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The history of hot chocolate

Luxurious and indulgent, hot chocolate is always a real treat. Hot chocolate. It’s the taste of sweet memories. The spoon bursting through the foil seal of a container. A steaming mug topped with whipped cream outside a café on a chilly day. A cosy night in with a loved one in front of the fire. As autumn – prime hot chocolate season – settles in, we at Caffeine thought it timely to unearth the pleasures of this wonderful drink often overlooked by the coffee industry.

Evidence tells us that chocolate was first drunk almost 3,000 years ago in the Americas, when the Mesoamericans consumed it at room temperature and revered it for its healing and medicinal properties. The British and Dutch acquired a taste for chocolate in the 1700s when, like coffee, hot chocolate came to Europe through colonialism.

Chocolate’s first recorded appearance in England was in 1657, and it was originally the preserve of the rich few who could afford it. At first, it was drunk hot, sweet and laced with cinnamon and a range of other ingredients from jasmine flowers and vanilla to musk and ambergris, according to contemporary recipes (the earthy flavouring derived from, er, sperm whale vomit).

This was around the same time coffee gained traction in Europe, so it was served in coffee houses, but it was more expensive and hence less popular – perhaps the beginning of its association with luxury.

Powder source

The production of cocoa powder began in 1828, and slowly industrialisation and technical developments led to chocolate becoming increasingly accessible. This process brought extensive practical benefits in terms of smoothness in texture and ease of making, but much of the chocolate is low-grade – even some of the stuff advertised as “premium” – and it’s often mixed with additives such as vegetable fats and blanded out by processes like alkalisation or “dutching”. It can also be grown in appalling conditions in West Africa, sometimes using child labour or slavery.

In recent years, however, we have seen the rise of bean-to-bar chocolate makers, many of which are small businesses that control every detail of the chocolate production and trade directly with their producers. This is in complete contrast to industrialised processed chocolate – and, you’ll no doubt have spotted, much more like the journey of the speciality coffee in your cup. 

It’s been a real wrench, but we’ve forced ourselves to undertake extensive and painstaking research into the current state of hot chocolate in London so we can give you our recommendations. We focused on great-tasting hot chocolate made primarily with cocoa solids, sugar and milk or dairy alternatives, avoiding lower-grade powders of indeterminate origin, alkalised chocolate and ingredients such as palm oil. It was impossible to be as comprehensive as we’d have liked, so if we missed your favourite please let us know on social media. 

Meet the makers

Craft chocolate is made by small producers, often from cacao beans. These are usually small businesses and may be involved in direct trade with producers, or at the very least, concerned with the transparency of origin and paying cacao producers a premium for quality. Although blends often make for great hot chocolate, craft makers tend to focus on single origins. The parallels with speciality coffee, again, are obvious. 

“This revival of the craftsman’s approach to making chocolate, the pursuit of quality, origin and terroir, has come to be known as the chocolate revolution and took shape around 2003, although there were a few precursors,” says Terese Weiss of Chocolate Unpacked. “It also includes ethical and sustainable business models built around direct trade, premium prices, mutual profit sharing, social engagement and making the best possible product at source. As such craft chocolate is experiencing a similar change to third-generation coffee, which is good news for hot chocolate drinkers too.”

A great example is the craft hot chocolate at Milk Beach in Queen’s Park. The combination of Original Beans Piura Porcelana from Peru in the form of chocolate discs (supplied by Cocoa Runners) with steamed Estate Dairy milk is superb. The same recipe is used by Prufrock in Clerkenwell, but the difference here is as simple as a smaller cup: the 6oz cup used by Milk Beach enhances the chocolate flavour and the refreshing raspberry and lime notes of the chocolate, which goes well with the elegant setting of the coffee shop (and a Little Bread Pedlar pastry). Original Beans is a company immensely respected for its ethical business and quality chocolate – see our mocha feature on page 28.

Lucocoa’s Ama Uzowuru creates her chocolate using carefully sourced cacao with coconut sugar and a superfood called lucuma. Ama has partnered with Joshua Tarlo of Origin to create a special hot chocolate for Origin’s coffee shops and, as she told us, “It was really exciting developing this hot chocolate with Joshua. We wanted to develop something that was truly unique and achieve a balance of ensuring that the hot chocolate or mocha drinker gets exactly what they are looking for from the chocolate while also bringing in complex flavours which enhance the drink and takes it up a few notches. 

“We tried a variety of cacao beans from Guatemala and Dominican Republic but really fell in love with the flavour profile of the Haitian cacao with its warm, fig, caramel flavour profile.”

Living off the Land

Land Chocolate, produced in Bethnal Green, is one of the best hot chocolates we’ve tasted. You can try it at Pavilion’s sites around London, Kiss The Hippo in Richmond, Lanark in Bethnal Green, Visions Canteen and Bulldog Edition in Shoreditch, Pophams in Islington, Good & Proper Tea in Clerkenwell, The Common E2 and Wulf & Lamb in Mayfair. 

Browns of Brockley, meanwhile, uses Menakao, a fruity chocolate grown, processed and packaged in Madagascar. Elsewhere, Damson’s hot chocolate is currently available at Parcafé at the Dorchester, Gianluca’s Coffee Cult in Fulham and Thomas’ Café at Burberry on Regent Street. Workshop Coffee works closely with Pump Street Chocolate on hot chocolate and special coffee chocolate bars, while Pump Street also works with Colonna & Smalls in Bath.

Although it is based in Milton Keynes, special mention should also go to Out of Office Coffee, which is especially serious about good-quality hot chocolate. Noticing that hot chocolate was often ordered for children, Out of Office created different hot chocolate recipes for children and adults to avoid compromising taste and quality.

See you at the bar

Chocolatiers work with a range of chocolate providers to make bars and confectionery, as well as drinking chocolate. While the ones we list here are transparently focused on sourcing and ethical trading, it is always worth asking about where the chocolate is sourced from when you order.

The Peanut Vendor in Bow uses chocolate from Coco Chocolatier, which is hand-flaked single-origin Colombian chocolate mixed with Valrhona cocoa powder. The Colombian chocolate is sourced ethically – Coco visits plantations in Colombia on annual basis. 

We tried the Aztec drinking chocolate, served in an 8oz glass and infused with cinnamon and vanilla – and packing a vibrant punch of chilli. Each flavour note works harmoniously with the others, and its chilli notes are perfect for the colder weather. This works best with oat milk. 

The naturally fruity-tasting Rococo hot chocolate is made from shavings taken from Rococo’s chocolate bars, and is a blend from different origins and sources. Rococo chocolate is used to create hot chocolate by Store Street Espresso, The Penny Drop in Fitzrovia and Rococo’s own cafés. Paul A Young’s hot chocolate, which is unusual in being water-based with a customised spice mix added on demand, is also definitely worth a try.

Kokoa Collection is a great introduction to the world of single-origin drinking chocolates. Sometimes that might be as wide as a country, sometimes a single cooperative, but its chocolate is always a crowd-pleaser – easy drinking, accessible real chocolate. It’s served throughout London but we particularly enjoyed it at Vagabond N7, Press Coffee, Campbell & Syme in East Finchley and Urban Baristas.

Easy access

But sometimes, all we want is a soothingly sweet cup of chocolate, just like mother used to make; no fuss, no complexity of flavour – just hot and chocolatey. Consumer-friendly larger-scale production chocolate is often more accessible than small-batch production with its bright, slightly acidic tinges. 

Valrhona is a large French company making a wide variety of chocolate from a range of sources. It is best experienced at Catalyst Coffee in Holborn, where it’s often combined with homemade syrups such as a scotch bonnet chilli. Hotel Café Royal in Piccadilly also serves Valrhona in three special eye-catching and sweet recipes – but these are very much priced at the luxury end.

Hotel Chocolat is a well-known chain of stores serving chocolate with a variety of sourcing and quality. We really enjoyed the chocolate focus of its Monmouth Street store – there, you can order chocolate based on cocoa percentage and origin. We’d recommend the coconut milk option. Hotel Chocolat also runs Rabot 1745 in Borough Market.

SAID dal 1923 in Soho is a chocolate experience that’s popular day and night. It might not offer the most flavoursome product, but drinking SAID’s thick chocolate from small espresso cups, surrounded by other chocoholics, you feel a sense of chocolate community. Chocolate options are gianduja (hazelnut), milk and dark, and we’d recommend ordering the smallest size – this isn’t for the faint-hearted.

Even when the chocolate itself doesn’t offer much in terms of a complexity of flavour, it offers satisfying texture and pleasure. As Terese Weiss says, “However you enjoy your hot chocolate, pleasure is always the priority.” 

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