There's been remarkable growth in what is sometimes considered a low-interest and low-skill beverage - the often-disregarded hot chocolate is producing surprising sales figures and, as a result, there are lots of new products on offer from suppliers.
Hot chocolate should account for at least 15% of a café's sales, say many suppliers, and some have put the figure as high as 30%. Chocolate is no longer a winter warmer it's now an all-year product. As a result, the latest innovations concentrate on new flavours and the possibilities of hot or cold chocolate drinks.
There have been some failures - Starbucks introduced a rich Italian-style chocolate drink in a 6oz size and US customers had a problem relating to something not in a pint container with all kinds of whipped cream on it. In general, however, suppliers which have persisted in the UK report good growth.
An unusual chocolate example from Espresso Warehouse in Glasgow is the spiced version of Chocolate Abyss. The Abyss slogan, "Now you can take your chocolate as seriously as your coffee", is a clue to the market, says the company.
"Serving the same chocolate that consumers get at home will never give the caterer a premium," says Espresso Warehouse general manager Gary McGann. "Instant coffee on the high street will never gain a significant premium, and neither will the kind of chocolate served at home. The serving of chocolate in café-bars is indulgent by nature, so low-fat options won't work and although customers want a darker chocolate, be careful not to go too dark."
The spiced version of Abyss takes chocolate back to where it started: Montezuma, the king of the Aztecs, who first popularised hot chocolate, the world's oldest non-alcoholic hot beverage. Montezuma believed it to be an aphrodisiac and, as he had a harem to take care of, drank 30 flagons a day flavoured with pimiento, chilli and all manner of strange things. Espresso Warehouse has toned down the recipe for British tastes and reports that chocolate with chilli has, indeed, found its fans.
The first major move in more conventional flavouring of chocolate drinks has now turned up. Although there were a couple in the Cadbury's Options range, the first seriously flavoured range is from Monbana, the UK branch of the company that invented the Neapolitan, the little chocolate square designed to sit on a saucer.
"All innovations take a while, so you do have to sell the concept on your menu," says the company's managing director, Paul Nolan. "But it's a very small outlay for a caterer to test it. The thing with flavours is that they are all subjective. You'll find that vanilla pushes the roundness of the chocolate more, and that spices give depths of flavour on a cold day. The caramel is reminiscent of chewy sweets, the almond is cleaner than most almond flavourings, and the combination of chocolate and orange is already well known to the consumer. The Real Fruits flavour is… well, imagine a chocolate raspberry.
"Flavoured syrup in a coffee can tend to cover the taste of the coffee - here, we're creating a taste of chocolate first, with a flavoured aftertaste following it. Use a cappuccino cup, put the flavoured chocolate in, add a squirt of cream and you've raised the customer's whole expectation of the product… and the price."
The concept of a base hot chocolate in liquid form was heavily promoted by Barry Callebaut a couple of years ago. The performance of the idea now, says the company, has proved that it's easy to inspire customers to drink more hot chocolate, and easier for staff to prepare it.
"Liquid chocolate is a product for those who really have the desire to do something with chocolate," says the company's national account manager Martyn Herriot. "Some people still perceive chocolate as being only a hot drink, and this is why we're suggesting to caterers and café owners to think outside the hot-chocolate arena - think of ice… think of ice-cream."
Some cafés make up chocolate as they need it, and some like a steady supply of made-up liquid chocolate. Marco Beverage Systems recommends keeping the product in liquid form in its Ciocco dispenser, which mixes, heats and dispenses hot chocolate. It holds a five-litre bowl, and has an adjustable thermostat.
However, the powder form straight into the cup remains popular in many cafes, and the largest growth has come from one of the big brand names, with Nestlé's Aero drink. In its first 15 months, the product has won a reported 18% of the out-of-home chocolate drinks market.
"This market has been going down at 7% a year, because there's been no interesting product, at a time when customers really are looking for change and excitement," says Martin Lines, marketing director at Nestlé FoodServices. "We did a great deal of research on this and we knew the intense drink is not what everyone wants so we went for a point of difference with bubbles and a bubbly, light chocolate experience. At the moment, customers don't expect a branded chocolate drink but this is something the caterer can work on."
The Aero make-with-milk drink lends itself to use with an espresso machine in the conventional manner - whip the powder into a paste with a small amount of hot water, then add to the milk being steamed. One kilogram of powder will make about 55 servings. A further point of difference is the use of not a chocolate dust, but the solid Aero Bubbles chocolates on top.
An entirely new brand just arriving is The Other Bean, from Dublin coffee company Java Republic. This comes from the same Ghanaian co-operative as Divine, the Fairtrade solid chocolate, and has been promoted in Ireland with outspoken marketing which has got the company into trouble, most notably the "health warning" which says: "Too much chocolate will give you a fat arse."
"The Other Bean is no ordinary hot chocolate," says managing director David McKernan. "It has nearly five times more cocoa content than other brands, and when we supplement this with a dash of cane sugar from a Fairtrade co-op in Malawi, we can truly say that The Other Bean is rich, smooth and, above all, fair."
- Barry Callebaut 01295 224700 www.barry-callebaut.com
- Espresso Warehouse 0141-420 2422 www.espressowarehouse.com
- Java Republic 00 353 1 456 5506 www.javarepublic.com
- Marco Beverage Systems 020 7274 4577 www.marco-bev.co.uk
- Monbana 01233 665557 www.monbana.co.uk
- Nestlé FoodServices 0800 745845 www.nestlefoodservices.co.uk