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Black Cows

Monday, May 24, 2010
The term "Black Cow" originally referred not to root beer floats, but to the root beer itself.

Root beer has been around for a long time -- similar "small beers" (fermented beverages that were intentionally low in alcohol) had been made in Europe for centuries. They were flavored with all sorts of botanicals, such as birch, ginger, lemon, and spruce (birch beer and ginger ale are still with us, but lemon has migrated to other soft drinks, and spruce beer has disappeared -- except in parts of Canada, where it's known as bière d'épinette). The early settlers in the New World noticed Native Americans making use of trees that had never been seen in Europe: Sarsaparilla (Smilax ornata) and Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), and altered their recipes, also substituting the raw material, molasses (from the Caribbean), for the more expensive loaf sugar then available for import from Europe. Sarsaparilla survives as a soft drink, 'though it has never achieved the popularity of root beer. Root beer's earliest surviving recipe is from 1869 (in Dr. Chase's Recipes), 'though it had been brewed in people's households for over a century.

Joseph Priestley, the English chemist, discovered that carbon dioxide could be dissolved in cold water, thereby inventing soda water, in 1767. Early in the next century, carbonated waters (artificially-produced versions of the waters then popular at various springs and spas around the world) were believed to promote to good health. Some of the best-known carbonated soft drinks today -- such as Dr Pepper (1885) and Coca Cola (1886) -- were originally formulated as medicines, and were produced as syrups (many people still drink ginger ale when they have upset stomachs). By the end of the nineteenth century, these syrups were combined with soda water -- and the connection with the old alcoholic small beers was permanently severed. This was fortuitous, since there was, at the time, a growing temperance movement, and soda fountains were considered more acceptable locations for social gathering than saloons.

By the 1860s, cream, or cream and flavored syrup, were added to cold soda water, and marketed as "iced cream sodas," but actual ice cream was not yet an ingredient (a parallel example is the "egg cream" soda, that has never contained eggs). Several people claim to have invented ice cream sodas -- such as Fred Sanders and Philip Mohr -- but the credit usually goes to Robert Green. In 1874, he operated a soda fountain at Philadelphia's fair celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of The Franklin Institute. When he ran out of cream, he thought of substituting melted ice cream, but had so many customers that he couldn't take the time to melt the ice cream. Green himself provided a different account of his invention in a 1910 article, claiming that he had, instead, run out of ice, and had merely substituted ice cream from another booth to keep his sodas cold.

This year, June 10th is National Black Cow Day, but the first possible black cow day was August 19, 1893. On that date, the notion of substituting root beer for soda in the already-popular ice cream sodas came to Frank Wisner of Cripple Creek, Colorado (notice that the "d" in "iced cream sodas" had been lost along the way). Wisner owned one of several mining companies there, as well as a soda fountain that was popular with everyone -- from women and children to the grizzled gold miners one would expect to find in the town's saloons (or worse). Wisner's company still exists, and is producing several sodas that he created, including the almond-flavored Celon’s Mythical Crème Soda, Dream Lode Golden Ginger Ale, and his cinnamon-flavored Myers Avenue Red Root Beer. Supposedly (for the only accounts of the story are found in advertising from the company Wisner founded), one moonlit night he gazed at the darkened Cow Mountain, when its snow-capped peak suggested the idea of floating vanilla ice cream on Myers Avenue Red Root Beer.

Wisner called his creation "Black Cow Mountain," but happy consumers quickly shortened it to "Black Cow," and "Black Cow" was forgotten as a name for the root beer itself.


The ability to designate National Food Days is one of the more unusual perks given to the President of the United States. It may seem a frivolous use of the office, but one can imagine the sorts of lobbying efforts utilized to promote each foodstuff over others. Isn't it oddly comforting to know that the powerful root beer float lobby has been hard at work in the West Wing, no doubt lubricating the wheels of power with frosty and frothy treats?


There's a slightly different take on Black Cows ("Try a Real Black Cow—It’s Moovelous!"
(a 1950s slogan for Hires Root Beer) at LeitesCulinaria.



Allen, Gary. The Herbalist in the Kitchen. Champain-Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Cripple Creek Brewing the Legend Returns

Smith, Andrew F. (ed.). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.


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