We Tried 12 Hot Cocoa Mixes — And the Winner Was Not What We Expected
Few things are as cozy and indulgent as a cup of hot cocoa. Seriously — just reading the words “hot cocoa” conjures up images of roaring fireplaces, chunky knit blankets, and oh-so-soft sweatpants. When you tack on the convenience of a ready-made mix, it’s no wonder the hot cocoa market is expected to reach the capital-B Billions within the next 10 years. With all the hype around this hot beverage comes many many choices. Some may argue too many choices, which is why we set out to find the best of the bunch.
We tasted our way through 12 hot cocoa mixes across two categories — milk chocolate and dark chocolate — focusing on both widely available national brands and several store brands sold at retailers with locations across the country. While many of the mixes were less than $5, we added in a few pricier options to judge for ourselves if they are, in fact, worth the splurge. (Spoiler: One of them totally is!) We also looked at recent sales data, new launches, and past taste tests to round out the selection.
After a cozy afternoon of sipping and tallying, these are the hot cocoa mixes we’re stocking in our pantry this season.
The Best Hot Cocoa Mixes
- Best Milk Chocolate Hot Cocoa Mix: Great Value Milk Chocolate Hot Cocoa Mix
- Best Dark Chocolate Hot Cocoa Mix: Lake Champlain Chocolates Traditional Dark Organic Hot Chocolate
Best Milk Chocolate Hot Cocoa Mix: Great Value Milk Chocolate Hot Cocoa Mix
Just like with our canned pumpkin taste test, store brands rule the roost here. Walmart’s Great Value brand wins over tasters with its “cocoa-forward smell,” says Vicki, our studio director. The scent brings Mara, our senior lifestyle editor, right back to the local ice skating rink where she spent many wintery weekends as a kid.
This mix also earns high marks for its “very creamy and buttery” flavor from Sarah, our assistant editor who also has strong feelings she had this when she was growing up. (The nostalgia is strong with this hefty tub!) Andrea, our social media manager, echoes the butteriness and richness. In fact, if we were to create a word cloud, “rich” and “chocolatey” would be impossible to ignore. The only watch-out: One taster says it’s more sweet than cocoa-y (sugar is the first ingredient, followed by dairy solids, cocoa, coconut oil, and corn syrup).
What’s So Great
- A mug of nostalgia
- The most budget-friendly of the bunch
Good to Know
Buy: Great Value Milk Chocolate Hot Cocoa Mix, $4.24 for 27.7 ounces at Walmart
Runner-Up: Trader Joe’s Organic Hot Cocoa Mix
Trader Joe’s Organic Hot Cocoa Mix is equally as impressive — its overall score is identical to Walmart’s Great Value. It even earns higher marks for its deep milk chocolate color (“It looks like a liquid Hershey bar!” says Sarah) and enticing scent (“Smells like brownies,” says Vicki). This mix is so cozy, even the package is giving off major sweater feels. Where it falls just a little bit short is flavor.
Made with organic cane sugar, dry milk, and cocoa powder, the mix has a balanced sweetness and a “rich” (Brian, our director of people operations) and “sophisticated” flavor (Brenda, our director of SEO). It’s “slightly elevated from what I remember drinking as a child,” adds Mara. A few tasters also feel the flavor is a little watered-down or too bitter for their taste buds, which is ultimately why it ended up in the #2 spot. Vicki thinks a dollop of whipped cream could do wonders, though!
What’s So Great
- Tastes fancy
- Strikes the right balance between sweet and bitter
Good to Know
- May be too watered-down for some
Find it in stores: Trader Joe’s Organic Hot Cocoa Mix, $3.99 for 10 ounces at Trader Joe’s
Best Dark Chocolate Hot Cocoa Mix: Lake Champlain Chocolates Traditional Dark Organic Hot Chocolate
“Beautiful.” That’s how Mara sums up this deeply dark chocolate mix. The most minimalist of the bunch, Lake Champlain Chocolates Traditional Dark Organic Hot Chocolate is made with just two ingredients: Fair Trade certified cocoa and sugar. (It’s also the most expensive pick on the list, and one dark chocolate lovers think is totally worth the extra coins.)
The mix “smells nice, like melted chocolate for a ganache,” says Brenda, and the “muddy” texture is in a league of its own. It took noticeably longer to dissolve, but, as Brian points out, “good things are worth waiting for.” The words “rich,” “richer,” and “richness” appear in nearly every taster’s notes; so does “bitter,” which ended up being a BIG plus for most (“tastes like a decadent dark chocolate bar,” says Vicki), and a bit of a minus for a few (“it needs a little more sweetness,” says Andrea). Which side do you fall on?
What’s So Great
- “A real baker’s chocolate taste”
- Made with just two ingredients
Good to Know
- Bitterness can be overpowering
- Pricier, but worth the splurge
Buy: Lake Champlain Chocolates Traditional Dark Organic Hot Chocolate, $14 for 13 ounces at Amazon
Runner-Up: Swiss Miss Simply Cocoa Dark Chocolate
Once again, less is more. Arguably one of the most iconic hot cocoa brands, Swiss Miss Simply Cocoa Dark Chocolate has a pared-down ingredient list compared to its OG namesake: sugar, cocoa, nonfat milk, salt, and natural flavor. And it still has that “classic hot chocolate” look, says Reece, our account coordinator, who drinks hot cocoa multiple times a week during the holiday season.
Once again, tasters had … err … mixed feelings about this mix. It’s “silky,” and “easily drinkable,” says Mara, as in she’d have zero problem emptying her mug full of this stuff. “It grows on me with every sip,” adds Sarah. A few felt the texture was a little thinner than they like and the flavor a little too subdued. But in the end, most find it to be what Vicki calls “a people pleaser” (in a good way): It’s the best middle ground between the other more bitter and sweeter contenders. Turns out, it’s also the least expensive in the dark chocolate category.
What’s So Great
- Made with a handful of ingredients
- Not too rich, sweet, or bitter
Good to Know
- Thinner consistency
Buy: Swiss Miss Simply Cocoa Dark Chocolate, $6.50 for 7.68 ounces at Walmart
How We Tested the Hot Cocoa Mixes
We held a blind taste test of 12 different hot cocoa mixes across two categories — milk chocolate and dark chocolate — and recruited seven hot cocoa fans, with no shortage of “LOVE!” (so you know they’re qualified), who work in our office to participate in this one-day test.
Whether they “drink hot cocoa multiple times a week” or for “a special treat,” tasters want their mugs full of rich, creamy cocoa that’s a touch sweeter than bittersweet. Thin or runny hot cocoas are a hard pass. Most mentioned milk as their go-to liquid, of course. They also wouldn’t turn down a cup made with water (or a little booze), which is how we sampled them (minus the booze, that is).
Each hot cocoa mix was assigned a letter to conceal the brand’s identity. Maya, our studio assistant, measured tablespoons of each mix into sample-size cups. She set out small wooden spoons and thermal carafes filled with hot water (you know, to keep things consistent and include tasters avoiding dairy). Tasters were instructed to make their own mini “mugs” of hot cocoa — filling the cup three-quarters of the way with hot water and then stirring to combine — one at a time. We also had pitchers of cold water on hand for palate cleansing.
Tasters rated each of the hot cocoas on a scale of one to five (1 = No, thanks; 2 = Meh; 3 = Pretty good; 4 = Really like; 5 = Yes, Please!) across four criteria — look, smell, texture, and flavor — and included any specific observations, tasting notes, and general opinions worth mentioning. They were also asked to answer, arguably, the most important question of all: Would you buy this hot cocoa mix?
Why You Should Trust Us
This was a blind taste test, which means tasters had no knowledge of the brands being evaluated ahead of or at the time of the tasting. It was held over one day and tasters were instructed to sample the hot cocoa mixes in random order (to stave off palate fatigue and not give any one mix an unfair advantage). The group of tasters included a mix of food professionals and hot cocoa enthusiasts who work at The Kitchn and/or Apartment Therapy Media (The Kitchn’s parent company). All participated in the taste test voluntarily, and we thank them for being so generous with their time and feedback.
Speaking of, each taster filled out a score sheet (without discussion or influence) ranking the hot cocoa mixes across several criteria (listed above). The results were also tabulated without any visibility into the brands. Only after the numbers were finalized did we reveal which brands corresponded to the winners.
This article originally published on The Kitchn. See it there: We Tried 12 Hot Cocoa Mixes — And No One Saw the Winner Coming