Special Edition: Invasion of the Drinking Chocolates!
One night a few years ago, I went to bed as usual. When I woke up next morning and rubbed my eyes, we’d been invaded by drinking chocolates. Chocolatiers everywhere were producing their own variations of a rich hot chocolate drink, so it’s high time for an investigation of this phenomenon.
The first thing to realize is that everything labeled as “drinking chocolate” isn’t drinking chocolate. When I ordered a number of “drinking chocolates” from several websites, a couple of them were simply hot cocoa mixes with a fancier name. I don’t believe that anyone is intentionally misleading consumers in this case. Rather, it’s probably a scenario where the terms are used interchangeably, because most people group all such beverages together. What’s the difference? A hot cocoa mix is made with cocoa powder, not chocolate. It will almost certainly contain sugar; it may also have powdered milk, vanilla, soy lecithin, or any of a number of other ingredients, including starch. Drinking chocolate, or hot chocolate, contains actual chocolate. Because chocolate contains more cocoa butter than does cocoa powder, drinking chocolate is normally richer and may be thicker than hot cocoa. Drinking chocolate may also contain sugar, soy lecithin, starch, and even cocoa powder, among other ingredients. So it’s easy to see how people might become confused.
As there are so many types of drinking chocolates out there, I thought it might be nice to have more than one opinion on some of them. With the help of my friend Bill, I assembled a prestigious panel of tasters whose credentials in chocolate are non-existent (if you take nothing else away with you from reading any of my columns, I hope you’ll gain the conviction that the only person whose opinion really matters when you’re tasting a chocolate product is yours. The panelists were a group of friends, and this turned out to be a fun idea for a gathering). I had aimed to have the panel sample only hot chocolates, but I slipped up in one case (see below). Drinking chocolates are listed in no particular order, along with my source for each and any notable comments (my panelists didn’t try the hot cocoa mixes, but I did). Keep in mind that the tastings were conducted in a highly unscientific fashion, and as we tasted all of these products in a 3-1/2 hour timespan, some taste fatigue was bound to come into play. Where there was concensus or near-conscensus of the positive type, you’ll see the word “recommended” at the end of the listing. As always, though, I suggest trying products for yourself.
One problem with many of the mixes is that they aren’t always specific about quantities. When it comes to adding sugar, I can understand that; it’s a matter of taste. But when a recipe calls for “soupspoons” of mix (as the Dolfin does), or doesn’t tell you how much milk to use (as is the case with the Max Brenner), the “convenience and ease” factor of these products decreases considerably. Making hot chocolate from a mix shouldn’t have to be that much of a guessing game. Where I had trouble figuring out the directions, I list the quantities I used. All mixes were prepared according to package instructions. As many of the quantities are listed in metric amounts, you’ll have to approximate sometimes, and a good kitchen scale is a big help. As far as I know, one liquid cup is equivalent to just about 240 ml, so that was the liquid conversion I used. Where teaspoons or tablespoons of mix were called for, I used measuring spoons except where noted. Bonnat, Dolfin, Fran’s, and Enric Rovira all contained large clumps of mix and/or chocolate, which would be annoying to have to try to chop or separate prior to preparation. Use whole milk to make hot chocolate, please, and if you have a tasting with friends, be wise, and keep it to only a few examples!
It was impossible for us to try every drinking chocolate out there, but we got to taste a good number of them. We did not try the hot chocolate mixes made by Jacques Torres (http://mrchocolate.com); MarieBelle (www.mariebelle.com); Vosges Haut-Chocolate (www.vosgeschocolate.com; the products are listed on the website as “Couture Cocoas”, but I was told the mixes contain shaved chocolate); Lake Champlain Chocolates (www.lakechamplainchocolates.com. Only the “Old World” selection is a hot chocolate; the rest are hot cocoas); and Charbonnel et Walker (The Cultured Cup in Dallas, TX, (972) 960-1521 or toll-free (888) 847-8327; this is a seasonal item here, though they try to stock enough to last until March or so). I’m certain there are other drinking chocolates out there as well. Incidentally, you can also make your own drinking chocolate at home, and it’s not particularly difficult or time-consuming; recipes follow after the reviews of the commercial products. If you are going to buy a hot chocolate mix, please shop around for price, as you can really save yourself some money by doing so. Finally, a hot chocolate mix makes a nice gift for your sweetheart, and Valentine’s Day is just around the corner…
Many thanks to Sifu, Naomi, Su, Nick, Isabeau, Edie, and especially Bill and Andrea for hosting us all.
—Fran’s Shaved Chocolate for Hot Beverages (www.chefshop.com). Most panelists didn’t care for this product. They described it as “earthy” in taste, with a corresponding smell; other comments included a report of a “chalky taste” and “I can feel this on my teeth, like a dirty feeling”. I had no such difficulties, but I didn’t think either taste, texture, or aroma were worth the calories or the price.
—Slitti Dark Drinking Chocolate (www.chefshop.com). Everyone commented on the lovely, chocolatey aroma of this product, but few tasters were impressed with the flavor. Comments such as “where’s the chocolate?” popped up, and one taster explained that she got a good first hint of chocolate taste, but there was no follow-through; the chocolate flavor simply didn’t last. While I agreed that there is no lingering chocolate taste with this product, I liked the flavor better than most of my tasters and felt there was a decent chocolate presence.
—Enric Rovira Chocolate a la Taza (www.chefshop.com). There are exceptions to every rule, it seems, and Enric Rovira is the exception to my pronouncement that hot chocolate is richer than hot cocoa. Technically, this is a hot cocoa mix, but I goofed and didn’t read the ingredient list until it was too late. When made according to directions, this emerges from your saucepan like a hot chocolate pudding. Unhappily, I made the test batch too sweet (based on a prior tasting last year; has Rovira changed his formula?). This was doubly unfortunate, as it was the last product we tasted, when everyone’s tastebuds had to be pretty fried. Even with the excessive sweetness, however, testers told me that, of the more intense products we tried, “this has the most well-rounded flavor” and “it doesn’t sit in your stomach as heavily as Bonnat”. Someone commented that imbibing this as the last drink of the evening was similar to “drinking a Guinness after ten pints of normal beer”, but all were agreed in their favorable views of the product. One taster who had toured Spain for a month told me this was the closest thing she’d found to the hot chocolates she got with her morning churros there. When I made a later sample of this just for myself, it wasn’t necessary to add any sugar, and the result was delicious. Recommended.
— L’Ancienne Chocolat en Poudre (www.chefshop.com). This is a hot cocoa mix, not a drinking chocolate mix, despite its being listed as the latter on this site. No milk measurement was given in the instructions, so I used 3/4 cup milk per packet of mix. I found this mix lacking in chocolate flavor and rather too sweet. No panel tasting, as it isn’t a drinking chocolate.
—King’s Cupboard Dark Chocolate-Chocolate Chunk Hot Chocolate (www.chefshop.com). Panelists did not care for this hot chocolate, decrying it as “too sweet”, with “no depth”, and adding that it was “almost like Swiss Miss” and “licorice-y”. I did not agree; I enjoy the flavor of this except that I find it slightly too sweet. There was some mix left in the bottom of tasters’ cups after drinking, though not as much as in the case of the Dagoba.
—Schokinag European Drinking Chocolate. Unanimously applauded by all tasters. Although the directions suggest sugar can be added if you like, none of us felt that was necessary. This is a thin drink with good chocolate flavor and hazelnut overtones, although it contains no hazelnuts. Panelists stated that this would be a hot chocolate to choose when you’ve come in from shoveling snow or if you were curled up with a good book in front of a fireplace. Recommended.
—Dagoba Organic Hot Chocolate (www.chocosphere.com). Panelists were divided about this hot chocolate. All agreed that it had a good chocolate aroma, but some thought there was a slight bitter flavor, and a few talked about an odd, unidentifiable, but pleasant, aftertaste. Most people tasted a hint of coffee in the flavor. I found this product too sweet, although there was some chocolate flavor there, too. Although I prepared this according to instructions, there was a serious amount of mix left in the bottom of everyone’s cup.
—Green & Black’s Organic Hot Chocolate (www.chocosphere.com). Everyone agreed that hot chocolate made from this mix was too milky and had no chocolate flavor at all. The directions on the jar call for only four teaspoons of mix in nine ounces of milk, and we just didn’t find that sufficient. I tried more of this product by myself later on, using 3 Tbsp. mix to 8 ounces milk; that worked better, and the resulting drink wasn’t overly-sweet, but I still didn’t think there was enough chocolate flavor.
—Dolfin Copeaux de Chocolat (www.chocosphere.com). Because “soupspoons” were called for in the directions and none were available, I used 4 tablespoons (not measuring tablespoons, just a silverware-drawer tablespoon) of the mix, 1-1/2 measuring tablespoons of sugar, and 2 cups of milk to make this hot chocolate. The mix dissolved poorly; there were a lot of undissolved granules in it even after cooking. I also didn’t find much chocolate flavor here. Panelists remarked on the “nice creaminess”, “good aroma”, and “very smooth, even taste”, but added that the chocolate taste was “weak” and there was “less chocolate flavor than the aroma would indicate”.
—Café-Tasse Cacao Instant (www.chocosphere.com). Again, this is a hot cocoa mix, not a mix for a drinking chocolate, although it’s listed as the latter on the website. To my annoyance, no instructions of any kind came with this product, neither on the box nor on the inner packaging. I used 3 Tbsp. of mix to 3/4 cup milk, dumping the mix in the bottom of a mug, adding the near-boiling milk, and stirring well for a minute or two. Although the hot cocoa made this way had a nice chocolatey color and some chocolate taste, it was too sweet. No panel tasting, as this isn’t a hot chocolate.
—Valor Chocolate a la Taza, tablet form (www.chocosphere.com). You must chop this bar before making it into hot chocolate, but I believe chocosphere.com also offers it in powder form. There were a number of exclamations over the “great chocolate smell” and “rich mouthfeel” of Valor, and the hot chocolate has a slight thickness. I found the product much too sweet, but many panelists dissented and labelled it “very good”, although one explained that he thought it didn’t taste like chocolate at all.
—Max Brenner Chocolat (www.chocosphere.com). The immediate problem I had with this mix was that the instructions made no sense to me. They’re in English, but Brenner is based in Israel, and if there was ever a case where something was lost in translation, I’m willing to bet this is a fine example. I had no idea how much milk to use, for instance. When I called Chocosphere, they weren’t certain, either; apparently, they use this chiefly to flavor their coffee. Eventually, by guesswork, I used 7 seriously heaping Tbsp. of mix, 1-1/2 Tbsp. sugar, a bit of boiling water, and 1-1/2 cups milk to make this product. My proportions seemed to work very well, but I was not impressed that the product required so much mental effort! Panelists commented on the slightly “orange-y” color and flavor, but most also agreed there was a slight metallic aftertaste. About half liked the overall flavor of the product, but the metallic aftertaste was too jarring for me.
—Bonnat (The Wine Country, Signal Hill, CA, (800) 505-5564, though the website won’t help you much in this case as it doesn’t list this product). To make this, I used 2 cups of milk, 2 Tbsp. sugar, and a trifle less than four ounces of the mix. This hot chocolate had a definite thickness and tasters remarked that they found it “very heavy” and “very strong”. Opinion was unanimous that this is a hot chocolate for connoisseurs and it would be best to drink small quantities only. While one panelist markedly disliked the Bonnat, claiming it left him feeling “bloated”, everyone else admired the deeply chocolate nature of the product. Recommended.
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