Everybody knows that homemade hot chocolate or cocoa made with milk is going to taste better than something that comes out of an envelope and is activated with a cup of hot water. But could convenience compete with taste? We were determined to find out if the instant varieties could even come close to the real deal. Alas, after tasting a dozen instants we could come up with only one clear winner--and four Miss Congenialities. But our real service to readers? Seven definite losers you will want to avoid.

EXCEPTIONAL

CARNATION DOUBLE CHOCOLATE MELTDOWN FLAVOR HOT COCOA MIX We tasted this one twice, just to make sure it was as good as we'd originally thought. And it was. It wasn't as cloyingly sweet as most others and had a nice creamy texture. It came the closest to tasting like real old-fashioned cocoa, which is what ultimately made it our one and only star. (About $2.70 per 16-ounce box, 16 envelopes.) Available at most grocery stores.

ACCEPTABLE

AH! LASKA ORGANIC COCOA This one's aimed at kids, which might explain its ultra-sweet taste (and the cute polar bear on the label). Adding the dark brown powder to milk or a "non-dairy substitute" is an option that might be worth taking; our cup, which we made with hot water, was indeed watery. (About $4 per 12-ounce tin; 12 servings.) Available at Fresh Fields.

SWISS MISS MILK CHOCOLATE FLAVOR HOT COCOA MIX Not the greatest cup of cocoa but certainly not the worst. Good creamy texture and not too sweet--two hallmarks, we discovered, of a decent cup of instant cocoa. (About $2.50 per 10-ounce box; 10 envelopes.) Available at most grocery stores.

SWISS MISS FAT-FREE HOT COCOA MIX Who would have thought that a fat-free, low-calorie (50 per serving) instant hot chocolate would be one of the better ones we tasted? This Swiss Miss had a nice smell and a creamy consistency, although one of our tasters thought it strayed toward the Ovaltine/malt ball flavor. And we all noted that it had the artificially sweet taste that characterizes just about every fat-free product. (About $2.80 per 4.4-ounce box; eight envelopes.) Available at most grocery stores.

SUPER G HOT COCOA MIX Another surprise, especially since this cup of hot cocoa didn't look appealing. But once you got past the tinge of dried-milk flavor (a trait shared by many instant cocoas), it tasted fine. (About $2 per 10-ounce box; 10 envelopes.) Available at Giant stores.

UNACCEPTABLE

CARNATION RICH CHOCOLATE FLAVOR HOT COCOA MIX Here's proof that two similar-sounding products from the same company can have vastly different tastes. Unlike Carnation's Double Chocolate Meltdown variety, this look-alike was just plain awful. (About $3.40 per 16-ounce box; 16 envelopes.) Available at most grocery stores.

CARNATION FAT-FREE HOT COCOA MIX Like so many fat-free products, this particular cocoa is much too sweet. Add to that a chemical taste and a chalky look and you've got a lousy cup of cocoa. (About $2.55 per 2.25-ounce box; eight envelopes.) Available at most grocery stores.

HERSHEY'S DUTCH CHOCOLATE HOT COCOA So, you see Hershey and think yummy Hershey bar, right? Forget it--there's nothing yummy about this artificial-tasting cocoa. (About $1.70 per 6.25-ounce box; five envelopes.) Available at Safeway stores.

HERSHEY'S GOODNIGHT KISSES HOT COCOA MIX Surprise, surprise--it's just as bad as the Dutch Chocolate version, maybe a tad worse. (About $1.70 per 5-ounce box; four envelopes.) Available at Safeway stores.

SAFEWAY HOT COCOA MIX The handwriting was on the wall when the directions called for a whopping four tablespoons of powder to be mixed with just eight ounces of water. Think sludge. (About $2.40 per 20-ounce container; 15 servings.) Available at Safeway.

SAFEWAY FAT-FREE HOT COCOA MIX When the "real" thing is such a disappointment, you don't hold out much hope for the fat-free version. In fact, "hopeless" isn't a bad way to describe this dreadful concoction. (About $1.15 per 4.4-ounce box; eight envelopes.) Available at Safeway stores.

WHOLE KIDS ORGANIC HOT CHOCOLATE The absolute worst of the dozen hot chocolates we tasted. It was as dark as crankcase oil and tasted watery and bitter. We'll spare you further details on this pricey dud. (About $6 per 12-ounce tin; 19 servings.) Available at Fresh Fields.