Summer is coming…and I dream of cold drinks and icy desserts on the front stoop, in the back yard, at patio bars, and roadside ice cream stands. I have designs on a boozy hollowed-out pineapple cocktail complete with little umbrellas and twisting straws, and of course one of my childhood favorites, the root beer float. Or maybe a Coke float. Or a Big Red float. I’ve even had a Purple Cow, but how would that grape soda float hold up against one made with Dr. Pepper?
And thus came the idea for an ice cream soda float challenge: 25 flavors, one brand of ice cream, and eight nights of carbonated sugar highs that will not only threaten our bodies with immediate Type A through Z diabetes but also determine the greatest dessert-beverage question of them all: what soda is the best for an ice cream float?
When I bring this up to friends and strangers I get three reactions: 1) “That sounds amazing!” 2) “Well, clearly [insert soda here] will win.” 3) “What are you thinking not including [insert different soda here]?”
Everyone has hard and firm opinions about this topic and any suggestion that their preferred soda was not the best made some folks scoff and others borderline angry at our wonky pseudo-scientific experiment. Well, scoff away, because my scientific co-conspirator Amelia and I picked the 25 sodas we thought would make the most interesting and dynamic challenge. If someone feels something is missing, so be it. Enjoy your own challenge if you like—and share the results! In the meanwhile, we’re diving headlong into this knowing we may die of sugar overload but at least we’ll go out knowing the best soda flavor for the perfect ice cream float.
Before we get into the first round, let me tell you how we broke it all down.
We decided to use one brand of ice cream for a control: Stewart’s Vanilla. No diet, no Philly, no extras, just a solid local favorite.
As for the sodas, we chose six categories: Cola, Cherry, Root Beer, Cream, Fruit, and what I’m calling the “Brown Derby” with a bunch of Dr. Pepper-like sodas. Each round gets a night, and the winners of all six rounds move on to the semi-finals, and then the finals, where we’ll showcase the best three sodas, to be ranked in Olympic medal order of Gold, Silver, and Bronze.
We decided to rate each float based on the five metric categories below. We know these metrics are extremely subjective, so we made sure to talk about what we meant by each beforehand. We used a “1 through 5” rating system for each category, hoping that would keep our feelings from skewing the results too far out of proportion. This creates a max of 10 points per category when we each combine our scores. We then add up all categories for a max combined score of 50.
Flavor: A 5 might be that right balance of sweet, rich, creamy, and bubbly. A 1 would be when the flavor is muted or when either the soda or ice cream overpowers the other in a way that feels unsatisfying.
Sweetness: A 5 would be something noticeably sweet, but not disgustingly so. A 1 would be not sweet at all.
Carbonation: A 5 would be when it retains some bubble and bite even after it melts the ice cream. A 1 would be when it falls totally flat.
Texture/Cohesion: This one is the most subjective, but we decided a 5 means it has a nice blend of creamy melting ice cream in the middle, a foamy head, and some soda holding out on the bottom. A 1 might be when it doesn’t mix much or the mix just seems…weird. See? Subjective. Science is hard, gang.
Visual Appeal: A 5 would be the visual equivalent of what we used in Texture/Cohesion, showing a nice balance. A 1 might be something that looks like we’re drinking sour milk or soda with a scoop of cottage cheese on top. No thanks.
Oh, and we’re also going to watch all the Harry Potter movies while we do this, one for each of the eight nights. Why not? Nerd out, drink up, and let’s get started. Bring on the first delicious horcrux!
Round One: The Cola Wars
As it was during the Cold War, there are only two real superpowers in the Cola Wars: Coke and Pepsi. We added Mexican Coke (with its delicious cane sugar) as the dark horse, and a local brand called Stewart’s Cola to round out the lineup. We later added RC Cola because so many people insisted we were overlooking the Royal Crown, so that made a party of five.
In order to avoid instantaneous death, we opted to make little half-sized floats with just a single scoop of ice cream. In a practice round, we put the ice cream in first and watched as the soda reacted, which created a head that flumed upward and hindered our ability to get a good full pour on the first shot. So we decided to add the ice cream second, which slowed the reaction and let us observe how the two components melted into one creamy beverage.
Finally, to disguise our bias toward any one cola, we did this blind, allowing the other to make our floats, then shuffle the order on the table like some delicious game of three card monte, and keep track of which was which without telling the other until after.
And so it began.
Right out of the gate they all had a very similar look, but over time they each had slightly differing reactions. We sipped, we gulped, we scanned and prodded, going up and down the line, taking notes and slowly settling on favorites. I’ll list the sodas here and include their combined scores for each category, and some notes for each.
RC Cola: This one felt more carbonated throughout, staying bubbly long after the ice cream began to melt. However, it wasn’t an appealing carbonation as it seemed to cut down on the creaminess and resulted in middle of the road sweetness and flavor. It was…fine. Not bad, but just fine.
Coke: This one felt really carbonated as well and held it throughout. It had a distinct sweetness and visual appeal, but the flavor still felt middle of the road, good not great. I know these scores aren’t varying a whole lot yet, but since they’re all colas, the finer differences were harder to distinguish. But this one didn’t lead the pack—that we agreed upon.
Pepsi: I was surprised to find the flavor and sweetness a little more appealing than Coke, at least initially. Later sips tasted a little “chemically” or artificially sweet to me, but it was still creamy and visually balanced. As one might predict, of all the sodas, Pepsi and Coke were the closest in flavor, texture, etc. It was fine, nothing unappealing, but there were other colas that stood out far more.
Stewart’s Cola: This one had the most noticeable differences of all the colas. Depending on your preferences, this one might even be the best of the bunch. In the first test round, it tied for first place, but only because I really REALLY liked the flavor. It was very sweet, very creamy, and the ice cream and soda blended into one milky-looking drink much faster than the others. I liked this, but Amelia was less taken by the texture. Stewart’s Cola also has far more sugar than the others, so that might be the factor at play. However, it did lose its carbonation a bit faster than Coke or Pepsi and the intense sweetness might be too much for some people.
Mexican Coke: We both had a sneaking suspicion that this one would run away with it all by the end, and we were right. Of all the sodas, it’s our favorite when drinking it alone, and even though we did this blind, the spot-on balance of cola flavor and bubbly intensity was easy to pick out. It also blended well with the ice cream, not dissolving it too fast, and it had excellent visual appeal. Overall, this one had the best balance of all the colas. Our advice: ditch the high fructose corn syrup, and bring us that sweet sweet cane sugar.
WINNER: Mexican Coke
Post-decision notes: OH MY GOD DON’T DO THIS. I mean, go ahead and do it, but we were bouncing off the walls by the end. I could feel my heart racing and when we sat back down to watch the rest of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we were jittery and laughing at how spaced-out we felt, even using half-sized floats. But by the time Voldemort’s face showed up on the back of that dude’s skull, we were c-r-a-s-h-e-d. Our sugar high tumbled into a sugar pit of lethargy and I almost fell asleep, despite loving these movies. Thankfully the next rounds only have four sodas each.
Until next time, drink up!