Root Beer Float: The History of this Classic Treat

root beer float

What would you define as a classic American treat? Maybe something sweet like key lime pie or a sundae? Or, maybe something more savoury like a giant pretzel or tater tots? But, what about the ultimate concoction of the root beer float? In today’s blog, we talk all about the history of this ice cream drink. Plus, the science behind why it tastes so good. 

What is a Root Beer Float?

A root beer float is a kind of ice cream soda. This chilled beverage consist of ice cream in either a soft drink or a mixture of flavoured syrup and carbonated water. Our type occurs when root beer and vanilla ice cream are used together. Other names for this include: “black cow” and “brown cow”.

Its History

Robert McCay Green invented the first ice cream float in Pennsylvania in 1874. It was during the Franklins Institute’s 25 year celebration. The story goes…

On a particularly hot day, Green ran out of ice for the flavoured drinks. Instead, he used vanilla ice cream from a neighbouring vendor. Thus, inventing a new drink.

Green’s own account of the tale states that while operating the soda fountain he wanted to create a new treat to attract customers away from vendors with larger fancier machines. After some experimentation came the birth of the first ice cream float. During the celebration, he sold vanilla ice cream with soda and a choice of 16 flavoured syrups. 

Eventually, soda fountains began selling ice cream. Green’s will instructed that “Originator of the Ice Cream Soda” must be engraved on his tombstone. 

The birth of the root beer float has a more contentious origin with three claiming for the title: Fred Sanders, Philip Mohr, and George Guy (on of Robert Green’s employees). But, it is Frank J. Wisner who gets the official recognition. Owner of Colorado’s Cripple Creek Brewery, Wisner created the first root beer float August 19th, 1893. 


The definition of a “black” or “brown” “cow” root beer float varies depending on the region. For example, a traditional float is made with strictly vanilla ice cream. If chocolate ice cream s used instead it is a “chocolate” or “brown” cow. In other places, using cola instead of root bear makes it a “black cow”. Meanwhile, in Northern Wisconsin and Illinois, “black cow” refers to when a portion of the vanilla ice cream and root beer are mixed together. Then, you continue filling the glass with scoops of ice cream and soda. 

The Science Behind It

Have you ever wondered what create the foam that tops a root beer float? Well, here is the science behind it!

A root beer float consists of three forms of matter:

How the foam happens: 

When the carbonated root beer comes into contact with the ice cream, carbon dioxide bubbles release. Likewise, the soda frees air bubbles trapped in the ice cream. What’s more, the fat in the ice cream coats these bubbles. Thus, protecting them and allowing them to expand. Therefore, creating the huge heads of foam you see on root beer floats.

About the Author

Lydia B.

Lydia B.

Lydia B. is a Marketing Coordinator and Music Club Coach for Gooroo, a tutoring membership that matches students to tutors perfect for them based on their unique learning needs. Gooroo offers Math, English, SAT, Coding, Spanish tutoring, and more.