Happy Little Things: The Black Cow

August 17, 2012

When I was a teenager growing up in Southern California, I lived within walking distance of an Arby’s fast food place. Sometimes, when I had enough allowance left over after a visit to the record store (yes, record store—I’m 150 years old), I would walk to Arby’s for a Black Cow—a root beer-flavored shake (not a float).

My Arby’s sold the Black Cow all the time, not just during “Black Cow Month,” the way some franchises did, so I could indulge whenever I had the money, or when I could talk my mom into stopping there for lunch. Eventually I grew up and moved away and spent my disposable income on things other than Black Cows, but for years, every time we stopped at an Arby’s, I always hoped they’d have a Black Cow shake on the menu. Arby’s eventually discontinued the shake altogether and I went into mourning.

Now, thanks to the magic of the internet, I can satisfy my Black Cow cravings. However, as I was looking up information on the Black Cow, I discovered that the Arby’s version, a vanilla shake made with root beer flavored syrup, was an imposter. Generally, the term Black Cow refers to a root beer float, sometimes with chocolate syrup added to it! Now there’s a marvelous concept! Chocolate makes everything better. And if you use cola instead of root beer, it’s called a Brown Cow. Or sometimes the other way around. Or sometimes, it’s a root beer float made with chocolate ice cream. It gets a little confusing. Anyway, according to Wikipedia, the first Black Cow was what we now call a root beer float and debuted on Aug. 19, 1893. Frank J. Wisner had been producing soda waters for the people of Cripple Creek, CO, and wanted to come up with a drink the children would like. One night, inspired by the snow topping Cow Mountain (it reminded him of vanilla ice cream), he added a scoop of ice cream to the soda the kids liked: Myers Avenue Red root beer. The drink was hit, and the children shortened the original name, “Black Cow Mountain” to “Black Cow.”

With this information in hand, I decided to try several versions of the Black Cow—a root beer float with chocolate syrup, a vanilla shake with root beer extract and this: Black Cow Ice Cream!  All in the name of science, and all for you, I might add. I know this is the kind of hard-hitting experimentation you look for when you visit Catching Happiness.

The verdict: The ice cream tastes like a good chocolate ice cream with a root beer aftertaste—good on its own and makes a yummy root beer float. However, it’s just enough trouble to make that I probably won’t do it again. The vanilla shake with root beer extract was close, but a little bland. The winner? The root beer float with chocolate syrup! That’s what I’ll reach for the next time I want to satisfy my nostalgic craving for a Black Cow.

The aftermath of making the ice cream

What was one of your favorite childhood treats? Do you still indulge?

You Might Also Like


  1. As a child, I once drank what was called a Brown Cow, same as your Black Cow, and threw up all over a neighbor's steps! After years of drinking milk, I realized I was lactose intolerant, although that was fine since, by then, I'd become a vegan for ethical / health / environmental reasons.

  2. Oh my gosh, Joan! I guess a Black Cow would not be a "happy little thing" for you!

    That's actually how we discovered our son is allergic to nuts: he would cough and throw up every time he had something with nuts in it (he was very small) until we finally put two and two together.

  3. I remember getting root beer floats at A&W Root Beer. I'm lactose intolerant too, but I do fine if I take lactase enzyme first. I'm not willing to give up all dairy products - although I do tend to eat frozen yogurt instead of ice cream, since yogurt doesn't have lactose in it. And as much as I LOVE chocolate, it sounds a little weird added to a root beer float - but I may have to try it to find out (in the interest of research, of course).

  4. Cheryl--I was skeptical about the chocolate syrup, too, but it turned out to be my favorite. I just added a little bit at a time. You can't really taste "chocolate" but somehow it makes the flavor richer. Give it a shot and tell me what you think. I don't know why you couldn't use vanilla frozen yogurt in place of ice cream, either.