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Peak Mast Brothers (It Was Never About the Beards)

Through their assertions, Mast Brothers make it much harder for chocolate makers who do actual good works to flourish. And it makes it harder for us to do the work we want to do in supporting quality chocolate and makers with integrity.
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Acclaimed chocolate expert and author Clay Gordon and I spent a good chunk of last week emailing each other about the burst of news that craft chocolate makers Rick and Michael Mast had been deceiving the public about their chocolate-making practices and the sources of their beans. We're both nearly at the point of saturation (Peak Mast Brothers) BUT thought it would be beneficial for the chocolate-eating public to get a little more insight into the challenges the industry faces.

It was never about the beards.

The Mast Brothers were in the right place at the right time with the right product and the right image. Clay made this observation back in 2012; they captured the cultural zeitgeist perfectly, guiding and riding the wave they expertly caught. But change any one aspect of that picture and the Bros may have had less success. Take away Williamsburg, the flannel and, yes, the beards they claim were grown on a bet about the amount of chocolate they sold. What you have is chocolate built upon the work of others, heralded by journalists and cool hunters hungry to rave about a hot new thing - some of whom are now indulging in gleeful schadenfreude about the takedown.

There are many reasons to be disappointed in the Mast Brothers. They were willfully dishonest about which, if any, of their chocolates were bean-to-bar (as chronicled in exquisite detail by Scott Craig in his four-part series). This is an affront to any chocolate maker dedicated to the painstaking process of sourcing beans from various origins, paying for shipping (a much greater expense for smaller makers who do not have economies of scale) and then working through the laborious process of transforming the seeds of the cacao pod into chocolate.

It takes about 400 beans, or approximately 11 pods, to make 1 pound of chocolate. The seeds we call beans are roasted, cracked to release the cocoa nib, and then shelled (winnowed) to remove the papery husk. Next, the nibs are ground into a paste known as cocoa liquor, which can be directly processed into chocolate or pressed to separate the fat (cocoa butter) from the non-fat solids. The resulting "presscake" is processed into cocoa powder which can later be recombined with cocoa butter to make chocolate or with vegetable oils, like palm oil, rendering a much lower-quality product (that cannot be called chocolate in the U.S.).

The cocoa bean contains between 47 and 54 percent fat - a stable fat with a long shelf life, one that's solid at room temperature but starts to melt in our mouths or under our touch. Its stability means it's coveted not only in chocolate but also as an ingredient in medical and beauty products. The butter can have a mild to very present cocoa flavor, depending on the way it's processed, and is the only part of the bean used to make "white" chocolate.

Butter separated out from the powder is often added back during the chocolate-making process because fat - glorious fat - makes the chocolate creamier and, as the carrier of cocoa's aroma compounds, more flavorful. (Interestingly, some craft chocolate makers do not add any cocoa butter to their recipes, thinking that added butter detracts from the "true nature" of the cocoa bean.)

The resulting mass (with any added ingredients - sugar and, perhaps, vanilla) is now the texture of coarse mud. As it's refined, the size of the cocoa and sugar particles get progressively smaller. Conching (most often a separate step from refining) improves texture and tames harshness by evaporating off unwanted volatiles and fostering chemical reactions that can create delicate aromas and flavors.

A chocolate with particles over 30 microns will register on our tongues as gritty. Through refining, a cocoa liquor that starts out with particles in the 100 to 150 micron range is, ideally, reduced down to between 18 and 22, resulting in a smooth texture. That sensation influences the entire experience of flavor. "The whole process of making chocolate is to break down particle size and expose flavor," explains Trinidadian chocolate maker Matthew Escalante. "Every step of processing changes the possibilities."

The next step is tempering: forcing the fat crystals in the cocoa butter to line up in a specific shape through a controlled combination of heating and cooling. This increases the chocolate's sheen and intensifies its snap. Tempering is tricky; if the chocolate isn't tempered properly, it has a greater chance of getting fat bloom, the whitish coating or splotches caused by cocoa butter separating out of the chocolate. After tempering comes the sublime moment when the tempered liquid chocolate is poured into molds, cooled and - finally - packaged for consumption.

You can see why chocolate makers would be frustrated by anyone melting down pre-made couverture chocolate and claiming they'd had a hand in the entire process. This work is arduous. Through unclear labeling, Mast Brothers allowed consumers to assume all bars were made from beans they had sourced. They were not; they fudged the truth.

By 2006, about the time the Bros turned their attention to chocolate, the real pioneers of the American craft chocolate movement - Scharffen Berger first of all; then John Nanci's Chocolate Alchemy and his work with Santha and Crankandstein.net to solidify the first end-to-end micro-batch craft chocolate production pathway; and chocolate makers including Steve DeVries, Art Pollard, Shawn Askinosie, Alan McClure, et al.; and even Clay's own chocophile.com (now TheChocolateLife.com) - had done all the necessary preparatory groundwork. Work that had, in turn, been built on the efforts of Valrhona, Cluizel, Bonnat, Pralus, Bernachon, Domori, El Rey and Vintage Plantations (the list stretches on), plus the community around Martin Christy's seventypercent.com.

In essence, the required foundation had already been laid for them, the path already paved, and the market proven; chocolate could pretty much be made by anyone. But chocolate is a product almost everyone loves, but few actually know anything about when it comes to sourcing or production. A product with none of the universally accepted sensory evaluation criteria that has been long established in wine and coffee.

Was it done out of wondrous fascination for the purity of what they made in the cloistered atmosphere of the apartment where they first started experimenting? Or was it with an awareness of a unique market opportunity? Probably a combination of the two:
right place;
right time;
right product - with no established local competition; and
right image - where the Masts really set themselves apart.

The beards were distinctive; they solidified the Iowa-farmboy-cum-Amish/Hipster personae that the brand gelled around. The tattoos didn't hurt, nor did the puzzling (at least for Iowa farm boys) nautical references.

And then there was the wrapping on the chocolate. The paper gave a tangible aura of quality, gravitas, even value to the chocolate - a characteristic that their early attempts at chocolate making did not possess. (And, many would argue, the product still lacks.) There was and is something about opening up the wrapper of a Mast Brothers chocolate bar that lends credence to what's inside, that says, "Take notice of me. I am important!"

Was the packaging any better (or more authentic?) than what Shawn Askinosie was doing at the time? Shawn was putting pictures of actual farmers on his labels, naming people and identifying the real communities from which his cacao was sourced, and closing the wrappers with threads from the jute bags in which the beans had been transported from origin to Missouri. His wrappers were (and are) physical artifacts - a tangible bridge between the farmer, the end product and the consumer.

We may never understand how and why the Masts thought it necessary to start gilding the lily - or perhaps, more appropriately, the paper - but at some point they did. The most cursory examination of the chronology shows that the equipment and methods needed to make craft chocolate from the bean had been created well before the brothers started experimenting in their apartment.

Did they invent the bean cracker they used? Nope. The barley mill for home beer makers they purchased from Crankandstein was modified at the request of John Nanci. Using a hair dryer to winnow? Also John Nanci. Using a Champion juicer as a pre-grinder? John Nanci again. Using Santhas as grinders? Guess who. The CPS winnower they bought? Not John Nanci, but the Masts had no hand in its design. The winnower they claim to have built? A modified Brooklyn Cacao Vortex Winnower.

In short, almost every claim they have made about their roles in equipment innovation and processes of craft chocolate making are, to put it politely, embellishments. Or, to put it plainly, misappropriation. They were creating a myth and they spun it of whole cloth because, for one reason or another, no one called them out on it publicly. There was no little boy pointing out that the emperor was not wearing any clothes. Chocolate makers were whispering this to themselves, but not one journalist turned the whispers to shouts until March 2015.

As a result, the unknowing and unsuspecting public continued to grow mesmerized by gossamer tales woven of sheer fabrication, regardless of what their own intuition or taste buds told them. Mast Brothers were the "it boys." Surely if the New York Times and renowned chefs, such as Thomas Keller, thought so, it must be true. Our own sensory experience - at least the one that culminated in our own mouths - could not be trusted.

Simran (a relative newcomer to the world of chocolate who cared less about expert opinion than she perhaps should have) explored this in May of 2015, when she started to tease apart taste in her book Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love: "Cacao from Papua New Guinea is often dried on beds heated by diesel or wood, both of which can impart hammy or oily tastes to the beans because fats absorb odor. These are defects, the kinds of things most chocolate makers, particularly those concerned about flavor, don't want because they mask aromas inherent in the beans. Yet one maker - who has gotten a lot of media attention and puts its chocolate in the most beautiful of wrappers - has decided to turn this defect into an attribute, repackaging the off-flavor as a novelty by highlighting the smokiness of the bar. Many craft makers who work closely with farmers on improving drying techniques and eradicating those off-flavors question if this is something we should celebrate - if, by buying into the smoke, it's making it harder for producers who are trying to improve the taste of their beans. This is a question only we, the eaters, can answer, but it's important to recognize we're vulnerable to external influences, including hype and packaging."

A 2008 study by neuroscientist Hilke Plassmann and her colleagues reaffirms our vulnerability: We tend to enjoy identical products more when they're priced higher or highlight positive "expectations of ... pleasantness." This doesn't just happen in our mouths and noses but also in our brains.

This isn't to say we shouldn't try a wide range of chocolates, but if we're going to expend time and money and take in calories, we should know what our investment is supporting. We should try to understand where the flavors come from - and what good farming and processing practices taste like in order to understand why we love what we love.

We understand people wanted to believe the story that two brothers, toiling away in their Brooklyn apartment, had discovered something new and pure, something that never before existed. It's part of why many were so willing to overlook and excuse the discrepancies and write them off to youthful frat boy hijinks, an aberration long in their ancient past.

The Masts now claim they were open about melting Valrhona as part of their early experimental years, before moving into their first workshop. Once they settled into their brick-walled storefront on North 3rd Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, their refrain became, "Trust us, 100% bean-to-bar."

Trust us ... now.

If a company positions itself as an "authentic" "bean-to-bar" chocolate maker obsessed with integrity, purity and every little detail (from how the cocoa is sourced right through to the wrapping), then any bar produced that strayed from that storyline should have been clearly identified. That is very different from being "open" about re-melting only if and when asked. The vast majority of people who purchased products in the early days were not knowledgeable enough about production to make those inquiries. They accepted the statements made about the product at face value - statements that were not honestly represented on the labels of at least some of the products.

To rebuild trust with chocolate makers and consumers, the brothers need to document their trips to origin. They claim they source directly from the best farms in the world, yet the names of specific farms and details on varietals are conspicuously absent from their wallpapered labels, their website or any other source that can be found.

Yes, Venezuela is an origin, but if you were sourcing Chuao, or an Ocumare, or Cuyagua, Carenero, Sur del Lago, or a Guasare why wouldn't that be featured prominently? Perú does produce some terrific cocoa, but if the Masts were using some of the best - say Cacao Gran Blanco from Piura or Marañon - why isn't that information prominently featured? Craft chocolate makers mention specific origin and varietals whenever they can because it's what sets them apart and helps consumers ascertain value. Where are the proud photos of the bearded brothers at origin, working with "their" farmers? Or, as they proudly proclaim, sailing said beans from origin? It's economically unsustainable to sail a small cargo of beans from Papua New Guinea, Madagascar or even the Dominican Republic on a regular basis to Brooklyn. What is also out of the economic reach of most makers is what Rick Mast boasted about when claiming they once paid ten times the market price for beans. If they actually paid that price at the farm gate, we would be truly impressed. But if a significant portion of that cost is tied up in transportation and other costs, then it's far less impressive.

So, why do we care? We are not makers. We have no professional axe to grind. Our motivation is simply to clear up misconceptions: The Masts dished it out, and most of us gobbled it up.

But through their assertions, Mast Brothers make it much harder for chocolate makers who do actual good works to flourish. And it makes it harder for us to do the work we want to do in supporting quality chocolate and makers with integrity.

Too much #mastsplaining.

Take Shawn Askinosie. He profit shares with his farmers. He has created self-sustaining school lunch programs in communities from which he buys cocoa. Or Gianluca Franzoni of Domori, who works with the Franceschi family to preserve endangered strains of cacao in Venezuela. Volker Lehmann's work with cacao silvestre in Bolivia and Marañon in Peru. Ingemann in Nicaragua. Graig Sams, Gregor Hargrove and company well before anyone else had their eyes directed toward Belize. Or the efforts of the Cocoa Research Centre in Trinidad, CATIE in Costa Rica or the hundreds of other conservationists and farmers working to conserve the very best varieties of cacao.

The Mast Brothers consciously and deliberately set themselves apart from the rest of the craft chocolate community. When asked by journalist Megan Giller about critics, Rick Mast glibly replied, "We are a dangerous company because we are outsiders to the chocolate industry, never leaning on industry norms."

Given the meticulousness that has gone into crafting every other aspect of the brand, it's hard not to conclude that the adoption of this position is just another aspect of the brand. As self-proclaimed dangerous outsiders, the company justifies operating under a different set of principles - and different measures of accountability - than other craft chocolate makers. Rather than replying to the press storm with openness and transparency, they have responded by turning inward and closing their doors tighter shut. Their response reinforces that what the Bros may be remembered for is their branding - the beards and the paper - not their chocolate.

Clay Gordon is the author of IACP-finalist Discover Chocolate: The Ultimate Guide to Buying, Tasting, and Enjoying Fine Chocolate and the creator and moderator of The Chocolate Life, an online community dedicated to all things cocoa and chocolate with members in over 160 countries.

Simran Sethi is the author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love - a book about the rich history - and uncertain future - of what we eat. Sethi is also a former visiting scholar at Trinidad's Cocoa Research Centre housing the largest collection of cacao in the world.

Photo credit: mastbrothers.com