Call it hot chocolate or drinking chocolate, but don't dare call it cocoa. That's the sweet, watery drink made with the brown powder often found in single-serve packets. The hot chocolate we're talking about is more like a dessert. It's smooth, luscious, and may not even be sweet. "Hot chocolate is a little bit sinful," says Lan Wong, founder of Les Amusettes, a chocolate-tasting firm in Oregon's Walla Walla Valley. That's why it's a great gift.
To understand the essence of real hot chocolate, we tested eight specialty brands ranging from $13 to $24. This arduous assignment required six BusinessWeek colleagues and me to attend two in-office tastings and to brew cups at home.
Before we reveal the winner, here's a little history: The Aztecs, who were among the first consumers of chocolate, liked to drink it cold, spiced with chilies and wine. The hot chocolate we know and love today was born in the 1500s, after Spanish explorers brought cacao beans home from the New World.
Hot chocolate is made from ground-up chocolate pieces -- its cocoa-butter base adds flavor and texture. The chocolate is often brewed with steamed whole milk, although some recipes call for water.
In our quest to find the perfect cup, we asked leading chocolatiers to send us their most popular varieties and followed each brand's recipe. All are available online.
Despite its generic tin, Eli Zabar Swiss Premium caught our tasters' attention because it came with a container of fluffy marshmallows -- and, at $24, it was the most expensive of the bunch. It was too sweet for most of us, which probably explains why it was the top choice among our kids, ages 10 and under. We liked eating the small pieces of Recchiuti Dark Hot Chocolate out of the box, but when mixed with water, it was too bland. Chocolat Moderne Midnight Oasis earned points for its pretty Turkish-inspired packaging, but reviewers said it had "no bite." Sans Souci Chocolate Elixir, which comes in a homey jar, was "creamy and smooth."
We also sampled an organic blend, Dagoba Authentic Hot Chocolate. It was simply too sugary. From among Schokinag's offerings, which include nine varieties, we chose best-selling Triple Chocolate, finding it "pleasant" and "comforting."
Ultimately we narrowed our favorites to two brands: Jacques Torres Classic ($16 for an 18-oz. tin) and MarieBelle Aztec ($17 for a 10-oz. tin). While Jacques Torres (who used to make chocolate for MarieBelle) got high marks for being ultra-thick, a blind tasting of both revealed MarieBelle as the favorite. One of our tasters said it was like "drinking a dark chocolate bar." MarieBelle's French blue-and-brown tin is "definitely giftable," noted another reviewer, who bought it for his wife the next day.
Sold at mariebelle.com, MarieBelle's is made from flavorful Venezuelan and Colombian beans. "It's an indulgence," says Michael Turback, author of Hot Chocolate (Ten Speed Press). While treating your friends to a luxurious gift, why not indulge in some chocolate yourself?
By Lauren Young