Hot Chocolate Not Just Swiss Miss Anymore

Hot chocolate’s a hot item at America's upscale eateries, and everyone's trying to plop their own marshmallows into the mix.

The comforting, steaming beverage of childhood winter nights has gotten a sexy makeover from the biggest names in the hot-drink business, and the public is slurping it up.

Starbucks unveiled its Chantico (search) brand of hot chocolate in early January. At the same time, urban bakery Au Bon Pain began offering a trio of high-end cocoa drinks under the movie-worthy title of "Choco Bon Loco: A Crazy Chocolate Experience." (search) And specialty boutiques and other retailers have also been stirring their sweetness into the pot.

“We know there are many Starbucks (search) customers who are big chocolate fans, so what we saw was something the customers led us to,” said Starbucks director of hot beverages Rob Grady.

Joan Steuer, president of Chocolate Marketing, a chocolates consulting firm, said the U.S. thirst for high-quality rich stuff is the result of several trends, among them a need to escape, even if just for a while.

“One [trend] would be the nostalgia for comfort food, for a familiar sort of pick-me-up or calm-me-down — and holding a frothy mug of hot chocolate from childhood is something we all enjoy," she said.

Au Bon Pain (search) vice president of marketing Jim Fisher, who drew a clear line between mere hot chocolate and premium drinking chocolate, says the new hot chocolates meet the growing sophistication of American tastes.

“People are eating out more and more, and as they eat out more, they get exposed to more things and their palate adjusts to the variety,” Fisher said. “They begin to appreciate the subtle differences between hot chocolate and a chocolate drink.”

But there’s also the non-quite-intuitive health angle. Fisher noted that his company’s premium chocolate drinks are flavored and sweetened with ingredients like vanilla — and without sugar, unlike packaged cocoas.

Plus, recent medical research suggests that chocolate, once thought of as a fatty temptation, might actually be good for you, Steuer said.

“Dark chocolate and cocoa used to be indulgent, but now it can be heart-healthy as well,” she said. “Of course, the flip side is the devil-may-care element: It’s indulgent and wonderful, thick and blissfully rich, a timeout, a reward, an escape.”

Either way, people who buy premium hot chocolates aren’t looking for the most calorie-conscious options in the first place, and ought to compare Chantico’s nutritional data to brownies and cakes rather than to other beverages, Grady said.

“It really is a drinkable dessert,” he said.

Although new trends certainly have helped to shape the hot-chocolate renaissance, the companies say they also reached back into history to brew up their latest creations.

Consumed by the Aztecs as a ritual infusion of cocoa extract and various spices, xocolatl was a bitter concoction considered food for the gods — the emperor Montezuma drank 50 goblets of it daily.

Cortez brought it back to Spain, where monks sweetened the dark delight with sugar and vanilla. Kept at first as a highly guarded secret by the Spanish monks, hot chocolate spread throughout Europe by the mid-17th century, established as a drink fit for royals.

In Spain today, xocolata houses are still bustling meeting grounds that get daily visits from locals.

The bittersweet, almost muddy beverages served at such cafes inspired Starbucks’ Chantico, Grady said. And Au Bon Pain’s Choco Bon Loco, designed by a renowned American artisanal chocolatier, also traces it roots to European traditions — a far cry from the watery brown stuff that comes in packets, according to Fisher.

“If you’ve got kids, Swiss Miss is great,” he said. “But people are intelligent, and they’ll make that commitment for something that is superior and offers a better experience.”

There is a downside to increased sophistication. The fancier hot chocolates require a lot more work to prepare than the simple pour-‘em-out-and-mix-‘em brands, meaning an ill-trained staff has more opportunities to turn a more complicated product into a less enjoyable one.

Chuen Yeh, a 31-year-old graphic designer from Queens, N.Y., tried one of the high-end chocolate drinks, but decided to stick with a more traditional hot beverage.

"I'd rather have tea," she said.

Others take issue with the cost of the new brews.

"It cost more than half the price of my lunch," said a staffer who ordered a Choco Bon Loco.

Fisher admitted that the $2.99-a-mug price isn’t cheap -- but he said it's still a bargain for chocolate lovers.

“This is like drinking stout versus a Budweiser,” he said. “It’s the difference between a chocolate candy and a truffle.”