Cups of hot chocolate and packages

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A satisfying mug of hot chocolate is the rare beverage that children and adults can agree on — but not all hot chocolates are the same. The quality of the cocoa used, the inclusion of thickeners and additives, and even the instructions mean flavor and texture vary wildly from brand to brand.

We tasted 19 hot chocolates ranging from budget-friendly grocery store-brand packets to high-end canisters from chocolatiers. We spit some out after (unpleasant) tastings and there were a few that our tasters snuck off with.

To keep things fair, we carefully followed each package’s microwave instructions and leveled our tablespoon. If a label called for water, that’s what we used. For brands calling for milk, we used the same 2% dairy milk. If a brand suggested milk or water, we defaulted to milk.

We awarded each hot chocolate points based on creaminess, chocolatey-ness, sweetness level, and overall balance, with detractions for powderiness and off notes. Our top five hot chocolates include a few pricey-but-worth-it options, a delicious mid-range choice, and a value cocoa that strikes a balance between cost and quality.

19. Equal Exchange Organic Hot Cocoa

Mug of cocoa and package

This entry from Equal Exchange, one of the best Fair Trade coffee companies, was the worst hot chocolate in our tasting. It had us running to spit it out rather than swallowing this chocolate dishwater-flavored mess. Equal Exchange makes two of the mixes we tasted and this one called for water (the other called for milk) as well as a smaller amount of mix, coming in at 57 cents per serving.

Despite included thickeners, there was absolutely no creaminess at all with a vague amount of sweetness and a slight chocolate flavor with a medley of off notes that we couldn’t identify. We appreciate the company making this an organic and Fair Trade product but this cocoa needs major retooling to approach even the cheapest, lowest-ranked mixes on our list.

18. Silly Cow Hot Chocolate

Mug of cocoa and package

Silly Cow was a disappointment. It comes in heavy-duty, reusable glass milk bottle packaging that feels expensive with an easy-open plastic snap-on cap. The issue was their directions, which tell you to use a measly two "heaping" teaspoons per 6 to 8 ounces of milk. This keeps the cost per serving down at 39 cents, but in this case, less isn’t more.

This mix is natural cane sugar and Dutch processed cocoa powder, and it’s gluten-free, non-GMO, and allergen-free. If prepared as directed, this has no aroma and was not creamy with a flat slight chocolate flavor and mild level of sweetness. It’s the La Croix of hot cocoa … it has the suggestion of hot chocolate but doesn’t actually taste like it. Using more mix than suggested, it makes a sweet and kid-friendly hot cocoa without depth.

17. McSteven’s Double Chocolate Cocoa

Mug of cocoa and package

McSteven’s makes dozens of hot cocoas with different character labels like Peanuts and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, though the ingredients on many of them read the same despite having different names. This packet called for hot water. Strangely, it was one of the most expensive at $2.39 per serving on their official site and it was tooth-achingly, sickeningly sweet with no balance at all.

The chocolate flavor was flat and artificial-tasting, like a cheap chocolate bar, which can’t come as that much of a surprise, since it contains artificial flavorings and thickeners. It was on the thin side, but not terrible considering it was made with water instead of milk. The latter might upgrade this cocoa slightly in our eyes.

16. Numi Drinking Chocolate

Mug of cocoa and package

Numi makes organic and Fair Trade teas that landed in the middle of our rankings for the best tea brands. It called for a high one-to-one ratio of mix to liquid, which had us hopeful. The mix was mostly finely-ground pieces of chocolate which took effort to dissolve. A paleo, organic, and Fair Trade option, this was the only brand that used coconut sugar for sweetness. It costs $1.44 per serving.

While the packaging says "a dash of salt," it tasted like someone at the factory confused the salt and sugar — it was overwhelmingly salty, which was unfortunate because the dark chocolate that followed was rich and enjoyable. There was a slight powderiness and dryness on the palate from the darkness of the chocolate. Ultimately, this tasted like a melted high-cacao chocolate bar that had been mixed with seawater.

15. Swiss Miss Milk Chocolate Flavor

Mug of cocoa and package

Swiss Miss has easy-to-use packets and calls for water or milk, which can be handy. This classic tasted strangely salty on the front end of the first sip, leading to a too-sweet finish. The level of chocolate was lacking and tasted artificial. This mix did dissolve extremely well and it was creamy enough to be enjoyable but it wasn’t rich or decadent.

The ingredient list starts with sugar and corn syrup and doesn’t improve from there. Cocoa is the fourth ingredient down and the taste bore that out. This was the cheapest cocoa in our test at 27 cents per serving. If this is the cocoa you grew up drinking, nostalgia may make it more enjoyable, but there are much better options available.

14. 365 Organic Hot Cocoa

Mug of cocoa and package

The 365 Organic Hot Cocoa called for hot water and took a little more mixing than most to dissolve. Despite containing only natural flavors, it had a strong artificial chocolate smell that reminded us of the scratch-and-sniff stickers of our childhoods.

This hot chocolate had a thinner texture than most but was also creamier than we expected, given it was one of the few mixes that called for being made with water. It was overly sweet with absolutely no depth. For an organic Whole Foods offering, it tasted cheap (it was 40 cents per serving, so it’s budget-friendly) and it reminded us of the kind of hot cocoa you might buy from kids at a stand — without the cute smiles, of course.

13. Starbucks Double Chocolate Hot Cocoa

Mug of cocoa and package

The Starbucks Double Chocolate Hot Cocoa is a passable but not great hot chocolate. It contains both Dutched and natural cocoa powders, which may be why we thought the chocolate flavor tasted full and round. Detracting from that flavor was an odd off-note that tasted plasticky. One of our tasters detected an almost medicinal note in this 94-cents-per-serving offering.

It had a slight powderiness and there were a few stubborn lumps of mix that never dissolved despite our best efforts. The body was fairly creamy, especially considering the clean ingredients list that didn’t include any artificial thickeners. The label says it includes little bits of real chocolate, but it just looked like a coarser regular cocoa mix to us. If it weren’t for that strange off-note, this one would’ve ranked higher.

12. Good & Gather Double Chocolate Hot Cocoa Mix

Mug of cocoa and package

This was a pleasant surprise. One of our tasters said this was "pretty good" and they were shocked to find out it was a Target store-brand packet that cost 72 cents per serving. This cocoa had one of the darkest colors in our test, a simple ingredient list that included sugar, Dutched cocoa powder, and natural flavoring, and a warm, inviting aroma.

We found it to be a little bit too sweet but with an enjoyable dark chocolate flavor that still fell a little flat. We wished it had a tiny bit of salt to balance the sweetness and dark chocolate. It was a creamy mug of hot chocolate but had a little lingering powderiness. It’s a solid hot cocoa for the price and ease of availability.

11. Chamberlain Coffee Cocoa Grizzly Hot Chocolate

Mug of cocoa and package

Chamberlain Coffee Cocoa Grizzly Hot Chocolate is an organic mix made by a popular coffee company. We found this one on Amazon and it shipped and arrived quickly.

The ingredients are kept simple: organic sugar, cocoa, and milk. The packaging claims it can also be used to make frozen hot chocolate, but we had some difficulty dissolving this in hot milk, so we are curious how true that is.

The level of sweetness in this hot chocolate felt just right, but it wasn’t quite chocolatey enough. We noted it wasn’t at all powdery but that it smelled better than it tasted. This wasn’t bad hot cocoa by any means, but for 94 cents per serving, there are better options.

10. Aplenty Decadent Dark Chocolate Hot Cocoa Mix

Mug of cocoa and package

Amazon’s Aplenty Decadent Hot Cocoa Mix comes in a small package of eight ounces that only makes six servings. It was hard to maneuver a tablespoon into the container, but the powder dissolved well in hot milk.

The cocoa had a pleasant, almost fruity aroma. While we didn’t think it had a "dark chocolate" flavor, it didn’t taste cheap and was well-balanced with a hint of salt playing off the sweetness. It’s a decent, mid-range hot cocoa. The ingredients begin with sugar and Dutched cocoa powder and it includes both dried dairy and creamer made with coconut oil and corn syrup solids. The price per serving (57 cents) wasn’t bad but the tiny container means you’d need quite a few of these on hand if you’re making cocoa for more than a few people this winter.

9. Equal Exchange Organic Dark Hot Chocolate

Mug of cocoa and package

We were not looking forward to trying this organic hot cocoa after tasting Equal Exchange’s regular hot cocoa. We were surprised to see that this one called for milk, not water, and that it used more powder per cup compared to their other variety, which upped the cost per serving of this one to 67 cents.

Thankfully, this tasted like a completely different brand. It had a deep, dark chocolate flavor that wouldn’t be enjoyed by children and reminded us more of "drinking chocolate" than traditional hot cocoa. The dark chocolate left a bitter aftertaste that’s enjoyable if you prefer higher-percentage cacao chocolate. It was on the creamy side with a little powderiness on the finish. We found ourselves wishing this had a little more sweetness to balance the bitterness.

8. Mike & Jen’s Cocoa Mix

Mug of cocoa and package

Hailing from Duluth, Minnesota — which the brand claims is the hot cocoa capital of the world — this hot cocoa dissolves ultra-fast. The instructions call for hot water and we were impressed with the level of creaminess and the flavor of the cocoa, although we’d use milk next time.

This family-owned brand of cocoa is readily available on Amazon and it’s kosher, gluten-free, and made in a nut-free facility (which is rare for hot cocoa). While it was on the pricier end at $1.25 a serving, the ingredients of this cocoa mix are clean; it contains only five ingredients, no corn syrup solids, and no artificial thickeners.

The cocoa was kid-friendly but not too sweet with a slightly nutty roasted cacao note on the back end. The balance of flavor of this hot chocolate was well done and we’d happily try this one again using milk.

7. Vermont Nut Free

Mug of cocoa and package

Vermont Nut Free is a chocolatier in Vermont that makes one of our favorite nut-free snacks and high-quality chocolates that are safe for those with nut allergies. This mix dissolved well in hot milk, although the instructions were less clear than we’d have liked. (Measuring exactly 2½ tablespoons wasn’t easy.)

The hot cocoa wasn’t at all powdery and it was well-balanced with a nice level of sweetness that would appeal to children, but isn’t so sweet that it would put off adults. It tasted like high-quality milk chocolate and the ingredient list was only three items long: sugar, Dutched cocoa, and vanilla. We noticed the vanilla in this one, adding to its appeal. While well-priced at 60 cents per serving, we wished we’d used a little more mix for extra chocolatey-ness and a little more body.

6. Dean’s Sweets Double Dark Hot Chocolate

Mug of cocoa and package

Dean’s Sweet is a family-owned chocolate shop in Maine. The company’s Double Dark Hot Chocolate, which is $1.31 per serving, is made with 70% Belgian chocolate, organic Dutched cocoa powder, natural demerara sugar, and organic vanilla.

This had the most unique texture of any mix, featuring a blend of full-size chocolate chips and powder. It never dissolved completely, and had a hint of powderiness texture-wise as well as a passable level of creaminess, although not as much as we expected given the chunks of chocolate.

This is another nut-free brand and it was one of the most adult-tasting hot cocoas we tasted. The sweetness level is restrained if slightly lacking and it has a deep, dark chocolate flavor. Is this a general all-purpose cocoa mix? Not really. Did we relish finishing this cup? Absolutely.

5. Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Hot Cocoa Mix

Mug of cocoa and package

If you’re looking for the best possible hot cocoa for a crowd, this is it. Ghirardelli, the oldest continuously run chocolate factory in the U.S., makes this Double Chocolate Hot Cocoa Mix that dissolved into hot milk with ease and had a welcoming chocolatey smell.

It had a deeper chocolate flavor with roasty notes we didn’t detect in many of the other samples and a sweetness level our tasters unanimously agreed was just right. One of the only detractions was a slight powderiness towards the tail end of the sips. Otherwise, it was creamy and well-balanced.

The ingredients on this one included both cocoa and unsweetened chocolate, which was unusual at this price point (48 cents per serving) and made the difference in the depth of flavor. We enjoyed this one and think it’s by far the best value — it was just 21 cents more expensive per serving than Swiss Miss, which was the cheapest hot cocoa we tested.

4. French Broad Chocolates Dark Chocolate Sipping Chocolate

Mug of cocoa and package

This hot chocolate from French Broad Chocolates in Asheville, North Carolina, one of the best bean-to-bar chocolatiers, was the only sample we tested that was just straight chocolate chips. The chips melted well after letting them stand in near-boiling milk. There was a creamy but not overly thick body to this hot chocolate and of course no powderiness due to the nature of the mix, although it had a slight dryness from the dark chocolate.

This hot cocoa had a deep, dark chocolate flavor with a slight and enjoyable level of bitterness and some delicate fruity notes on the back end. Some of our tasters wished this one was slightly sweeter, but we all agreed this was the best dark chocolate hot cocoa we tasted. This sipping chocolate came in at $2.15 per serving.

3. French Broad Chocolates Milk Chocolate Sipping Chocolate

Mug of cocoa and package

French Broad Chocolate’s Milk Chocolate Sipping Chocolate melted equally well, if not even better than their dark chocolate version. French Broad Chocolates explains this one is made using their brown butter milk chocolate, which had a fruity aroma and a similarly creaminess to their dark chocolate version.

We were surprised by the complex bouquet of berry notes and light nutty notes (likely the brown butter). It was an interesting flavor that one of our tasters was obsessed with and another said tasted too fruity. The sweetness level on this one was absolutely perfect.

The instructions on this label and the dark chocolate version also included a "liquid truffle" recipe that reduces the liquid and replaces the milk with half and half. This was $2.15 per serving (like the dark chocolate version).

2. Lake Champlain Traditional Organic Hot Chocolate

Mug of cocoa and package

Lake Champlain’s Traditional Organic Hot Chocolate dissolved well but not quite as fast as some of the other brands, and it had no powdery aftertaste. This dairy-free hot chocolate was velvety and creamy with a lingering aftertaste of high-end chocolate that bordered on dark. The sweetness level was perfect and the overall flavor balance was flawless.

The organic and Fair Trade-Certified ingredients are the fewest of any we ranked: just sugar and Dutched cocoa. This mug was shockingly creamy given the lack of thickeners and a moderate proportion of mix to milk. Given how highly this one ranked and its moderate price point of 84 cents per serving, this would be a delectable hot cocoa to keep in your pantry all winter.

1. Jacques Torres Hot Chocolate

Mug of cocoa and package

Jacques Torres Hot Chocolate, our third-favorite hot chocolate in NYC, was the priciest hot cocoa we tasted at a whopping $3.50 per serving. It’s worth every penny. The mix had small pebbles of chocolate mixed with powder and called for a high ratio of mix to milk, which is probably why it was so creamy and decadent. Despite the high amount of mix, there was zero powderiness. The ingredients include dark chocolate, dry whole milk, and several thickeners, which explains the silky, thick texture.

This is a luscious hot cocoa that was on the restrained side of sweet without any bitterness. While no child would say no to a mug of this rich, chocolatey cocoa, this is a secret-stash luxury you won’t want to share. We could see skimping on the mix a little to stretch this beyond the seven servings one canister makes. We plan to make this our special-occasion hot cocoa around here.