Good Bad Hot Cocoa

Nestlé Chocolate Caramel and Dark Chocolate Hot Cocoa Mixes

Nestlé Chocolate Caramel and Dark Chocolate Hot Cocoa Mixes

I Paid: $1.99 for eight 0.91-ounce envelopes (prices may vary by region)

Taste: 4 stars

Marketing: 3 stars

Thanks to an explosion in the specialty chocolate market, the number of hot chocolate options is growing by the day. They start at that big ol’ family-sized canister of store-brand cocoa powder and range all the way to the handcrafted cups of $5 luxury hot chocolate like they sell at L.A. Burdick in Harvard Square, Cambridge, and Walpole, New Hampshire. (Your home region may have something similar: a high-end “drinking chocolate” with an unctuous mouthfeel, a strong, soulful kick of real chocolate, and about 21,000 calories.)

Typically, though, when you make hot chocolate at home or in the office, you’re going to go for an inexpensive, instant variety to which you just add hot water. Along those lines, we sampled two of Nestlé’s three new hot cocoa varieties to see where they clocked in on the big spectrum of hot cocoa excellence. It’s hard to expect much from anything packaged in individual paper envelopes by an international conglomerate (and in which corn syrup solids play a starring role), but if there’s anything we’ve learned after a few years of sampling the wares of megamarts, it’s that lowbrow treats don’t all suck.

Lo and behold, against the bland, sweetened, brown-water-style cocoa presented by the likes of Swiss Miss, the new Nestlé flavors stand up quite well. The Chocolate Caramel variety has a silkier mouthfeel than your typical low-end cocoa, and is a solid step ahead of expectations. The caramel element is faint but present, appearing around the edges and in the aftertaste; flavor-wise this is one of the better mass-produced cocoas on the market.

The Dark Chocolate is not quite as tasty, at least off the bat. It does have a nice dark brown color and a slightly bitter, cocoa-y flavor, but it tastes undersweetened and a bit watery. There’s a simple solution, however: add mini marshmallows (not included). Mini marshmallows make your typical hot cocoa mix taste overly sweet, but they balance the Nestlé Dark Chocolate cocoa and give it a little more creamy body.

You’ve gotta hand it to Nestlé: While not masterful in any absolute sense, the company’s new flavored hot chocolates chase the chill away on a cold day with a modest amount of uniqueness.

James Norton edits the Upper Midwestern food journal Heavy Table. He's also the coauthor of a book on Wisconsin's master cheesemakers. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.