Have you been mugged by some icky cocoa lately? This Bottom Line from the archives can help prevent it from happening again.

cocoaCan eco-cocoas melt away holiday stress?Photo: Jason HoustonLet’s just say for the sake of argument, that you’re a little busy this time of year. (This is the part where you snort, as if to say, “You have no idea, sister.”) Also, let’s say that it’s cold outside where you live. (Is the pope an old German guy?) Lastly, let’s assume that, because you’re reading this on an environmental news site, you have green inclinations.

This all leads me to conclude that what you need at this very moment is a steaming cup of hot cocoa that is not only quick but also environmentally principled. (I.E., not made by the handful of corporations known as “Big Chocolate” that buy cacao from heavily sprayed plantations and pay farmers poverty wages or, worse yet, use child labor. )

For you, my frozen, frantic reader, I bullied my friends assembled a panel of tasters, one of whom brought a light-up holiday animal that resembled an electrified Westie (see photo). I supplied the organic cocoa mixes, a can of whipped cream for the kids, and an array of kitschy mugs. (Note: The kids, much to their disappointment, were left out of this tasting. I thought it best to avoid full-blown pancreatic shut-down during the holidays.)

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Please note: Most of these products were powdered mixes (just add water, milk or your “favorite non-dairy alternative”), but in one case we tried a quickie beverage made from chocolate “discs.” The mixes were largely certified organic as well. They were also, comparatively speaking, pricey. You can get a honkin’ 50-pack box (50 ounces) of Swiss Miss hot coca mix for $12.49 at Staples. (Of course, why the hell you’d want to buy any “food” at Staples is beyond me.) I paid substantially more in general for the eco hot chocolate drinks — in one case I ponied up $13.95 for 3.5 ounces (go ahead, exhale that breath you just sucked in) for the discs.

How did they taste? Read on.
Our results:
Green & Black's organic hot chocolate drinkGreen & Black’s organic hot chocolate drink
Ingredients: Organic raw cane sugar, organic fat-reduced cocoa powder, organic dark chocolate powder (organic chocolate liquor, organic raw cane sugar, organic cocoa butter, soy lecithin, (emulsifier), organic vanilla extract).
Price: $4.29 (on sale), for 5.3 ounces
Special notes: Sports the USDA organic seal. Directions call for hot milk rather than hot water, which you’d think would make your beverage somehow better.
Who knew hot cocoa mix could taste tannic? This mix made our tasters pucker.  “That’s not right,” quipped one taster who sported a festive holiday sweater. She then reached for the whipped cream. Strangest comment: “Kind of vegetal.” Most passionate comment:  “What the hell are people thinking?” Kindest comment: “It’s not that bad,” said one taster, who, it should be disclosed, was jet-lagged to the point of stupor because he had just returned from an international trip wherein he ate cicada thoraxes and chicken feet, and whose opinion no one trusted.
Dagoba organic drinking chocolateDagoba organic drinking chocolate
Ingredients: Organic cane sugar, organic coca, organic  chocolate, organic milk (less than 0.1%)
Price: $6.99 for 12 ounces
Special notes: Certified organic and fair trade certified. The directions for this mix included this line: “When the vapors of the milk rise the milk will be at its most receptive to accept the chocolate into its embrace.” Sorta sexy, in this way! This, um, sexyness, might be due to the fact that Dagoba’s eccentric founder, Frederick Schilling,  according to an inside source is “way hot.” Then again, Dagoba was bought by Hershey’s (see Big Chocolate, above.)
Again, tasters were freaked out by the smell: In this case, “like the inside of a tire.” Though the panel thought this drink was creamier than the others, some found it to have a bitter aftertaste.  The bug-eater thought it had a “more of a darker chocolate flavor.” To be fair though, this mix may have been more chocolatey because the directions called for four tablespoons of the stuff per your “favorite mug.”  (As opposed to the more common two-tablespoon-per-favorite-mug directive.)
Full Circle logoFull Circle Organic Milk Chocolate Flavor Hot Cocoa Mix
Ingredients: Organic dehydrated can juice solids, organic whey, organic non-fat dry milk, organic cocoa (processed with alkalai), sea salt, calcium carbonate, natural vanilla flavor, xanthan gum (a natural vegetable product).
Price: $3.49 for 10 1-ounce packets
Special notes: Certified organic. This is my conventional grocery store’s bargain brand of organic products. Slogan: “Return to a natural way of living.”
For those prone of nostalgia, this is the most Swiss-Missy of the cocoa mixes–or, as one taster put it, it’s “the cocoa of my youth.” Like all of the add-water mixes, its texture is depressingly thin. Overall, tasters found it to be “synthetic” and “overly sweet.” Strangest comment: “It tastes like Playdoh!” Most damning: “You can get way better stuff at the ski lodge.” Ouch.
Equal Exchange organic hot cocoaEqual Exchange Organic and Fairly Traded Hot Cocoa
Ingredients: Fair trade certified organic evaporated sugar cane juice, organic nonfat dry milk powder, fair trade certified organic cocoa-processed with alkali, organic guar gum, sea salt, organic carob bean gum, organic vanilla powder (organic vanilla extract, organic maltodextrin, organic gum Arabic).
Price: $9.29 for 12 ounces
Special notes: Equal Exchange is a worker-owned Fair Trade organization; this mix is certified organic and fair-trade certified. Container is made from recycled cardboard.
Q: “What’s that terrible smell?”
A: “I dunno, something weird.”
All in all, this product was slightly more chocolatey than the others, but also “cardboardy.” Most disaffected comment. “It has an underlying whatever.”
Pierce Brothers hot cocoaPierce Brothers Hot Cocoa
Price: $7.99 for 8 ounces
Ingredients: Organic evaporated cane juice, organic nonfat dry milk, fair trade certified organic cocoa, salt, natural flavor, guar gum.
Special notes: Fair trade and certified organic. Directions warn that “due to all natural organic ingredients, some setting (sic) may occur.”
The entire panel winced at the smell of this cocoa, which one taster said was “like ammonia.” The adjective “burned” was used most often to describe its flavor, as in “burned milk” and “burned rubber.” This un-chocolately mix actually made the tasters angry. “Who decided that this was okay?” demanded festive holiday sweater lady.  “I can’t understand how anyone would bring this to market,” scowled another taster. (Hey you kids, get off of my lawn!)
Ah!Laska organic cocoaAh!Laska Certified Organic Cocoa Chocolatey Chocolate Mix
Ingredients: Organic cane sugar, organic non-fat milk, organic cocoa powder (non-alkaline), organic rice syrup solids, xanthan gum (a natural thickener), carrageenan (a natural seaweed extract emulsifier), maltodextrin, organic vanilla powder.
Price: $7.99 for 12 ounces
Special notes: Certified organic. Cartoon mascot: AH! Bear.
Tasting results. “It’s got that smell again,” someone wailed.  Overall, the panel thought this mix was watery and without chocolate flavor.  One found it “vaguely soap-like.” The grub-eater, who evidently was taking a hatecation,  said it was “not offensive.”
Patric fine hot chocolate disksPatric Fine Hot Chocolate Disks
Ingredients: cocoa beans, cocoa powder
Price: $13.95, for 3. 5 ounces (!)
Special notes: This product is hot chocolate, not hot cocoa. We’re talking solid form here, not powder. As you might have guessed from the price, this is super-duper premium micro-batch, bean-to-bar artisinal stuff. And although it doesn’t tout its organic ingredients, its cacao from Madagascar is certified organic. (Even though organic chocolate is no tastier than conventional, according to Patric’s founder). Note also that there is no sugar in this stuff — you are trusted to add your own “to taste.” Further, the directions call for you to use an actual whisk and to serve this beverage in “small tea cups.” I’m not sure what happens if you add mini marshmallows — I think someone rings your doorbell and slaps your face with leather gloves. In other words, this is not a hot beverage for the kiddies to swill.
“No comparison!” hooted one taster. Another said, “This is the only one I’d drink regularly.” In general this non-mix, which was added to milk, yielded very rich, very creamy results. Once the giddy gratitude died down a bit, the descriptions started to sound like wine-speak: “It’s got legs!” and “lots of complexity.” Then someone mentioned the price tag. The group got quiet and a glum as we collectively realized that we had just fallen in love above our social rank. Not even the Christmas Westie could cheer us.
cocoaPhoto: Jason HoustonThe bottom line: I know it’s blustery out there and you’re busy (okay, really freakin’ busy), but if you buy hot chocolate from a mix, we can’t be friends. It’s that simple. Can you get something quick and delicious and principled? You can. It’s the Patric chocolate discs, but they’re priced like contraband and you’ll have  to have sell plasma to support your habit. Therefore, I’m going to give you an option to avoid other mixes that have that smell:  Get some cocoa powder (fair trade and organic if you’re flush) and sugar from the pantry and mix them in equal parts (say, one heaper of each per mug) in a glass measuring cup. Add a dash of vanilla. Next, add a little water and whisk it all into a syrupy liquid. Then whisk this into a pan of simmering whole milk. (For love of any god you choose, don’t use skim. Please. It’s the holidays.) Pour the result into your favorite mug (yes, it must be your favorite mug — anything less will screw this up royally). Next, bring on the whipped cream. Then, once you’re infused with warm-fellow feeling, and if you have two cents leftover, send a donation to the world-saving organization of your choice.

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