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I tried 5 coffee chains' hot chocolate, and the best was rich and creamy without being too sweet

Katherine Tangalakis-Lippert   

I tried 5 coffee chains' hot chocolate, and the best was rich and creamy without being too sweet
  • I tried cocoa from Starbucks, Peet's, Coffee Bean, Dunkin', and Krispy Kreme to find the best one.
  • Starbucks' cocoa had hints of dark chocolate bitterness, while Coffee Bean's was thicker and sweeter.

It's officially sweater weather, which means its time to ditch iced coffee in favor of a warmer drink. For those of us trying desperately to cut back on caffeine, the humble classic, hot cocoa, is a top-tier choice.

If you're not looking for the best store-bought hot chocolate to make a cup at home — in which case the runaway winner, in my opinion, is Nestlé's oft-overlooked Abuelita Mexican Hot Chocolate — or making it yourself from scratch using a celebrity chef's recipe, it's easiest to hit up a national coffee chain for a sip of the glorious cold-weather drink.

I like my hot chocolate rich, but not overly sweet, with a creamy milk base and topped with whipped cream and, ideally, chocolate shavings. So I tried five national coffee chains in search of the cup that felt the most like a warm hug, hitting all the luxurious chocolate notes one craves without being a one-note sugar bomb.

What I found might prevent me from traveling to the East Coast for the foreseeable future, but I stand by my assessment. You'll have to try for yourself, but here are the five cups of hot chocolate from each coffee chain, ranked from worst to best:

The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf

In defense of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, they have plenty of drinks and snacks on their menu that taste good. This isn't one I'd revisit — though other members of my household disagree so, as always, your mileage may vary.

The Coffee Bean's $4.25 cup of hot chocolate defaults to using nonfat milk, mixed with chocolate powder and topped with a simple whipped cream.

But somehow, this hot cocoa was much thicker in consistency than the others, coating the mouth with an extremely sweet chocolate flavor that tasted to me like melted Cadbury milk chocolate.

I couldn't take more than a sip or two, though I could see someone with a sweeter tooth than mine — which is admittedly hard to come by — thoroughly enjoying the taste.

Pete's Coffee

I had hoped for more out of Peet's Coffee, expecting a diner-style cup of cocoa from the smaller chain, but what I got was just fine. Average. Plain.

The barista emptied a nondescript brown pouch of chocolate powder into the cup and added warm 2% milk, then stirred with a spoon before topping with canned whipped cream and handing it to me.

Tied with Starbucks as the most expensive cup at $4.45, the hot chocolate I got from Pete's Coffee offered less flourish than I would have made myself at home.

While sweeter than Starbucks and Krispy Kreme, Pete's Coffee's hot chocolate had a simple, inoffensive flavor, but there was nothing special about it.


Dunkin' had the friendliest staff, but let's be honest — the cocoa was mid (because Dunkin' stays average.)

The barista at the donut empire said the chain defaults to using hot water instead of milk in its $3.69 cup of cocoa. And while Dunkin' was the only chain to offer a topping accompanying the whipped cream — mocha syrup drizzle — you could tell the base was made without milk.

It also nearly burned my tongue and was by far the hottest cup of chocolate of the day.

Without the dairy, Dunkin' hot chocolate was less creamy, though it had an intense chocolate flavor, a likely benefit of the syrup on top.

Krispy Kreme

Krispy Kreme surprised me, as it's a chain I rarely visit, but it came in second place for its overall flavor.

At $3.55, the doughnut chain's medium-sized cocoa was less expensive than the other major hot chocolate movers, but it rose above almost all of them by using a Ghirardelli powder base with steamed 2% milk.

It was served warm, not hot, and had whipped cream but not sprinkles or drizzle.

The no-frills cocoa at Krispy Kreme had more flavor nuance than Peet's, Dunkin', and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf without having quite the complexity that Starbucks does.


I didn't want it to be Starbucks — and I say that as a gold-level rewards card member who believes in the value of the omnipresent coffee chain. But I wanted a dark horse contender who rose through the ranks to cinch the top spot; I wanted to be proven wrong.

I suppose I didn't want the answer to be that basic, but, alas, Starbucks made me the best cup of hot cocoa of all five I tried.

And at $4.45 for a grande after tax, and coming from the most significant US coffee chain, I guess it should be.

Starbucks' cocoa is made, by default, with steamed whole milk mixed with house-made mocha syrup, then topped with whipped cream. Though notably missing any unique toppings like a chocolate syrup swirl or marshmallow, which would undoubtedly heighten the experience, this hot chocolate was rich and creamy without being too sweet.

The drink had some back-end bitter notes that I could see making my opinion controversial, but having layers of flavor made Starbucks' hot cocoa more enjoyable than the others.

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