Mug shot: "I would be very interested in doing a review of hot chocolate from best to worst," the letter began, and its writer, Hannah Temple, went on to explain just why she would be the right woman for the job. "I drink it a lot," she said.

Since the weather outside was frightful and hot chocolate can be so delightful, I called Hannah and we decided to investigate together. For starters, we discussed what makes good hot chocolate. "I think it has to be very chocolatey and rich," the Cory Elementary fourth-grader said. "And texture is important. Or maybe I don't mean texture; I mean it has to be creamy and not too watery." Out of the nine places we visited, just two met Hannah's strict criteria and earned the coveted rating of "10"--Stella Geels and Co., at 1476 South Pearl Street, and Wynkoop Brewing Company, at 1634 18th Street. Stella's was my favorite, too, although we both were put off by the snooty answers we received to our questions about ingredients. Begrudgingly, we were told that Stella's uses the powdered form of Ghirardelli chocolate, which the coffeehouse adds to ever-so-lightly steamed milk. They also use real whipped cream (one of only two purveyors on our list to do so), but you pay the price: Stella's hot chocolate runs $1.75 for eight ounces, whereas all the others we tried cost between $1 and $1.50 for twelve ounces. For Hannah, the key was the whipped cream and the hardly-steamed milk, a trick everyone seems to have caught on to in these espresso times. "Steamed milk sometimes drowns the flavor," Hannah said. "Stella's had a lot of chocolate."

Interestingly, Wynkoop uses canned whipped cream and Carnation Instant mix added to hot water, but it still came up a winner. "That's really amazing, because it's so good," Hannah said after learning the recipe. "It was very rich, and they had plenty of chocolate and they served it in big, fat mugs. The service there is great, too."

Hannah's least favorite, with a "3" rating, was at the Cherry Creek Starbucks. "Too watery," she pronounced; when we called later to see how Starbucks made it, we were told they mix water and powdered chocolate to make a syrup, then add that to steamed milk. Hannah thought they'd used so much water that even real whipped cream didn't help. "I've never had McDonald's hot chocolate," Hannah said. "But I think it couldn't be worse than Starbucks."

The third-best cup came from Coffee Cache, at 270 South Downing, where the chocolate was Ghirardelli and the milk steamed--but with "too much steaming," Hannah said. Next came two tied at a "7" rating: Dietrich's, at 1734 East Evans, the Best of Denver winner for hot chocolate in 1994, and Cafe Euphrates, the winner in 1993. Inexplicably, Dietrich's has changed its chocolate--instead of an imported Dutch cocoa, the chocolatier now adds Nestle's Quik. "This tastes just like the stuff we make at home," Hannah noted.

The three at the bottom of the list (above Starbucks, of course) all got there because they use Hershey's: Luna Tango, a new shop at 1596 South Pearl Street; Bistro Europa, a cafe at 1729 East Evans Avenue; and Colorado Espresso, at 2075 South University Boulevard. "I don't think Hershey's belongs in hot chocolate," Hannah said. "Chocolate milk and ice cream, yes, but not hot chocolate. Hot and cold are very different, and here it tastes cheap.