The holiday season is hot cocoa/hot chocolate season no matter where you live, so as a public service the Serious Eaters have endeavored to taste every hot cocoa and hot chocolate we could find at a reasonable price. That means we set a price ceiling of 75¢ a serving. That means delicious fancy-pants hot chocolate mixes like Jacques Torres and MarieBelle's are not included in this tasting. They do contain chocolate, they are delicious, but they're just too pricey. The Land O' Lakes Supreme Hot Chocolate, which was pretty good, is also too expensive for our survey, at 99¢ a serving.
The Ground Rules
Before we begin, we must define our terms. Hot cocoa is made with cocoa powder, a by-product of the chocolate-making process. What that means is that almost all hot cocoa/hot chocolate varieties we found in our price range contained no chocolate. Even some brands that called themselves hot chocolate, like Lake Champlain Chocolates' Traditional Hot Chocolate, are actually mislabeled because they contain no chocolate.
How did we judge what we sampled? Hot cocoas/hot chocolates not containing chocolate are not going to taste particularly chocolatey, so we couldn't judge brands like Swiss Miss using that criterion. So we asked ourselves how smooth and rich and tasty each hot cocoa/chocolate was. Some preparations called for water, others for milk. We followed the instructions on the package. Sometimes the instructions said you could use milk or water, and in those cases we did both. We looked for the equivalent of the dark chocolate flavor in each kind because we were hoping to find the most chocolate-rich flavor we could.
The five mentioned below will all be good for what ails you on a winter's day, but only one, Dagoba, will make it into the Hot Chocolate Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
Swiss Miss Rich Chocolate
This was the cheapest brand we tried. It had no discernible chocolate flavor, but everybody was satisfied with its sweet, smooth taste and rich texture. If it's hot cocoa on a budget you're after Swiss Miss will do you up right. $2.59 for 10 servings
Lake Champlain Chocolates' All Natural Traditional Hot Chocolate
Made with milk, Lake Champlain's product was surprisingly thin but pretty satisfying. We got the best results with Lake Champlain when we doubled the amount of powder the instructions called for. Doing that, the 16-ounce package, which supposedly makes 21 servings, only makes about ten. $8 for 21 servings
Dagoba Organic Hot Chocolate Authentic Hot Chocolate
Dagoba was the priciest brand we tried at 72¢ a serving, but it was far and away the richest, most chocolatey, most satisfying cup we found. It tasted very chocolatey, was plenty rich, and was just sweet enough. $8.80 for 12 servings
Stephen's Gourmet Hot Cocoa Belgian Dark Chocolate
It may call itself dark chocolate, but Stephen's had no chocolate and therefore no discernible chocolate flavor. Stephen's tasted like a slightly better Swiss Miss, sort of like a Swiss Miss on steroids.
$4.99 for 13 servings
Green & Black's Organic Hot Chocolate Drink
Although this contained dark chocolate, it was surprisingly watery. When we doubled the amount of powder called for in the instructions (which drove the per serving price over a dollar), the results were markedly improved. $4.99 for 8 servings
So there you have it, six hot cocoas/chocolates to tide you over this holiday season.