Chocolate cafe opens in downtown Mystic

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Mystic — The rich sipping chocolate at Mystic River Chocolate Café is not your average hot chocolate. And for that matter, neither is the beverage labeled as hot chocolate.

The sipping chocolate ($5) is made from melted chocolate and heavy cream, making it richer and thicker and more velvety than hot chocolate made with cocoa powder and milk or — gasp! — water. The milky hot chocolate on the menu ($4-6) is made with melted chocolate and milk.

Both come in 70%, 100% and Mayan, meaning it's made with ancho and chipotle pepper. What additionally makes them both special, and what makes the business regionally unique in general, is that the chocolate is made in-house.

Mystic River Chocolate has been around for nine years, with Bill Gash as chocolatier and Casey Gash on the business and design side, but the couple recently took the plunge and decided to open a brick-and-mortar store.

The café opened Jan. 1 at 12 Water St. in downtown Mystic. While Sift Bake Shop is less than 300 feet away, Casey notes that what she and her husband offer is unique, as "bean to bar" artisans.

"There's sort of been a bean-to-bar revolution going on worldwide, but it's still small," she said, but most purveyors are small-batch, which makes it an expensive endeavor.

Mystic River Chocolate gets wild-harvested cacao, meaning cacao that is grown under trees in the natural landscape, from small family farmers in Ecuador and Peru, Casey said.

The Gashes make a point of working with certified organic farms. Bill said Mystic River Chocolate also has its own organic certification process, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture comes in for an inspection once a year.

He gets the cacao as nibs, when they haven't been roasted or seen a temperature above 110 degrees. Bill then puts the cacao through a granite wheel melanger in the kitchen, which visitors to the café can see through a glass wall.

"We crush and grind and smooth for about five days, and we make about 30 pounds at a time," he said. He then adds cocoa butter and either organic cane sugar or organic coconut palm sugar, depending on the type of chocolate he's producing.

The kitchen also has a tempering machine, molds for the bars, and a space Casey uses for baking.

Casey doesn't first and foremost think of the differentiation between Mystic River Chocolate bars as a difference in flavor, but as a difference in percentage. For example, there's 72%, 90% and 100%. The 100% bars are sweetened with monkfruit, which Casey said is less bitter than Stevia.

Some of the 70% flavors include raspberry, orange, blackberry plum, pinot noir, toffee and pink peppercorn. The bars range from $8 to $10 and are 2.2 ounces each.

Other options one might find in the shop include double chocolate chunk brownie cookies, chocolate walnut banana bread, crystallized ginger dipped in 70% chocolate, 55% salted almond dark cherry bark, and Barley Head stout truffles. (Barley Head Brewery is next door.) And they're all organic.

Casey said the café will have one or two flavors of soft-serve at a time; it currently has one she's calling vanilla cream because she finds it very flavorful. In the summer, Bill intends to introduce some cold chocolate drinks.

From the Navy and graphic design to chocolate

The Gashes came to be chocolate café owners after decades collectively spent in the Navy, graphic design, restaurants and yoga.

Casey moved to southeastern Connecticut when her father was stationed in Groton, and Bill — a St. Louis native — also moved to the area for the Navy. He was a submariner for 25 years.

Casey got her bachelor of fine arts from the University of Connecticut, and she got food service experience at Noah's and The Fisherman while working as a graphic designer. She spent 10 years in New York working as a graphic artist, and after returning to Connecticut, Casey taught gentle yoga at her studio Yoga by the Sea for a few years.

She said Bill had been interested in indigenous cacao for a long time, and this interest grew when his sister moved to Ecuador in 2006.

"I'm an engineer at heart — I was a Navy engineer — so it's all process-driven," he said. "It's artisanal, it's handcrafted."

He ran the café and shop Xocolatl in New London in 2006 and 2007.

In the past, one may have found Mystic River Chocolate bars at the American Velvet Mill in Stonington or CitySeed farmers market in New Haven. The Gashes developed a chocolate vine flavor for Stonington Vineyards using grape extract, and they have a private label for Social Coffee Roastery.

e.moser@theday.com

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