Vancouver Hot Chocolate Festival 2016: a review

What: Hot Chocolate Festival
Where: Vancouver
When: Jan 16 – Feb 14, 2016

The Vancouver Hot Chocolate Festival comes in the middle of winter – the perfect time to sit down to enjoy a cup. Of course, I don’t need a special time of year to drink hot chocolate. Come over any Saturday morning and you will find me making up my standard 85% Green & Blacks hot chocolate (not the mix). When those bars are on sale at London Drugs, I say to my partner, “buy every one in the store”, and he does – that’s true love.

Anyway, the festival encourages chocolate shops, bakeries, restaurants and cafes to make their best hot chocolate, in the name of supporting women on the downtown eastside and East Van Roasters. What’s unclear, and thus disappointing, is what percentage of the (exorbitant) price goes to the charity. I’ve given the website a once over and I found nothing. When I ordered the drinks, there was nothing posted about the donation quantity. I’m an introvert, and damned if I’m going to pluck up the nerve to actually ask the barrista, chocolatista (yeah, that’s a word) about their donation value. But really, I shouldn’t have to ask. The organizers should be happy to post it on their website (unless the donation amount is low, and that’s what worries me).

I have tried a number of venues and multiple flavours at some those venues and sips of my partner’s and sister’s choices. The places I did not try were generally rejected on past performance (my memories from last year) or flavours – if I don’t like a flavour, I don’t magically think I’m going to love it in chocolate. I’m thinking specifically here of Mink and their butternut squash, almond milk and 70% chocolate – actually that sounds ok, it’s what it is served with that turned me off: a smoked oyster. Nope, no thanks. Please leave the seafood out of my hot chocolate drinking dreams.

After all the reviews, I went back and star-rated the drinks out of 3. I know star ratings are usually out of 5, but that seems arbitrary and so is 3.

3 – I’d get it again and everyone in the world needs to try it
2 – good, but I wouldn’t get it again, or “specific”: people who love that flavour would probably get it again
1 – fail, wish I hadn’t doled out $7 for that

From worst to best

1 star: Bel Cafe

This was a miss. Lacking in flavour, heat, chocolate and quantity. The one redeeming quality was its chocolate whipped cream that filled half the cup!

1 star: East Van Roasters

“The Buzzzzz”: I had high hopes for this one as the description sounded delicious: honey and pollen in HC. However, this one was also a miss. The foamed milk with drizzled honey and pollen bits on the top of the drink were delicious and I thought that was foreshadowing greatness to follow. However, the drink itself was luke warm with little chocolate flavour and a strange honey after-taste that just didn’t work.

1 star: Bella Gelateria Coal Harbour location

“black magic” (sesame): my expectations were high for this, as I first discovered my love of sesame and chocolate at the long lost Cocoa Nymph a few years ago. So, with great anticipation I took my first sip and… drum roll… sadness. The hit of sesame was so strong, I couldn’t taste anything else, including the chocolate! This drink had potential, but the execution just wasn’t there. I’ve kept my leftovers and I’ll be diluting it with my own 85% hot chocolate (Bella used a weak 63%), and hopefully, I’ll be able to mix a bit of magic out of this drink, yet.

1 star: Earnest Ice-Cream

A for creativity of pouring HC over ice-cream. But, unfortunately, the result fell a little flat. The HC was too thin and melted into the ice cream too quickly causing too much dilution of the HC. A stronger, thicker pouring HC was needed. I think this is their first year in the festival, so hopefully they’ll just get better and better in the future.

2 stars: Bella Gelateria Coal Harbour location

“The Mottolino” (my partner): The most boozy HC we’ve tried. So if you like that, this one is a winner. A 72% chocolate mixed with a blend of liquors, vanilla, espresso, and egg that were harmonious and not overpowering. My partner liked this one slightly better than the whiskey one he had at Bella’s Yaletown location because the chocolate was darker and the liquor was stronger.

2 stars: Bella Gelateria Yaletown location

“The Bounty” (my sister): If you like coconut, it’s a good drink, but if you don’t like coconut milk, you might not like this one. Yup, seems paradoxical, but that’s what she said – you Coconut People will understand this. Apparently coconut milk has a “taste” about it. She liked the coconut flakes on top – it filled out the flavour profile and the drink would be lost without them. You also get a yummy coconut macron on the side!

2 stars: Bella Gelateria Yaletown location

“Fudge It” (my partner): the flavour of the whiskey came through the dark chocolate and it was delicious. He didn’t notice the whip cream having a whiskey flavour (but he’s not that observant). You also get a yummy cookie with this drink.

2 stars: Chocolate Arts

“Creamsicle”: This one is a great drink for white chocolate lovers. White chocolate with a blood orange sorbet on a stick that you stir in. The orange flavour is subtle and delicate and pairs really well with the white chocolate. It is a sweet drink, but not overly sweet, as I had anticipated. The accompanying french macron was strongly flavoured and not too sweet. A nice contrast to the drink. We were pleasantly surprised. We recommend this for the white chocolate fans or the white chocolate fans-to-be.

2 stars: Koko Monk

“Miso White Chocolate Matcha” (brother-in-law): loved it! That’s all he’s saying. My sister strongly disliked it. This is a love/hate drink – who knows, you might be a lover. A traditional French macron accompanies this drink.

3 stars: Chocolate Arts

“Caramel^3”: Does not disappoint. This is a sweet hot chocolate (even though it’s made with bittersweet chocolate) because of the caramel, but when you love caramel as much as I do, the sweetness is tolerable, as opposed to sweetness from sugar in sweetened hot chocolates which is not tolerable. The caramel flavour was amazing and the vanilla was perfect. The caramel was painted onto the inside of the glass and melted as you drank. The temperature was not as hot as I like, but it was just right for my partner. A chocolate caramel accompanied the drink and it was definitely up to Chocolate Arts high standards.

3 stars: Koko Monk

Standard hot chocolate (my sister): delicious chocolate flavour with a unique spice profile that sets it above other shops’ “standard” fare. Also, real whipped cream and chocolate drizzle. That’s a winning combination. My sister noted that the customer service was fantastic and the owner was genuinely interested in what they thought of the flavours and how he could improve them (he also likes to know the scoop on the competition, so go with reviews ready!). It’s a funky, cozy joint near the Burrard Street Bridge. Flavours change weekly during the festival.

3 stars: Diva at the Met

Wow! I couldn’t describe this drink without photos. Diva wins hands down on spectacle, performance and presentation – they know how to put on a show. The reverse white chocolate coaster sits on top of your drink until it melts and a chocolate ball drops into the liquid. I had the citrus and my partner had the licorice.
Citrus: tasted like an amazing chocolate orange. The flavour was spot on. I would have preferred a slightly thicker
Licorice: He liked the thickness just as it was.
The paired cakes were a miss though. The flavours and textures didn’t quite fit with the drink. But you can’t get it all right. But really, who cares about cakes when there are chocolate balls dropping into your HC!
So far, it’s the most expensive at $8, but it’s charity so it’s ok to spend $8 on HC. I’ve never had such a fun HC!

3 stars: Thomas Haas

“Mumbai meets Paris” (chai + orange): amazing! Haas hits this one out of the park. Even my 5 year old niece drank this down with a thumbs up. I can’t comment on the heat though, as I picked it up to go, took it home and heated it up in my own mug. But, the flavour was spot on and this is after a very disappointing showing last year with his “mouthwash” mint HC. Glad he learned from that and made a winner this year. We didn’t try the coconut-flavoured HC since it was made with 1/2 coconut milk and my sister, the Coconut Person, doesn’t like the aftertaste (see my review of Bella Gelateria Yaletown). Thomas Haas gets a strong recommendation from the Peanut Gallery (my sister, niece and my partner).

3 stars: Koko Monk

“Istanbul Blues”: Where have you been all my life, Koko Monk? I remember discovering the awesomeness of Koko Monk at last year’s HC festival (after having the standard flavour that my sister reviewed above) and promised myself to go back, frequently. But, somehow that just didn’t happen. Luckily, I got down there tonight just before closing to try their Week 3 drink, and thank goodness I did. Asmy partner said, “This is the best one we’ve had”. It was one of those hot chocolates that is nostalgic, calming and warms you right to the bone. The flavours are subtle and enhance the chocolate instead of competing for the spotlight. Notes of cinnamon were strong, but the rest of the flavours blended seemlessly into the chocolate. Real whip and chocolate sauce is slopped on haphazardly – just the way Mom makes it!
Extras: you can order small, medium or large drinks. The drink is accompanied by a macron of your choosing. We selected raspberry (tasted too much like jam) and salted caramel (better). They were okay, but I’m not a big macron fan. As my partner said, “the caramel one is better, but it’s still just a macron.”
Texture issues: this drink has bits of root in it. I’ve gotten used to bits in HC from the festival, but it can be a turn off for many, so you may need to bring your own strainer! I didn’t think the bits added much to the drink either (mine were virtually flavourless, as I think most of the flavour had already been steeped into the milk), so he probably should have strained it before serving.

3 stars: Bella Gelateria – Yaletown

“smokin sweet” (my favourite): Success! The smoky caramel was strong enough to taste but subtle enough to let the chocolate shine through. This drink was a winner. I even burned my tongue – which in hot chocolate land is a good thing – too many places claim that they can’t heat the drink up very much because it will burn the chocolate – they lie. This was piping hot and not burnt. The citrus marshmallows were amazing and added a tasty brightness to the drink. Definitely a step up from the traditional salted caramel of yesteryear.


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3 thoughts on “Vancouver Hot Chocolate Festival 2016: a review”

  1. Thomas Haas was the only page I found that posted the donation amount. And although the page is now down, trusty Google remembered what it said. And yes, no wonder the placed don’t advertise how ‘much’ (little) they give:
    “*5% of each Festival Hot Chocolate sale will be donated to The PHS Community Services program for Downtown Eastside women’s employment and job skills …”

  2. I contacted the founder and organizer of the hot chocolate festival to find out how much money is donated to the charity. She said the festival is run as a non-profit and vendors are required to donate at least 5 % of the GROSS sales. She said this amounts to approximately 50-100 % of their net profit on each drink. She gave me a description of how much better and more expensive the ingredients are in these hot chocolates compared to say, Carnation. Which, of course, is true. However, there were definitely some drinks I tried that did not have a significantly large amount of chocolate (arguably one of the most expensive ingredients) compared to milk, so the drink still seemed over-priced given that only 5 % was being donated. And I question that net-profit margin of 50 to 100%. Frankly, I would prefer a list of vendors that are donating 100% of their net. Isn’t charity about sacrificing something of yourself to benefit others? The festival brings new customers into these shop. Those new customers may return outside of the festival and buy their products, so the shop is already benefiting from the festival. Why shouldn’t they donate just a little bit more for those weeks, such that a charity can gain? But I know, that’s not how business works 🙁 Anyway, she also said that several thousand dollars were raised for the charity this year, so that’s good… right?

  3. I finally got around to Koko Monk for hot chocolate and to my surprise, I discovered that I didn’t like it. I tend to like my chocolate dark and unadulterated. For those who like extra and exotic flavours, then Koko Monk will be perfect.

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