The great Butterbeer experiment started when Ruth and I watched Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. On emerging from The Three Broomsticks Hermione appeared slightly drunk - this got us thinking about the properties of Butterbeer. Wasn't it supposed to be non-alcoholic? According to the Wikipedia Butterbeer was a real life drink before J. K. Rowling created the Potterverse and is described as "a sweet alcoholic Tudor English beverage made from ale, Worcestershire sauce, and butter amongst sugar and many other ingredients". Now even as a lover of Worcestershire sauce this is pretty disturbing - Bloody Mary's need said sauce but sweet ales definitely do not. So has the Butterbeer Wikipedia page been hacked or is there some truth in the matter?
The Harry Potter page of Wikipedia also has a description of Butterbeer, describing it's prominence as the drink of choice for younger wizards and how House elves can become drunk on it due to the small amount of alcohol that it contains. This lower level of alcohol is described only as giving a warming feeling to humans (although the article goes on to quote from the Harry Potter books where it is implied that the drink also lowers inhibitions). J. K. Rowling has described that she imagines the drink to taste "a little bit like less-sickly butterscotch" and that Butterbeer can be served cold or hot but either way it has a warming effect.
This made me want to try some so I started hunting for a recipe. Various HP fan sites have a few great ideas about what such a drink may contain. MuggleNet's recipe suggests 2/3 of a glass of club or cream soda with 1/3 butterscotch syrup along with a little butter (starting with melting the butter and the butterscotch, mixing them together, leaving them to cool and then adding the soda). This seems like it might almost work but it doesn't really seem all that beer-y and for the purposes of this experiment we shall presume that the nice wizards that invented Butterbeer named it due to it's resemblance to beer.
On an aside this arbitrary adding of butter to butterscotch somehow misses the point - butterscotch already has butter in it! The primary ingredients of butterscotch are butter and brown sugar (although I do admit that if you're buying off-the-shelf butterscotch sauce it may bare no resemblance to these initial ingredients and probably has about 50 other artificial tastes added to it but that's a rant for another day). So, in my head at least, Butterbeer should have ale/beer pre-mixed (so that it could be bottled etc) with some kind of sweet buttery sugary (and possibly vanilla-y) syrup or sauce.
Another fan site suggests a recipe using root beer (rather than soda) with cream as an extra ingredient added once you've made your warm concoction. I'm not sure about this - not at all! Another variant is a less intellectual recipe involving the simple mixing of soda (or ginger ale?!?!?) with butterscotch sauce. Again I feel that these are a little too much like taking two things not quite meant to be mixed (and that don't taste like beer) and throwing them together... but that seems to be how many of the recipes go so someone has obviously tried it and is happy that this works.
So now my list of potential ingredients goes like this:
Liquid base - ale, cream soda, club soda, ginger ale, apple cider or root beer
Butterscotch sauce - some mixture of butter and brown sugar with the possible addition of spices (vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves or a mixture of these)
Cream - currently considered optional... if I can get a mix that works well from the first ingredients then I might try a little with cream
And the recipe instructions so far seem to be to warm the sauce and pour in the liquid (followed by the optional cream). Doesn't sound too complicated!
The recipe for a "hot, frothy Butterbeer" does not contain soda or root beer, using milk instead (one thing which everyone, apart from Coke, knows isn't fizzy). Once again this is very far from anything that even closely resembles beer but it does come back to this idea of something creamy so maybe I'm on my own in thinking that butterbeer doesn't sound like a creamy thing. This creamy idea persists across several other sites which suggest the use of ice cream. The ice cream based recipes seem to all revolve around heating the liquid and dumping the ice cream mix on top - sort of like a hot ice cream float. The only other major variation to the recipe is yet another non-beery version involving butterscotch schnapps and cream soda - but I have to reject this for blatantly being a) not sounding magical and b) not even being a little child-friendly.
It was a side comment on a recipe (rather than the recipe itself) that piqued my interest - "The Irish grandmother of a dear friend of mine used to melt butter in a pot, then pour in beer to warm it." Whilst the recipe wasn't what I was imagining this idea of warming butter and adding beer just seemed totally nuts - but maybe there was more to it.
At this point I looked back through my open tabs and discovered a rather helpful blog post that pointed me to culinary legend Heston Blumenthal's attempt to make something resembling Butterbeer as he recreated a Tudor feast (unfortunately the video is no longer available but there is still a recipe on the Chanel 4 blog). The blog asks whether this recipe is similar to egg-nog or even mulled beer with fat - and it asks the all important question... does it taste any better than it looks?
Heston Blumenthal describes a bona fide Tudor recipe made from ale, sugar, egg yolks, nutmeg and butter.
500ml London Pride ale
Yolks from 2 medium eggs, whisked
Dash of nutmeg
15g unsalted butter
Pour the ale into a warm pan on a medium heat. When the beer begins to come to the boil take off the heat and add the whisked egg yolks, sugar and nutmeg. Return the pot to a low heat (to stop the eggs from scrambling) and stir for 2 minutes until the mixture goes the colour of strong tea meets cloudy apple juice. Take off the heat and whisk in the butter.
The final quote on the matter speaks for itself - "Rich, caramelly and super-sweet". Time for me to try to make some of my own methinks! The comments section brings some warnings for me to take note of before I try my hand at the recipe; the main issues were the egg ("we noticed the large quantity of egg bits floating round", "to avoid the floating egg bits try ladling a small quantity of the warm beer into the egg mixture before pouring that back into the rest of the beer") and the sweetness (" we suggest that people reduce the amount of sugar when making their own butterbeer", "...like eating 10 Mars Bars") so I think I'll use our recently inherited double boiler pan so hopefully I'll avoid the eggy bit and the need for sieving. As for sugar content I think I'll use 40g of brown sugar.
And here's my attempt at Heston's recipe - looks good doesn't it? When warm it tasted amazing - beautiful, rich, sweet and warming. I followed the recipe as mentioned above (with the reduced quantity of sugar and mixing a little of the beer into the egg mix before pouring the mix back into the beer). But is this what I imagined the Butterbeer in the Harry Potter books would have tasted like? Almost... but the big thing to point out is that there still isn't any actual butterscotch in it. The taste is pretty butterscotchy but even if this is an original Tudor recipe I still don't think it's quite right for Harry and the gang. Next I think I'm going to try to create a butterscotch base and add it to beer; I need to find something just a little less eggnoggy and a little more butterscotchy.