23 Jan 2007

Butterbeer - Is it Alcoholic?

Every time that Harry and his friends visit the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade and order foaming, hot butterbeer, I find myself contemplating the properties of this drink that is so ubiquitous in the magical world. Just the name itself makes me think that it would taste delicious, especially when warm. I imagine it being sweet, but not overly so, and smooth, rich, and creamy.

Butterbeer LabelPicture courtesy of BaddMinton

There’s one thing, however, that I can’t resolve. Is butterbeer alcoholic? We know that it certainly has an effect on house-elves. Winky, the Crouch family’s elf, is often found drunk by the fire with empty butterbeer bottles around her. But does butterbeer have an effect on humans? Why are Hogwarts students allowed to drink butterbeer, but not order other concoctions from the bar such as Firewhisky?

I think I may have found a clue when I recently reread the 6th book, Half-Blood Prince. In the 14th chapter, “Felix Felicis,” just after the part where Hermione reveals that she was thinking of asking Ron to Professor Slughorn’s Christmas party, there are these lines:

"Although Harry watched his two friends more closely over the next few days, Ron and Hermione did not seem any different except that they were a little politer to each other than usual. Harry supposed he would just have to wait to see what happened under the influence of butterbeer in Slughorn's dimly lit room on the night of the party."

This quote proves that butterbeer has some of the same effects as alcohol, namely reducing one’s social inhibitions. I’ve decided, however, that butterbeer probably doesn’t contain alcohol. Why would wizards, who can brew sophisticated potions, rely on something as imperfect as alcohol to give them a buzz? Butterbeer is probably made with a low dosage of some kind of potion that simulates the effects of alcohol. Its effect on humans is minimal, but house-elves, being much smaller, are able to get drunk off of it. Other wizarding “drinks” could be made with other potions. Personally, I imagine that the contents of Firewhisky are such that you can breathe fire after you drink it.

Of course this brings up interesting cultural overtones. Most Americans cannot imagine alcohol being served to 13-year-olds, but Europe is more liberal about that sort of thing. I wonder if British readers automatically assume that butterbeer is at least slightly alcoholic?

There are many butterbeer recipes on the internet, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. My friend made some a few weeks ago. The main ingredient was cream soda, and we drank it hot. It was really delicious. I think J.K. Rowling should contract someone like Jones Soda to produce an official butterbeer; she could probably make a lot of licensing revenue.