The difference between hot cocoa and drinking chocolate isn’t only in price, but also in quality and concentration of ingredients. The two products have a basic ingredient in common — cacao — but are processed and blended differently. Hot cocoa is often flat and sweet, while drinking chocolate is rich and complex in flavor, and can be sweetened or unsweetened.
Hot cocoa is both a beverage and a drink mix, which dates back to the 19th century. Before then, hot chocolate was the beverage of the nobility, made from roughly-ground cacao beans and sugar. In the early 1800’s, a Dutch chemist invented the first cocoa butter press, a machine which extracted about half the fat of cacao beans. This left behind cakes of low-fat cacao, which could be pulverized into a chocolaty powder. Soon cocoa butter found a market with cosmetics companies, rendering the cocoa powder less valuable but in high supply.
Cacao processors blended the cocoa powder with sugar and sold it as a medicinal drink. But consumers found that while sugar still dissolved well in liquids, the new powdered chocolate largely sank. Soon those same Dutch chemists invented a process for alkalizing cocoa powder, making it easier to dissolve in water. This process is now called “dutching,” and is standard for large hot cocoa manufacturers. Dutching also standardizes the flavor of cocoa powder, and neutralizes many of cacao’s nutrients and antioxidants, making the product less healthy. Cheap hot cocoa mixes are often made with low quality cacao, which isn’t good for cocoa farmers or consumers.
Cheap hot cocoa also often includes powdered milk and artificial flavors, to further standardize the flavor and lower manufacturing costs. In response, some bean to bar chocolate makers have begun making their own hot cocoa mixes with the high-fat cocoa left over from pressing single origin cocoa butter. These craft hot cocoa mixes are usually sold with just cocoa powder and a small amount of sugar, so consumers with dietary restrictions can also enjoy hot cocoa.
Drinking chocolate is different from hot cocoa in that it’s made with full-fat chocolate; none of the cocoa butter is removed. More often than not, drinking chocolate is a cup of pure chocolate, thinned out with hot milk or water, while hot cocoa mix is added in order to flavor the liquid. Before the invention of modern chocolate, most chocolate beverages were gritty, as there was no equipment to refine the chocolate down into today’s smooth product. In that sense, hot cocoa is older than modern drinking chocolate, but the latter is a more indulgent and healthy beverage.
Drinking chocolate is made in both dark and milk chocolate varieties, making it easier to buy a healthy option. Milk proteins bind with the antioxidants in cacao, making them unavailable for the body to use, so hot cocoa is inherently less healthy. Drinking Chocolate is harder to find than hot cocoa, but it’s worth the investment when you do.