October 6, 2020

What Is A Mocha?


Coffee and chocolate have plenty in common. Both come from plants that thrive in equatorial tropical countries, both are sought after for their beans, and both are roasted to unlock their true potential.

There is also sometimes an overlap in flavour. Chocolate is a common tasting note used when talking about coffee. Therefore, it seems natural that we would combine chocolate and coffee to create a beverage.

The most well-known combination of the two is the mocha. I spoke to baristas and café owners to learn more about the mocha, how it’s made, and how people think it might evolve. Read on to learn more.

You may also like Fine Chocolate Meets Specialty Coffee: A New Kind of “Hot Cocoa”

View from a city in Middle East, mocha

Where Does The Word “Mocha” Come From?

While today we associate the word “mocha” with a beverage, the word actually comes from a location: the city of al-Makha or Mocha, in Yemen. 

Mocha is a coastal city and a trading port that lies along the Red Sea. It was the world’s major coffee marketplace from the 15th to the early 18th century. During this time period, arabica coffee that was grown at high altitudes in the mountainous regions of central Yemen was named after the port and sold as “Mocha coffee”. 

Today, we have identified Mocha (or Arabian Mocha) as one of the oldest varieties of the Coffea arabica plant. Mocha plants are short with small berries and leaves, and have reasonably low productivity levels. While not all Yemeni coffee was of the Mocha variety, confusion and the name of the port led to it being labelled as such. 

At this point in time, coffee drinkers around the world described Yemeni coffee as having an earthy or chocolatey flavour. However, this is about as close as Yemen or the city of Mocha get to the modern definition of the mocha.

It is a lot more difficult to find authoritative information on the history of the mocha beverage (or the caffe mocha, to give it its proper name). However, most often, it is traced back to 18th century Italy, where a combination of espresso, milk, and drinking chocolate/cocoa were served in a small glass.

This beverage was originally known as a bicerin or bavareisa. It wasn’t until 1892 that the caffe mocha was first referred to in a Betty Crocker recipe.

Person chopping chocolate, mocha

How Do You Make A Mocha?

Kaley Gann is the Retail Manager of two Ceremony Coffee cafés in Baltimore, Maryland. She defines the mocha as “a drink made with a double shot of espresso, chocolate (syrup, drinking chocolate, or shavings) and steamed milk”.

Depending on customer preference and the café or barista serving it, the drink may be served as is, or topped with a dusting of cocoa powder, whipped cream, chocolate syrup/shavings, or marshmallows.

The type of chocolate used will differ from café to café. For instance, coffee shops may choose to use melted chocolate rather than a powder or a syrup, which naturally requires more preparation time.

Kaley says: “Mochas range from those that have more of a drinking chocolate texture to those made with straight-up dark chocolate syrup. At Ceremony, we use Monin because it has reliable and reputable quality and appeals to a wide customer base.”

Edgars Kazlausks is a barista and coffee roaster based in the UK. He says that while the preparation might vary from café to café, it is important that the final drink is well-balanced.

Edgars says: “The best approach to making a mocha is starting by mixing chocolate with espresso and then topping it up with milk.

“It is all about ratios – if [the] ratios are off, it doesn’t matter how good the rest is.”

The Barista Institute’s mocha recipe adds 20ml of chocolate sauce to a cup, following it with a single shot of espresso and steamed milk. Edgars recommends using a “mid to full body, mid to low acidity coffee”, while Kasey prefers an espresso with a rich, nutty, and chocolatey profile – such as a Central or South American single-origin. 

She adds: “If the chocolate in use is brighter and more vibrant, I think there would be more wiggle room with the espresso (perhaps a brighter single-origin, like a natural Ethiopian). It all depends on the flavour of the chocolate.”

Tyler Smith is the owner of Lucky’s Coffee Roasters in Upland, California. He says: “The choice of espresso makes all the difference in the world. Since we want this type of drink to accentuate the chocolate flavour in collaboration with our espresso, we use a medium roast, single-origin Brazilian with a natural aroma and tasting notes of chocolate and nuts.”

You can also vary the flavour of a mocha by changing the type of chocolate you use. While mochas are often made using high-cocoa chocolate (French restaurant guide producer Michelin recommends at least 70%), this does not have to be the case.

Mochas can be created with white chocolate (a white mocha), or even by combining white and dark chocolate (a “zebra” mocha).

Tyler tells me that many variations of the mocha become what he considers “dessert drinks” when ingredients like whipped cream, chocolate shavings, or chocolate syrup are added.

Who Does The Mocha Appeal To?

Kaley says: “The mocha appeals to those who don’t usually like a strong coffee taste but seek bitterness balanced with sweetness and a caffeine kick. 

“The mocha [can often be] a gateway drink to more coffee-focused beverage. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with it not being a gateway drink. Coffee and chocolate make a delicious combo.” 

Edgars, however, describes it as a “dreamer’s coffee”. He notes that it’s “great as a winter drink”.

When asked how it would evolve, Edgars says he thinks there’s said there was a chance that it could get “shorter”.

“I see it growing in popularity [among those aged] 25 and up. I think it will [increasingly] be seen as an energy booster… if this is the case, it will decrease in volume and become something like a ‘mocha cortado’.”

Kaley notes that the mocha is a great base for experimentation. “I like cafes that offer a creative, coffee-forward twist to the mocha while also offering a [standard] mocha that people know and love.

“I would love to see more creative mochas. However, a more traditional mocha option should always remain on menus, especially for cafés that have been around for a while.

“We should recognise that long-term customers are not always receptive to change, and some may find a more complicated version of their favourite drink to be intimidating.”

It is recommended that customers check the ingredients used in a mocha before purchasing one. Some sold by popular coffee shop chains contain more than 50g of sugar – that’s more than double the recommended daily amount for an adult.

Demand for drinks made with both coffee and chocolate is unlikely to decrease anytime soon. They have been perennially popular, and this is likely to be the case well into the future.

The mocha is a café classic. Its ingredients make it a perfect platform for baristas or even homebrewers to experiment. It has already evolved several times in the last 200 years, since it was first drunk as bicerin or bavareisa in Italy. It will be interesting to see what the next few decades have in store for it and how it changes to suit modern tastes and trends.

Enjoyed this? Then read Dark, Milk, White… & Ruby? The Different Chocolates Explained

Photo credits: Nisa Yeh, Brian Harrington Spier, Ginny, Cloud Sheperd, Edsel Little, Tyler Smith

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