January 23, 2018

Fine Chocolate Meets Specialty Coffee: A New Kind of “Hot Cocoa”


Chocolate deserves to be more than just an addition to a mocha or cappuccino. With its diverse notes and aromas (not to mention the impact of roasting and brewing on the final cup!), a fine chocolate beverage is a delicious sensory experience. Specialty coffee shops and fine chocolate shops alike will benefit from putting them on the menu.

But what’s the best way to serve chocolate drinks? How can we use specialty coffee principles to improve our cacao-brewing? And how can we blend traditional chocolate recipes with modern-day expectations?

Let’s turn to Mexico, where chocolate drinks have been consumed for almost 4,000 years, to discover the answers to these questions.

Lee este artículo en español Chocolate y Café de Especialidad: Un Nuevo “Chocolate Caliente”

Roasted cacao

Roasted cacao at Valle Encantado in Tabasco, México. Credit: Héctor Frappé, Ruta Origen

Chocolate & Coffee: A Beautiful Marriage

Those of us lucky enough to have tasted a coffee cherry, or even just an exceptional specialty coffee, can remember the pleasure and surprise it gave us. All those flavors and sensations that we didn’t realize coffee could possess – for the first time, we were really tasting them.

You might also like: A Beginner’s Guide to Cacao & Chocolate Flavour Profiles

And for me, the first time I tasted cacao fruit wasn’t so different.  

Yet I soon learned that this wasn’t the only similarity between coffee and chocolate. The structure of the fruit, the processes of fermentation and drying, the roasting curves, and even some of the tools and equipment used in both industries… there are many parallels to be found.

Learn more! Read How Is Your Chocolate Bar Made?

Cacao Fruit

A small cacao fruit appears shortly after floration. Credit: Héctor Frappé, Ruta Origen

I first realized this in a conversation with Ana Parizot and Alejandro Campos of Chocolates Wolter and Santiago Sota of Drip Specialty Coffee. We had decided to try some chocolate while Santiago brewed coffee for us – and we were all surprised by the enormous potential that we discovered. The two items, both delicious on their own, made a beautiful marriage.

And the potential this holds for third wave café owners and chocolatiers is evident. In fact, some of Mexico’s best coffee shops are already experimenting with it.

Cacao Bean

Examining a white cacao bean at Hacienda la Luz. Credit: Héctor Frappé, Ruta Origen  

Chocolate Drinks Brewed Like Specialty Coffee

Lugo works as a barista in Mexico City, where he experiments with cacao drinks and works to get them on the menu in specialty coffee shops. As part of this, he collaborates with the Academia Mexicana del Cacao to host events.

“We seek to generate beverages that generate different sensory expressions, as in coffee…” he tells me. “Cacao drinks can deliver floral or fruity notes, acidity and other characteristics similar to those of a coffee extraction. As baristas, we look for drink profiles that do not taste like industrial chocolate and that [instead] deliver different notes and profiles.”

He uses coffee brewing methods, such as pour overs, to brew cacao husk or prepare cacao infusions.

You might also like: How to Cup Cascara & Evaluate Quality

When I ask Lugo about cacao husk, he tells me, “For example, for a V60, you get a cleaner and floral cup with a brilliant acidity, where you can usually highlight notes with sweet and fruity flavors, such as honey or red fruits. [The notes you get] are very different from [when] brewing in an immersion method.”

Just like when he prepares coffee, Lugo pays attention to wide range of factors: the cacao dose, the water temperature, the pour time… All of this, he says, directly affects the taste of the cup, What’s more, the amount of theobromine – chocolate’s primary alkaloid, which acts like a stimulant – will depend on the extraction level.

When making hot chocolate, he’s also careful to use quality cacao powder, which he explains has a different flavor and texture compared to commodity-grade cocoa powder. It preserves the notes of origin and has far greater complexity.

Barista brewing coffee

Lugo uses a Chemex to brew cacao husks at Centro Café. Credit: Alfredo Cordero

Traditional Drinks Brewed With Fine Cacao

Yet coffee shops can serve up a far greater variety of chocolate-based drinks than just hot chocolates and cacao husk infusions. Cacao beverages have been part of Mexican tradition and gastronomy since pre-Hispanic times. And today, ancient recipes are being crafted with fine chocolate for a modern consumer.

Take Quarari Xocolateria Mexicana, in Mexico City: a bar that specializes in using high-quality cocoa from Soconusco, Chiapas. Like Lugo, the team here also collaborates with the Academia Mexicana del Cacao. Traceability is key to their work.

And so too is great chocolate. “We use a cocoa with great acidity, fruity notes, and a light consistency,” says Lidia Angeles, Co-Founder.

One of the offerings on their menu – in addition to delicious 100% hot chocolate, of course – is pozol. This is a traditional drink from south-eastern Mexico, made from cacao and maize. Then there’s tascalate, a traditional drink from Chiapas. While you’ll find many variations on this beverage, at Quarari, they use cacao, corn, annatto (a local spice often described as peppery, nutty, or sweet), cinnamon, and chili.

These drinks have been prepared and consumed locally since pre-Hispanic times. In fact, many people today – including farmers – drink them for breakfast. They are considered a complete meal, since they have many different food groups in them.

And now they are opening a door to the world of fine chocolate.

Cacao producing family

A cacao-producing family from Valle Encantado, Tabasco prepare pozol. Credit: Héctor Frappé, Ruta Origen

Opportunities Lie Ahead

Where better than Mexico, where chocolate has been drunk for millennia, to explore the world of fine cacao beverages? Yet even here, challenges remain.

Lidia tells me that convincing consumers will be instrumental in creating a better, more developed, and equitable cacao industry. Yet many customers remain dubious of chocolate’s potential for complexity – and  of the importance of using high-quality products. Awareness of fine cacao is limited, with industrial chocolate dominating the market.

However, there is also great potential, especially in the specialty coffee market, where consumers with trained palates and high expectations are looking for unique taste experiences. The average specialty coffee drinker wants to taste the origin and also the impact of roasting and processing. They’re willing to listen, understand, and evaluate new offerings.

And with the specialty coffee industry’s equipment and understanding of extraction, the pairing of coffee and cacao could elevate both drinks to new heights.

Enjoyed this? Discover more! Read A Beginner’s Guide to Cacao & Chocolate Flavour Profiles

Written by Gerardo Ibarra of Ruta Origen.

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