March 25 2016 03:42 PM

Could chocolate be the new beer?

Eclipse Chocolate’s exotic salted caramels

In the last 20 years, San Diegans have largely switched from mass-market brews to regionally brewed craft beers. Now, local chocolatiers hope the same sort of sweet success comes their way.

William Gustwiller, owner and executive chef of Eclipse Chocolate in North Park, believes the city is ready to have its chocolate become as recognized as its beer or tacos.

“Over the past few years, San Diegans have cultivated a strong sense of taste and community,” he said. “We all want to see San Diego’s cuisine scene rise to number one nationally, and we won’t settle for less—whether that’s in our beer, our restaurants, or, yes, chocolate!”

But local chocolatiers aren’t looking to create the next Reese’s. Gustwiller says Eclipse is heavily influenced by Mexican, Peruvian, Japanese, Korean and Chinese cultures.

“For example, one of our latest Drinking Chocolates is Ginger Green Tea, which is a beautiful, silky-soft chocolate with a vivid green color that comes from using fresh matcha powder,” he said.

Isabella Knack, who owns Dallmann Fine Chocolates at the Headquarters at Seaport Village, is another chocolatier who wants to spice things up.

“The current trend is salted, but I would love to see the next trend really be herbal,” she said. “Ever seen a curry chocolate? We sell it, and it is amazing. I would love to see a burgeoning trend of all things herb and spice related, since chocolate works in such harmony with so many unexpected flavors.”

Chef Michael Antonorsi, founder and master chocolatier of Chuao Chocolatier, a locally based chocolatier who introduced the idea of adding spicy chilis to gourmet chocolate, understands this.

Chuao is the most nationally recognized local chocolate company. Its products can be found at Whole Foods, Bed Bath & Beyond and Dean & DeLuca, among many other places. Although he’s national, Antonorsi is supportive of other local chocolatiers and believes the chocolate community can learn from the craft brew industry.

“I absolutely love how our community has become a mecca for craft beer lovers. It’s so much fun to see other makers live out their passion, and it would be a beautiful thing for that to continue with fine chocolate as well,” he said. “So, is chocolate going to make San Diego melt with sheer deliciousness? Let’s say yes. It could only be a good thing!”

As hopeful as Antonorsi is, others like Rygie Dy, head pastry chef at Bottega Americano in East Village, say it may take a while before America’s Finest City becomes America’s Chocolate Capital.

“I think, if given the opportunity, yes, [San Diego] can be,” Dy said. “It may take years [before] San Diegans are willing to let themselves indulge in something considered a ‘sweet.’”

Dy worries that people who want chocolate tend to stick to the tried-and-true rather than a flavor like cardamom rose petal chocolate.

“At least, they wouldn’t want to pay for it just to try it,” he said.

But there is reason for foodies to be optimistic.

“There are plenty of chefs who create their own chocolates from scratch using cacao beans. They are roasting them, they are turning them into sweet confections of very complex flavors,” Dy said. “It is a craft in itself much like the beer scene here. I wish San Diego had more of a sweet tooth than spending most of their time eating cardboard so they can be skinny.”

Lachlan Oliver, the owner of Heaven Sent Desserts in North Park, has a simpler dream. “I grew up in Europe, so these ‘Texas-sized’ desserts bother me,” he said. “A great quality dessert can be just like drinking a good scotch. It’s about holding the flavor in your mouth and pausing; not just eating bite after bite. You’re missing the best part. … The pause.”

(Verdict: Chocolate still has a way to go before it’s the new beer, but there is some evidence that the city is developing a locally made sweet tooth.)

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