert Green of Philadelphia, who ran out of ice and substituted vanilla ice cream to keep soda cold but, like anything, it is not without controversy.    Even its descendants were mired in controversy - for example, because root beer used yeast and a fermentation process it was considered a controlled substance, like more controlled forms of fermentation delights such as Pabst Blue Ribbon.  Thus, those ice cream sodas could not be sold on Sundays, so they instead slapped a bunch of stuff on ice cream and called them 'Sundaes.

    The "black cow", the first root beer float, is attributed to Cripple Creek, Colorado on this day in 1893.  Frank J. Wisner, it is said, owner of the Cripple Creek Cow Mountain Gold Mining Company, had also been making sodas for local people but he wanted something for kids to enjoy also so he mixed ice cream with his favorite root beer and the legend was born.

    Learn more about ice cream: "Of soda fountains and ice cream parlors" by Kay Houston at "The Detroit News".

    Learn more practical science:
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    Comments

    rholley
    The two alternative ingredients are very different plants.




    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Hank
    Yep, but the share a common heritage in 'root' beer.   Sarsaparilla root seems to have been used in the southwest US (and likely farther north later too) while sassafras grows in the east.   And sarsaparilla has no safrole that causes that cancer stuff.   Neither one is used in mass production any more, I think.