A few years ago some friends and I were driving around on a cold wintry day and stopped by a popular place for hot cocoa, just for fun. The waiter, with great aplomb, opened a pack of Swiss Miss into a paper cup! We were astonished, and not just because of the flair with which he tore the paper packet, but because my friend spoke at length on the drive about how great the cocoa at this particular place was. How could she have been so wrong?
There are a few silver linings to winter around here: a bone-warming fire, bowls of soup topped with melted cheese and mugs of rich hot chocolate. A great cup of hot chocolate is the best kind of winter pick-me-up. At its worst, a cup of hot chocolate is still a pretty great thing when you’re cold and worn out. To find the best, I investigated several Eugene cafés and evaluated their hot cocoa.
One challenge was establishing criteria for my hot chocolate pursuit. First of all, there is a difference between hot cocoa (traditionally powdered) and hot chocolate (traditionally melted bar chocolate), although not all establishments adhered to this nomenclature. Some are made with syrup (Metropol uses Torani brand syrup, Vero uses My Chai syrup), some with powder (Perugino uses Euphoria cocoa powder, Prince Pückler’s uses Stephen’s). Some are powder mixed with water (Espresso Roma) and some with milk (Vero and Metropol), and some places give you a choice (Prince Pückler’s). Some are made only of steamed chocolate milk, such as Dutch Bros., which uses a blend of Umpqua chocolate milk made especially for them. Some are made with decaf espresso (Wandering Goat).
To-go cups lack the presentation of the café cup and saucer. (But, really, when you need hot cocoa, how much does presentation matter? My final evaluation was ... not so much.). Some establishments offered regular hot chocolate, Mexican hot chocolate (with sugar and cinnamon) and even white hot chocolate, so your chocolate mood can also be a factor. Then there are the practical considerations such as size and price. I got smalls at each place, which varied from 8 ounces to 12 ounces, for anywhere from $1.95 to $2.75.
Sweet Life, Marché Museum Café and Full City make their own ganache, which is similar to fudge, and add that to steamed milk to make hot chocolate. Sweet Life uses Guittard chocolate powder with cinnamon for its Mexican hot chocolate, and uses a liquid for its white hot chocolate.
All tasted good, but the ganache version was the richest, and certainly the most “chocolatey.” These had a good balance of creaminess and bitterness without that slightly scorched taste that I found in some of the steamed milk versions. Marché wins for the lagniappe; whereas all establishments offered whipped cream on top, only Marché provided house-made marshmallows.
While I found a great variety of hot chocolate in Eugene, I did not find a way to determine an absolute best. Turns out, there are as many ways to make hot cocoa as there are styles of Birkenstocks, and all of them are good in a pinch. Luckily, that Swiss Miss affair was just a spot of bad luck.