There's nothing quite as nostalgic or comforting as a steaming cup of hot chocolate on a chilly afternoon. Whether you're huddled around a fire pit with friends or cozied up on the couch, hot chocolate transforms an ordinary scene into a Hallmark-worthy holiday moment.
Made from your favorite store-bought hot cocoa mix, upgraded with artisanal extras, or spiked with winter-infused spirits, hot chocolate is a quintessential cold-weather favorite for a reason. We're putting some of America's most popular chain coffee shops to the test to find out which easily accessible cup of hot cocoa reigns supreme.
Since we insist on trying every cup in person — and yours truly is based in the South — this list is not exhaustive, but it does include as many nationally available chain coffee shops as we were able to reach by car. Each sip was ordered in person (i.e., not via mobile order) to accurately judge factors like temperature, taste, and richness — an endeavor we don't recommend embarking upon in one trip unless you happen to go by the alias Kris Kringle. So next time you need to give your dreary morning commute a festive pick-me-up, you'll know which drive-thrus to swing by and which to skip for a steaming, satisfying cup of hot chocolate.
Read more: 31 Coffee Brands, Ranked From Worst To Best
16. Panera Bread
In terms of comfort, Panera's top menu items like mac and cheese, steaming soup, and freshly baked bread deliver like a warm hug. In the hot chocolate department, however, we were left out in the cold. The sip started out strong at a practically perfect drinking temperature — warm enough to see steam but not too hot to sip. Unfortunately, that's where the high marks ended.
Described on the chain's website as "Bittersweet chocolate flavored syrup mixed with foamed milk and topped with whipped cream and drizzled with caramel syrup," the drink promised big flavor that we were excited to try. However, the hot chocolate was watery rather than rich and milky, and it left an odd, almost alcoholic aftertaste that may have been the result of artificial syrup. The caramel drizzle might as well have been forgotten since we couldn't detect any caramel notes in the drink at all. At more than $4 a pop after tax, we expected much more.
15. Atlanta Bread Company
With 18 locations spread across four states, Atlanta Bread Company is a small, Southern-based chain that has been serving up sandwiches, soups, coffee, and fresh baked goods to the lunchtime masses for 30 years. Upon arrival, the brand's Southern hospitality was on full display with a warm greeting and friendly service. The hot chocolate, however, didn't provide quite the same warm, fuzzy sensation.
At $4.53 after tax, Atlanta Bread Company's hot chocolate was the most expensive of this bunch — without the flavor to back it up. Even though the drink was made to order, it was barely warm when we received it. The majority of the flavor (and the drink's saving grace) came in the form of Ghirardelli syrup, a superior dessert condiment in this writer's opinion. The texture was milky but thin — not the rich, creamy indulgence we were after for the premium coffee shop price point.
14. Scooter's Coffee
Drive-thru-only chain Scooter's Coffee prides itself on its ability to "scoot" customers through the line as quickly as possible, not to mention its aromatic small-batch coffee beans roasted in the brand's home state of Nebraska. While the experience certainly lived up to expectations, the results were somewhat disappointing. The chain coffee shop is known for its delightful Caramelicious coffee beverages, but the hot chocolate was lacking in flavor. In fact, we really couldn't detect much chocolate flavor at all, even after watching the barista stir in the syrup.
That said, the drink was the perfect temperature, which made it delightfully sippable despite the watery consistency. Unfortunately, at over $4, we didn't feel this hot chocolate was worth the price tag. If you're looking for a steaming cup of indulgence with a splash of holiday flair, we'd suggest opting for the praline or pumpkin variations on the brand's signature Caramelicious caramel latte.
13. Starbucks Signature Hot Chocolate
It may not have started the trend, but Starbucks has undoubtedly put a signature stamp on seasonal coffee concoctions. Starbucks has a huge array of hot drinks you can choose from, which might lead you to believe that the Seattle-based coffee chain should know its way around a cup of hot cocoa. We went in with high hopes — and a desire to take some holiday-themed photos with the brand's signature cups. Ultimately, the drink was just okay, on par with a homemade cup of packaged hot cocoa. While the flavor was certainly nostalgic, it wasn't anything to write home about.
The major problem we had with this cup of hot chocolate was the temperature. Even though it was made to order, our Signature Hot Chocolate was somehow already on the verge of being cold. The room-temperature beverage combined with a thin consistency and barely-there packaged hot cocoa flavor amounted to a sip we'd skip.
12. Dancing Goats
With locations in Washington, Florida, and Georgia, Dancing Goats is a relatively small chain that focuses on sustainable and ethical business practices. Its coffee is often regarded as some of Atlanta's best and is even the brew of choice for local son Alton Brown — Brown's own Multitasker coffee blend was brewed by the Olympia-based roaster. With the coffee shop's reputation in mind, we decided to give the Dancing Goats hot chocolate a try.
Our overall impression was that it was an enjoyable beverage that would certainly warm you up on a chilly day. Was it the best hot chocolate we've ever had? No, but it was served at a pleasant temperature (warm, not hot) and had a subtle chocolate flavor. If you're searching for something decadent, this isn't the cup for you, but if you want to support a business with a mission and just aren't a coffee fan, this steamed milk treat will hit the spot. Just keep in mind that sustainable business practices naturally come with a slightly higher price tag — you'll have to shell out around $4.25 for a small cup of hot cocoa.
Whether you're a fan of its iced coffee or its cult-favorite secret menu items, there's no denying Dunkin's stake in the chain coffee game. The Massachusetts-based brand seemingly has a beverage to suit every taste, from cold brew to caramel macchiato. So naturally, hot chocolate is a staple on its sugar-infused menu.
While we were tempted by the friendly staff to customize our cup with festively flavored syrups (peppermint, gingerbread, white chocolate, oh my), we opted for pure chocolate in the interest of fairness. At less than $3 for a 12-ounce cup, Dunkin's hot chocolate is one of the best values around. The cup (bonus points for its fun sprinkle pattern) was served steaming and actually needed to cool down a bit before we could take a sip.
The actual drink was good, just not mind-blowing. The chocolate notes were more artificial than rich, making this the perfect cup of nostalgia for those raised on instant hot cocoa powder. All things considered, we'd swing by another Dunkin' drive-through for a quick cup of hot chocolate if we needed a little festive pick-me-up.
10. Starbucks Peppermint Hot Chocolate
No chain coffee shop does the holidays quite like Starbucks. The coffee giant rolls out the red-and-green carpet for the season with its annual festive favorite, Peppermint Hot Chocolate. The cup alone will bring you good cheer, sporting its ugly sweater best in hues of deep green, brilliant red, and whimsical pink, all accented with twinkling white stars.
But as with most gifts, it's what's on the inside that counts. Starbucks' Peppermint Hot Chocolate is a wonderfully balanced blend of chocolate and mint — think Andes Mints in liquid form. This particular beverage could have been a touch hotter in our opinion, but the flavor more than made up for the lukewarm temperature.
While we were fans of the holiday-flavored sip, this particular hot chocolate ranks lower for its premium price point (nearly a dollar more than Starbucks' Signature Hot Chocolate) and its mint-forward flavor. The peppermint taste is certainly enjoyable for fans of the flavor, but it might be a bit much for those looking for a traditional cup of hot cocoa.
9. Land Of A Thousand Hills Coffee
Atlanta-based coffee shop Land of a Thousand Hills specializes in freshly brewed, direct- and fair-trade Rwandan beans that are roasted and sold at its locations across the Southeast, Massachusetts, Utah, and eventually, its Philadelphia outpost. In addition to some seriously delicious caffeinated beverages (including seasonal options like gingerbread and winterberry lattes), the small chain coffee shop sells a delightful (and surprisingly well-priced) hot chocolate.
Served at a wonderfully warm sipping temperature, this hot chocolate has all the nostalgic flavor of a packet of cocoa without the artificial taste. The mixture is creamy and just sweet enough with a chocolate-forward flavor that doesn't go overboard. And at roughly $3.75 for a small cup, it's a fairly affordable option, too, especially considering the brand's artisanal approach.
You can even feel good about treating yourself to a quick cup of cocoa here. Land of a Thousand Hills reinvests its profits into coffee farming communities in Rwanda through its "Do Good Initiative Programs," which have included starting a community health clinic and constructing water catchment systems.
8. Caribou Coffee
Who says all hot chocolate has to be cocoa-forward? Caribou Coffee's hot chocolate may not curb your cocoa craving, but it'll warm you up from head to toe. Served in a fun and festive winter-themed cup, the drink was hot but easily sippable — ideal hot cocoa temperature if there ever was one — with a smooth, creamy mouthfeel.
Where this hot chocolate could be divisive is in its flavor. We couldn't detect much in the way of chocolate syrup or cocoa powder, but what we did taste was a toasty, almost nutty sensation that reminded us more of toffee than chocolate — though this isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, one of the easiest ways to elevate the flavor of chocolate, whether in cookies or cocoa, is to add toasted milk powder, which provides exactly this sort of nutty, toffee note we detected in Caribou's cup.
If you plan to try this hot chocolate for yourself, just be sure to download the Caribou Perks app. Ordering through the app not only expedites the pick-up process but allows you to grab a hot chocolate with your choice of dairy-free milk without the extra charge.
7. Duck Donuts
More commonly known for its extensive array of fried-to-order treats, Duck Donuts doesn't draw the line at edible confections. Alongside delicious donut sundaes and savory egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwiches is an impressive menu of coffee drinks. But no beverage pairs with a cakey donut quite like hot chocolate.
Duck Donuts' version features both dark chocolate and vanilla syrups, which might explain why this particular cup of cocoa was so deliciously rich. The addition of vanilla makes all the difference here, mellowing out the more bitter notes typically found in dark chocolate and enhancing the sweetness of the mixture. In other words, it makes the chocolate taste more like chocolate.
Just like its other sweets, Duck Donuts makes its hot beverages to order, steaming the milk and whisking in the syrups until the drink is a deep, chocolatey brown. The result is a warm cup of comfort that will run you just over $3 per cup after tax — an affordable treat your wallet will enjoy as much as your tastebuds.
6. Einstein Bros. Bagels
With locations in 44 states and Washington D.C., Einstein Bros. Bagels' breakfast and lunch offerings certainly appeal to a wide range of tastes. On the beverage front, the chain is probably best known for its coffee, though its hot chocolate hits quite a few flavorful high notes.
Our first impression of the chain coffee shop's hot chocolate was that of surprise. Sweet and milky with a chocolate-forward flavor, the beverage was delightfully decadent in the best way. It arrived delightfully hot but was easily drinkable when exposed to the chilly fall air. While we may be stating the obvious (the beverage was hot and tasted like chocolate), these elements aren't always a given — as evidenced by the dozens of other hot chocolates to which we've subjected our tastebuds. The key to Einstein Bros. Bagels hot chocolate is its simplicity: Milk-chocolate syrup and steamed milk blended well and served hot.
5. Costa Coffee
Bought out by Coca-Cola in 2019, British chain coffee shop Costa Coffee has been slowly making its way into the American market via Smart Cafe and BaristaBot coffee-dispensing machines available in almost every state east of the Mississippi River. The brand's first full-service stateside cafe opened in Atlanta in August 2022, followed by two additional brick-and-mortar locations just outside the city in 2023.
We put the newly opened Brookhaven location to the test by ordering a classic hot chocolate (though the cafe's striking blue lavender matcha latte certainly caught our eye). Our drink was served with a generous plume of steam, a quality indicator if there ever was one. After soaking up the warmth for a few minutes, we took a tentative sip to confirm that the beverage had indeed reached peak hot chocolate temperature. The flavor was instantly elevated nostalgia — think the packaged stuff but with real ingredients. Made with 2% milk, the hot chocolate was creamy without being too rich. The only factor that keeps this cup from achieving a higher ranking is its artisanal price point at over $4 after tax.
4. McDonald's Premium Hot Chocolate
With a reputation for having one of the best fast food coffees in the business, McDonald's Premium Hot Chocolate quickly made it onto our list of must-try chain coffee shop hot chocolates. The international fast food behemoth actually sources its beans from a family-owned coffee supplier, so we were naturally curious to find out if the same attention to detail goes into its non-caffeinated hot drinks.
Truthfully, we walked into this particular McDonald's location with fairly low expectations, especially after being informed that we'd have to wait about 20 minutes for the hot beverage machine to finish being cleaned. When the hot chocolate finally arrived, we all-too-hastily took a swig, only to find a tongue-scorching sip — at least the drink lives up to its name.
Once McDonald's Premium Hot Chocolate hit a drinkable temperature (just a few more minutes' wait), we were pleasantly surprised to find a well-balanced beverage that was sweet and creamy (albeit a tad artificial tasting) without crossing the threshold and becoming overwhelming. And despite some price hikes over the last few years, McDonald's is still one of the best values around. At just $2.50 after tax, this hot chocolate treat feels like a steal.
3. Starbucks White Hot Chocolate
The final entry from Seattle-based coffee giant Starbucks hit all the hot chocolate high notes. Starbucks White Hot Chocolate had the best texture of the brand's three hot cocoa offerings by far with a super creamy consistency served at toe-tingling temperature. White chocolate is the dominant flavor, a factor that might be off-putting for some who prefer their hot chocolate on the bittersweet side, but we found the beverage to be exactly the delicacy we were craving.
As with any Starbucks sip, the hot chocolate here is super customizable. Can't make up your mind? Try a peppermint white hot chocolate, a blend that comes highly recommended by the barista who took our order. Or, if you'd prefer to perform your own Starbucks-specific taste test, try ordering the trio of hot chocolates in a "short" or "petite" size rather than the usual 12-ounce tall. The smaller 8-ounce serving makes taste-testing a whole lot easier on both your wallet and your stomach.
2. McDonald's Caramel Hot Chocolate
Served alongside our scalding Premium Hot Chocolate, McDonald's Caramel Hot Chocolate was also presented at a tastebud-annihilating temperature — a trend that has infamously landed the fast food chain in legal hot water on more than one occasion. Luckily, the caramel version cooled down fairly quickly and without incident, allowing us to savor the mouthwatering results.
The verdict? McDonald's Caramel Hot Chocolate is surprisingly well-balanced. Both the caramel and chocolate notes shine without either becoming lost or overbearing. We would say that it's slightly more caramel-forward, but we didn't find this to be a bad thing. Rather, the caramel notes enhanced the chocolate, adding sweetness and a nice nutty flavor to the beverage that made it irresistibly sippable. Those who aren't fans of sweet drinks might want to steer clear of this one, but then again, the sweet-toothless should probably steer clear of most coffee shop hot chocolates and opt for a McCafé black cold brew instead.
1. Krispy Kreme
It should come as no surprise that chain coffee shops that excel in churning out craveable sweet treats also know how to whip up a great cup of hot cocoa. Serving up hot glazed goodness for over 85 years, Krispy Kreme has some of the best donuts in the fast food game. So if you're going to present a beverage to pair with a legendary confection, you'd better do it right — that's where Krispy Kreme's Ghiradelli Hot Chocolate enters the chat.
From its budget-friendly price point ($2.85 after tax for a 12-ounce cup) to its rich, chocolatey flavor, we really couldn't find fault with this ultra-delicious sip. One of the best commercially produced chocolate brands on the market, Ghirardelli's syrup is a prime choice for hot chocolate — proof that Krispy Kreme knows what it's doing. Simply blended into steamed milk, the satisfying results speak for themselves. If we had to be nitpicky, the drink could've been a few degrees hotter, but it was certainly warm and delightfully sippable regardless.
Read the original article on Tasting Table.