Winter might not be here officially, but it sure is freaking cold outside. And with all of the snow across Canada lately (and in Buffalo), it might as well be December already. If you’re a fan of this weather, great—you’ve got it made. For some of us though, we’ve got to find our own ways of coping.
For the heat-seekers, there are usually a few things that can make winter tolerable: a vacation, food and layers upon layers of clothes (for warmth, yes, but also to hide a good ol’ winter gorge session).
‘Tis the season to be merry and there are plenty of indulgences to choose from. Let’s see, there are Christmas cookies, rum balls, various nog-related delicacies and the winter classic, a good old-fashioned cup of hot chocolate with a layer of thick whipped cream that’ll stick to your ribs.
A well-made cup is super-Canadian and nostalgic—it’s still a childhood drink of choice for sitting rink-side at a sibling’s hockey practice. Bu
t in the winter, Canada is an ice rink on its own, no matter where you turn, so hot cocoa is one of those winks to childhood that stays with us as adults. That first, hot sip is a reward we give ourselves for making it from point A to point B without slipping on ice, and it still tastes just as sweet.
We decided it was time to get to the bottom of this thick, sweet and comforting cup of joy. With so many big chain hot chocolates, who makes it the best? How do you even decide? With a list of scientific criteria (not exactly) and some determination, we spent one day trying cups from the big five: Timothy’s, Second Cup, Starbucks, Tim Hortons and McDonald’s. Did your favourite take top honour in this wintry taste test? Find out below:
Timothy’s World Coffee
First up on our tour du chocolat was the upscale Canadian coffee joint — mostly because it made the most sense on the map we’d sketched out in our head. It was also bound to be the least busy, a prediction that turned out to be correct. There was a small cup in our hands in no time. (Look, we had to go small, we were drinking five hot chocolates in a day!)
Visual: The festive cup added to the overall cheeriness, although it would have been nice if there had been some extra chocolate or nutmeg sprinkled on top for added effect. The whipped cream also seemed to sink into the drink itself, making it look less than poster-worthy.
Whipped Cream: Thick and heavy, although the serving itself could have been a little more generous.
First Smell: Immediately, we were transported to those hockey arenas of youth. The chocolate wafting up from the cup smelled sugary and inviting.
Taste: If we smelled sweet, sweet chocolate, we tasted it even more. It was the perfect mix of chocolate and sugar, without that powdered taste.
After-Taste: The sugar lingers on your tongue.
Creaminess: Perfect at the top, in part thanks to the whipped cream, but some sips were slightly watery.
Warmth: Not too hot, not too cold. Goldilocks would be proud.
Bottom Dredges: None. This was a perfectly mixed cup in terms of cohesiveness, and it was good to the last drop.
Pimp-Out Potential: The barista made the Festive Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate sound so good, but our mission was to test drive the classic cup. Note to snack lovers: this one comes with pretzel bits on top.
Cost: $3.30 for a small, after tax.
Caloric Damage: 340 calories, sans whip
Results: 3.5 mugs out of five.
Stop two of our sugar-coma binge was at this proudly Canadian company, which has free wifi. What better accompaniment to a sugary treat than a Reddit rabbithole?
Visual: There was something so cozy about the seasonal blue cup overflowing with whipped cream. We felt like we were being truly indulgent and getting a bang for our buck.
Whipped Cream: Just look at the picture! The cup was overflowing, and, well, that’s a good thing for most people.
First Smell: Sadly, aside from whipped cream, the only smell wafting from this cuppa was the cup itself, thanks to a faint whiff of plastic.
Taste: The first sip was all whipped cream. If you decide to drink this without a lid, you’re going to look like you’re trying really hard to be sexy…or potentially auditioning for an adult film. The second sip was sweet, sweet chocolate and boasted the perfect one-two punch of milk and chocolate.
After-Taste: Each sip was followed by a delightful “cool down” sensation thanks to the whipped cream. Hot, cold. Hot, cold. No scorched tongues, so the flavour can be enjoyed until the last sip.
Creaminess: Consistent throughout.
Warmth: Great at first, but the whipped cream left the bottom half of the cup warm, not hot. Or perhaps we were savouring it for too long.
Bottom dredges: The last sip was almost entirely whipped cream. (Kids will absolutely love this one.)
Pimp-out Potential: We had to ask, but their holiday version is a Candy Cane Hot Chocolate, which we’re told is a white mocha with candy cane flavouring. And no, it does not come with crushed candy canes on top. Year-round, Second Cup also boasts a white hot chocolate and a vanilla bean version for the adventurous.
Cost: $3.15 for a small after tax.
Caloric Damage: 390, including the whipped cream.
Results: 4.5 mugs out of five.
We must admit that before heading to Starbucks—located inside the busy food court—we became momentarily distracted by Jacob’s going-out-of-business sale. Having just consumed more than half a day’s worth of calories in two small cups, we figured trying on some clothes would help burn some of them off. Instead, we just realized that trying to squeeze into a holiday dress after eating a bunch of whipped cream is exactly how it sounds: like, a really terrible idea.
Visual: The chocolate swirl on top just makes life a little bit better, doesn’t it?
Whipped Cream: A very generous and thick amount.
First Smell: Rather than wafting hot chocolate, the only detectable whiff was of chocolate syrup — like the bottled stuff you put on ice cream that gets immediately hard — and whipped cream.
Taste: The first sip was a combo of syrup, hot chocolate and whipped cream, but it was all a little bit chalky. Despite the sheer amount of sugar in the cup, this one tasted more like dark chocolate than the others.
After-Taste: A little grainy on the tongue.
Creaminess: This cup was the thickest of the bunch, with a textured flavour that didn’t feel completely blended.
Warmth: Nice and hot all of the way through, despite the cool whipped cream.
Bottom dredges: Lots of whipped cream at the bottom, but there were no leftover chocolate grains.
Pimp-out Potential: Again we had to ask, but the pleasant barista informed us that there is a seasonal Peppermint Hot Chocolate or a year-round Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate that he’d fully recommend trying next time. And if we didn’t like it, we could order something else for free.
Cost: $3.40 for a tall
Caloric Damage: 230 calories, sans whip
At this point of our 24-hour hot cocoa taste test, texts were sent to loved ones: “My tummy hurts,” complained one taste tester.
“You’re probably giving yourself diabetes,” her husband wrote back, nonplussed.
Visual: We don’t think we necessarily need to point out that this isn’t the prettiest looking of the bunch (see photo).
Whipped Cream: If Tim Horton’s offers it, we didn’t get any and weren’t asked if we wanted it.
First Smell: This was just like the machine hot chocolate that you used to be able to get at hockey arenas — sugary and inviting and everything an eight-year-old could ever want.
Creaminess: This was the thinnest of the bunch, but still smooth…like it had been made with water instead of milk.
Warmth: Too hot. Way too hot. We could barely hold the cup because it was burning our hands. Even though we let it sit without a lid, we couldn’t sip it for about 20 minutes.
Taste: The chocolate and sugar were very pronounced, but in a more refined white sugar, grocery store birthday cake kind of way. For a second, we actually wondered if there was more sugar in this one than the others, but we quickly got distracted by a poor guy falling outside on the snow-covered sidewalk.
After-Taste: Sugar, sugar and more sugar.
Bottom Dredges: The powdery mix accumulated at the bottom, making the final sip pretty unbearable.
Pimp-Out Potential: The menu boasts a dark version, and there’s also a candy cane-flavoured option that comes with crushed candy canes on top that melt into a painterly pattern on top.
Cost: $1.60 for a small
Caloric Damage: 240 calories
Results: Two mugs out of five
“If you don’t hear from me, it’s because I’m passed out in a sugar coma on the escalator,” one taste tester e-mailed to a colleague. Next up: the McCafé inside Walmart.
Visual: The pretty, chocolate powder on top of this guy was our favourite of the bunch. The loyalty card and sticker sort of took away from the festive feel, however.
Whipped Cream: Loads of it, which surprised us, given McDonald’s tendency to do everything fast. We had expected a quick spurt of whipped cream as an afterthought, but we were so wrong.
First Smell: After accidentally inhaling some of the chocolate powder with the first smell, the second consisted of whipped cream goodness with a hint of chocolate.
Taste: At first we thought we had received a flavoured version of their hot chocolate by accident, although it was impossible to detect what that flavour might be. Eventually, we decided that the drink tasted a little bit like those boxed chocolates, the ones filled with liquor, but after you’ve sucked out the filling. Almost like what we imagine plastic chocolate would taste like.
After-Taste: Like plastic was coating the inside of our mouths.
Creaminess: Once we got past the taste, it was definitely creamy — like it had been made with milk instead of water. Not as thick as Starbucks, but thicker than Timothy’s.
Warmth: Hot, but not too hot. We’d say it would be the perfect temperature to warm you up after being outside.
Bottom dredges: There were some, but not enough to throw off the overall taste.
Pimp-out Potential: For those feeling festive, there’s a Peppermint Deluxe Hot Chocolate now available as well.
Cost: $2.30 for a small.
Caloric Damage: 210, sans whip.
Results: One mug out of five.
So who’s the overall winner? *drum roll*
Second Cup, by a measly half a mug. Although we would have probably given it a higher rating if there had been slightly less whipped cream. And the results could be skewed based on the mission: five cups of hot chocolate in one day is a tall order. As it was, we were happy to have walked to the mall in the first place. Having just drank probably two days worth of calories (and what was probably a week’s worth of fat), a short, brisk walk before coming down from the sugar high was exactly what our bodies needed. You might want to stick to one cup.