28 October 2022, 16:39 PM
  • Drinking chocolate is following in coffee’s footsteps. The future is craft and bespoke says Sally-Jayne Wright
Trend Watch: Barista-grade Hot Chocolate

So you’re in the mood for hot chocolate. Will that be a 34% cocoa blend with pink pepper, thyme and sea salt, or a 72% single origin Peruvian topped with grated orange zest? Perhaps you’ll choose a white chocolate with matcha.

Hotel Chocolat, Chococo and Knoops are just three businesses with cafes where consumers can explore the delights of liquid chocolate. Lockdown accelerated this discovery. Deprived of cafés, consumers bought hot drinks equipment and drinking chocolate subscriptions. Online retailers abound; they range from well-known names like Whittard to more recent arrivals – Hotties, Love Cocoa and Calm Cocoa.

What’s behind the trend?
· Appreciation of higher cocoa solids eating chocolate
· Awareness of dark chocolate’s health benefits. Quality chocolate is rich in plant compounds with protective antioxidant properties and contains zinc, magnesium and iron. Consuming high-cocoa chocolate, rich in polyphenols, may even balance the community of microbes living in our gut known as microbiota
· Mood boosting
· Success of Hotel Chocolat’s £99.95 Velvetiser which heats and froths hot chocolate

So how do you explain the drop in retail sales of drinking chocolate, as reported in The Grocer in September? Volumes down 6.8% (Kantar 52 w/e 12 June 2022)? Some suppliers believe shoppers are losing interest in the kind of highly processed, mass-produced, middle-market brands sold in supermarkets, which are often high in sugar and low in cocoa. “Flakes (made from real chocolate rather than powder) are perceived as being a more indulgent treat,” Love Cocoa’s CEO James Cadbury told Rick Bull in The Grocer.

Whose brands do you like?
We lapped up Chococo’s 72% Ecuador dark chocolate flakes. We also enjoyed the doubly warming hit of South Devon Chilli Farm’s award-winning Chilli Drinking Chocolate and the hard-core buzz of a melt-able block of Willie’s Cacao 100% Peruvian Black.

What’s the most unusual drink you tasted?
We were blown away by Knoops zero-calorie Cacao Tea which won three Great Taste Award stars in 2021. It’s eco-friendly because it’s made from a by-product – roasted cacao husks. The aroma entices, the tea satisfies and the taste of superior Venezuelan chocolate lingers on the palate. For customers worried about their waistlines, this is the one to stock.

Post-Covid, shoppers are very health conscious.
So consider a functional option like Choc Chick Immunity Blend or Cheerful Buddha Cacao Bliss packed with superfoods. Don’t over-order. At a food hall, we came across a £19.99 pouch of antioxidant hot chocolate reduced to clear.

How does hot chocolate lift mood?
It contains theobromine, a stimulant that accelerates the heart rate and gives you a slower release boost for longer than caffeine. The darker you go, the higher the level of theobromine.

What’s the most we can charge for a cup of hot chocolate in our café?
Anything from £3.50 to £6.75 for a large cup of 100% single origin from the Solomon Islands – Knoops’ most expensive item. You can go north of a fiver if you include extras. We saw a Bailey’s Hot Chocolate for £5.20 at the Lakeside Café, Leeds, and a hot chocolate with ice cream float for £5.10 at a London ice cream parlour. A white hot chocolate sprinkled with gold dust – £3.80 at the Oaktree Coffee House in Colchester – seemed a very reasonable treat.

How do we make customers feel they’ve got value?
Could you copy Starbucks and have a hot drinks loyalty card? Or make hot chocolate part of a ‘meal deal’ and upsell croissants, cinnamon buns, luxury biscuits, waffles and churros.

What milk should we choose?
Non-dairy milk is largely consumed by those based in cities and large towns (Mintel). Knoops’ best-selling milk is full fat dairy, oat comes second, and there’s growing interest in hazelnut milk.

Any tips on suppliers?
For the café, try Firetree’s vegan oat milk chocolate drink; a 10kg bag of nibs makes 285 cups. The Chocolate Society can supply shakers, arguably as effective as Velvetisers at frothing and more affordable. With gifting needed to support sales through the cost-of-living crisis, you can bundle £25 shakers, cookbooks or mugs with pretty hot chocolate tins. Cocoba can provide stir-in chocolate spoons and hot chocolate bombes.

How else can we make the most of the trend?
- Choose products with sunflower rather than soya lecithin to sidestep potential allergens
- Curate accompaniments. For example, flapjacks complement the oaty notes in Firetree’s oat milk chocolate drink
- In summer, promote iced chocolate frappes
- Tip from Knoops: while cool hipsters may seek the complexity of single-origin hot chocolate, there are just as many fans of sweet nostalgic blends – the equivalent of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk

Will the trend last?
Yes, but only if indies and coffee houses push product differentiation. They must educate consumers about eco credentials, taste, origins and cocoa solids percentages, while offering them variants such as salted caramel, mocha and mint chocolate to make ordering fun. Not by accident does Knoops have counters inside Harrods and Selfridges where chocolate baristas help customers design their ideal fix.

Just think. One day, chocolate could have more options than coffee.