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From the JHM Archives: How the Chefs at Universal Orlando made Butterbeer real

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From the JHM Archives: How the Chefs at Universal Orlando made Butterbeer real

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Just yesterday, Universal Orlando served up its five-millionth glass of Butterbeer. Which is quite an achievement. Given that -- prior to the June 2010 opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure -- this beverage only existed between the pages of J.K. Rowling's best-selling books and/or could be seen but not tasted in Warner Bros. "Harry Potter" film series.

How exactly did the Chefs at Universal Orlando make Butterbeer real? Though the press release that the Resort issued last night stated that " ... the recipe for (this) non-alcoholic drink is a closely held secret," that's not entirely true. Last year, for one of my very first articles for the Huffington Post, I was able to get Chef Steven Jayson -- the Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef for Universal Parks & Resorts --  to reveal a wee bit about what went on behind-the-scenes during the creation of this super-popular beverage.

Steven Jayson, Vice President and Executive
Corporate Chef for the Universal Orlando
Resort. Copyright NBCUniversal.
All rights reserved

Here's an excerpt from that July 2011 HuffPost piece. Which talked about the seemingly impossible task that Jayson & his team faced when it came to conjuring up Butterbeer. Which was ...

... Deliver a drink that would appeal to hardcore Harry Potter fans as well as members of the general public. Not to mention meet the exacting standards of series creator J. K. Rowling.

The research started early. Steven and his team made a trip to Scotland in July of 2008, both to meet with Harry Potter's author as well as to tour the various environs that had allegedly inspired J.K. (which included Edinburgh's Hogshead pub). During that trip, Jayson reportedly quizzed Rowling in regards to Butterbeer, trying to get this author's exact thoughts on this imaginary ale.

The interior of Universal's Islands of Adventure version of the Hoghead
tavern with Butterbeer on tap, ready to be served to thirsty Harry
Potter fans.

And Steven... He has supposedly done his homework prior to meeting with J.K.. Carefully combing through all of the Harry Potter books, looking for any and all references to Butterbeer.

Mind you, given that this beverage was going to be served in a family-friendly theme park, one aspect of this beverage (i.e. according to the Harry Potter books, quaffing this ale can give you a bit of a buzz) had to be dropped right off the bat. Furthermore, because Universal Orlando wanted as many guests as possible to be able to sample this brew (and that included the lactose intolerant), there could be no butter, or dairy products of any kind, in Butterbeer.

J.K. allegedly agreed to these terms as Steven laid them out, but then added a few of her own. Chief among these was that -- because Rowling believed that corn syrup was about to become the next trans-fat (i.e. the ingredient that people now deliberately avoid whenever they're making their food choices) -- she insisted that Butterbeer be made with real sugar.

J.K. Rowling walks past a Butterbeer cart as she
tours the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with
Universal Creative president Mark Woodbury
back in June of 2010.
NBCUniversal. All rights

So with this info in hand, Jayson and his team returned to the States and then retreated to Universal Orlando's test kitchens. Where these would-be culinary wizards then attempted to conjure up some Butterbeer.

"This was a pretty daunting situation," Steven recalled during an interview which he gave during the Wizarding World's grand opening press event back in June of 2010. "We wanted to take what Harry Potter fans had read in the books and seen in the movies and bring it to life. We knew that people's expectations were going to be very high. What's more, we had to create a beverage that was good for all ages."

Jayson and his crew of cooks then supposedly spent three to four months trying to perfect Universal Orlando's version of Butterbeer. Company insiders told me that it took 15 to 16 tries before Steve finally got something that he was happy with.

(L to R) James Phelps, Emma Watson, Oliver Phelps and Matthew Lewis all sample
some Butterbeer during a pre-opening visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
back in the Spring of 2010.
Copyright NBCUniversal. All rights reserved

Why 15 or 16 tries? As Jayson explained at The Wizarding World's grand opening event:

"We experimented with all sorts of flavors. It took a while to get the flavor right where it needed to be. So it wasn't too sweet. That it had this great comfortable feeling going down."

And then -- after running this prototype by his bosses at Universal Orlando and then getting their tentative approval -- it was time to see if Rowling herself would actually sign off on this version of Butterbeer. So they packed up all of the necessary ingredients ("Which was something of a challenge," Mark Woodbury, Head of Universal Creative jokingly told me at this theme-park-within-a-theme-park's opening press event, "Getting all of that stuff past the Department of Homeland Security") and then flew them over to the U.K.

Which Butterbeer do you prefer? The stuff straight from the tap or the frozen version?

Once there, Jayson and his team rented space in a kitchen in an Edinburgh hotel. To give J.K. a variety of beverages to choose from, they allegedly whipped up four variations on their Butterbeer formula along with the version that UOR officials were hoping the author would pick. Then Jayson's boss -- Ric Florell, Universal's senior vice president in charge of Food & Beverages -- carried that tray of drinks into Ms. Rowling.

And then J.K. carefully sampled all five glasses. And upon arriving at the real glass of Butterbeer, Rowling reportedly took one sip and then reportedly broke into a big smile, saying "Yes, Chef. That's it."

So Steve and his team had gotten the approval of the notoriously-hard-to-please J.K.. But what about Harry Potter's fans and the general public? Would they too respond favorably to Universal Orlando's home-brewed version of Butterbeer?

Tourists queue up for their first taste of Butterbeer

The answer to that question came during the soft opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. When the line of guests standing in front of the Butterbeer cart was almost as long as the one waiting to get into the "Forbidden Journey" attraction.

But even so, Universal Orlando officials never dreamed that Butterbeer would become this popular this fast with the public. With Islands of Adventure selling its millionth mug of the stuff by January of 2011, less than seven months after this theme-park-within-a-theme-park had first opened for business.

"So what exactly is the Universal's version of Butterbeer?," you ask. That information -- as they say in the military -- is classified. On a need-to-know basis. What I can tell you is that this popular beverage is prepared on property. Beyond that, UOR officials are determined to do whatever they have to in order to keep the precise ingredients of this super-popular ale a secret. In direct response to a series of questions that I submitted to Chef Jayson about Butterbeer earlier this year, he admitted that Universal has already "...implanted special security procedures (in order) to protect the recipe."

Copyright NBCUniversal. All rights reserved

"So -- that said -- what is actually known about this amber ale?," you query. Well, there are two distinct phases to the preparation / pouring of a glass of Butterbeer. First the bottom layer -- a slightly thickened mixture which tastes like a combination of butterscotch, cream soda and shortbread cookies -- is poured into the bottom of the glass. Then the Butterbeer's head -- which is this lighter, fluffier, less sweet version of marshmallow fluff -- is carefully placed on top of the brown brew that has previously been poured into this glass.

Now where this gets interesting is that those who have tried to smuggle glasses of Butterbeer out of Universal's Islands of Adventure (and you know who you are) have noticed that -- after a half hour or so -- this artificial ale loses cohesion. Meaning that the top layer and the bottom layer then blend together, which creates this somewhat unsightly (and -- to be blunt -- hard to drink) beverage.

Which -- to Universal Orlando's way of thinking -- is a good problem to have. Meaning that: The only place where you get a Butterbeer as it is actually intended to be served is by visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

These are just a few of the Universal Orlando visitors who took part in yesterday's toast
celebrating the five-millionth Butterbeer served at The Wizarding World of Harry
Copyright NBCUniversal. All rights reserved

And that's just what people are doing. Tens of thousands of them each day. Which is why -- just yesterday, in celebration of the five-millionth serving of Butterbeer -- Universal Orlando treated one thousand Islands of Adventure visitors to a free glass of the amber beverage. Which was a pretty sweet surprise, don't you think?

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  • Is Universal obligated to provide nutritional information? How many calories? How much sugar? How much fat? How much sodium? etc.

    I found it interesting your mention of the concern over lactose intolerants. Well, there are many more diabetics in the country, and the parks, in numbers growing yearly. This includes many children and HP fans. I have not seen any mention anywhere of the availability of a sugar free version!

    Doesn't Universal care about a significant segment of their guests? J.K. Rowling of her readers?

  • OBoD - Unfortunately, theme parks aren't required to provide nutritional information, IIRC. California exempts them from the requirement to post calorie counts on menus, and Florida has no calorie posting requirement.

  • This site is the first one I visit every day.  I saw the Butterbeer headline and doubted this would be interesting at all.  But I read it out of habit.

    Turned out to be a pretty interesting article.

  • I'll take a Dole Whip over that glop any day.

  • Lots of haters.

  • OBoD- I think both Universal and J.K. Rowling assume their visitors/readers will be able to exercise a bit of common sense. All of the Diabetics I know are smart enough to ask if something contains sugar.

  • Who looks at butter beer and says, "yeah, that's a healthy choice!"  The world doesn't need to cater to everyone.  Lactose-free was probably mentioned because there are a lot of butter beer recipes floating around that call for heavy whipping cream.  I don't think many people are interested in a Sweet 'n' Low butter beer.  

    Besides, if you have diabetes, you probably shouldn't be eating theme-park food, anyway.

  • How disheartening.

    This is exactly what a diabetes magazine just described as the “food police,” people who know nothing of diabetes and presume to tell you as if they know more than you.

    Well “Seriously,” it’s not a question of common sense avoid all sugar, but one of educated choices based on knowing the quantity of sugar. Does a serving have 5 grams? 50 grams? Depending on the answer, one might be able to have it if they adjust their insulin accordingly. If not on insulin, one might say for one time try a half serving or a quarter. All we know from online reviews is that it is “sweet” which is inadequate information to make a determination.

    And exactly what answer do you expect to be given by a server in the park whose job it is to just pour the stuff and collect the money and keep the long lines moving?

    To “Entitled Much”: I’d like to see you take a young Harry Potter fan child with diabetes to the park who you know is going to want to try the butter bear he has read about and seen in the movies. Are you going to tell him to be disappointed, especially when he knows that in the supermarket he gets to grab the sugar free variety of the cookies and cakes, and the restaurants usually adjust the recipes or have a sugar free variety of foods already available? What’s your answer going to be when asked why the wizards in the Wizarding World can’t just zap the sugar away? When in an immersive fantasy environment, is it the time to give a young child a lesson in reality and the need to give up on fantasy?

    Is the answer to tell the young fan, there is no diet butter bear for you, have a Diet Coke like you get at home? Or maybe your answer is not to take a young Harry Potter fan with diabetes to IOA at all!

    No, butter bear is not a healthy choice but a treat that should be accessible to the widest number of guests. No the world doesn’t need to cater to everyone, but in the face of a growing problem among the general population and thus the park going population, a problem recognized throughout the food service industry which provides diet versions throughout many food lines, one would think finding a way to have a diet version of the hot selling signature item would be important. This especially holds if they bent over backwards to cater to lactose intolerants, a smaller population who, if inconvenienced, gets a trip to the bathroom not first aid or the ER.

    And no, I don’t know many people interested in a Sweet ‘n’ Low version. I know plenty of people interested in a Splenda version, or even an Equal.

    And yes, there is plenty to eat and drink for diabetics in the theme parks, at counter service and the sit down restaurants, all of which cater with at least one diet soda available.

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