Aficionados of drinking chocolate point out that, strictly speaking, hot cocoa contains no chocolate, only cocoa powder, thickeners (like powdered milk) and a sweetener of some sort. Hot chocolate, on the other hand, is chocolate, powdered or grated and ready to melt into milk or water. However, most products call themselves “hot chocolate” regardless of ingredients.
Scharffen Berger co-founder Robert Steinberg was the first to reveal to us an important bit of chocolate information: the truth about “Dutch Process” cocoa. Some packages make it sound ike a good thing, but it usually isn’t. It means the cocoa has been alkalinized, or treated with an alkali to make it less acidic. Alkalinized cocoa has an appealing dark reddish-brown color, but the dutching process not only adds a chemical tang, it also strips out some of the more complex flavors and high notes typical of fine chocolate. Below, some favorites (the more stars, the more we like it).
Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Hot Chocolate Rating: 2 Stars. The dutch-process cocoa gives it a mild, slightly chalky flavor. It’s simple and too sweet, just like the cocoa we grew up with. Points for nostalgia, not for flavor.
Dagoba Authentic Hot Chocolate Rating: 1 Star. An acidic tang and harsh aftertaste. Credit only for using organic ingredients and fair-trade cocoa powder.
Scharffen Berger Drinking Chocolate Rating: 5 Stars. Dark, decadent, and somewhat bitter, it’s a grown-up drink and one of our favorites.
Cacao Filipina Rating: 4 Stars. Thrown into our tasting to confound the know-it-alls, Cacao Filipina turned out to be one of our favorites, and not just because it looks like brown golf balls in a burlap sack.
Ibarra Authentic Mexican Chocolate Drink Mix Rating: 3 Stars. Pale and frothy Ibarra has a nice creamy consistency and the subtle cinnamon flavor characteristic of Mexican hot chocolates, but we prefer a more chocolatey taste.
Vosges Haut-Chocolat La Parisienne Cocoa Rating: 5 Stars. This had better be good, considering all the steeping, stirring, whisking, frothing, and garnishing described in the instructions. It is. Deep, rich, almost overwhelming.