The Mast Brothers: The Double-Edged Sword of Craft Chocolate

The first decade of the new millennium marked a shift in the chocolate world. Unlike the massive chocolate conglomerates that rose in the 1900s, independent makers began taking an opposite approach: they purchased raw cacao beans directly from specific farmers or farmer cooperatives rather than bulk sources, and they roasted, winnowed, ground, flavored, mixed, and possibly conched the chocolate in small batches. In these producers’ view, which we henceforth call the bean-to-bar philosophy, direct sourcing gives control of bean terroir and quality, and small-batch production allows precise tuning of every every step of the process. The end result, they say, is that they can produce chocolate with precisely the texture and and more complex flavors (Brammer). Additionally, they stress that their direct-sourced cacao is produced through far more ethical labor and environmental methods than the cheap bulk cacao used by most of the industry.

It was during this time in 2006 that brothers Rick and Michael Mast began experimenting with bean-to-bar chocolate production in their Brooklyn apartment. They soon started selling their chocolate in local fairs, and expanded over the years, always championing the bean-to-bar principles to the press and through their marketing and online presence, while charming customers with their hipster image and aesthetic. They have been overwhelmingly successful; today, the Mast brothers’ beautifully wrapped bars are an iconic sight in hundreds of artisan shops across the country, thousands of fans flock weekly to their factory in Brooklyn for open tours and tastings, and they are a media favorite. Unfortunately, their fame is due to skillful marketing rather than chocolate quality. Thus, the Mast Brothers are the double-edged sword of craft chocolate. On one hand, the subpar taste and texture of their bars misrepresent the potential of bean-to-bar production; on the other, they have managed to raise awareness of chocolate and its production to a far-reaching audience and lured new chocoholics into the fold.

Recall that the primary motivation behind small-batch bean-to-bar production is to allow for production of “higher-quality” chocolate—that is, chocolate with finer texture and taste—by allowing the maker more precise control over every step. So before we assess the Mast Brothers’ chocolate, we should understand how to judge taste and texture. Expert Lauren Adler, who founded the renowned chocolate specialty shop Chocolopolis in Seattle, describes what Chocolopolis looks for in taste when curating its selection:
“[A] complex chocolate… begins with one flavor note and continues to change and evolve into others as the chocolate melts in your mouth. Many of the chocolates we taste are “one-note”, offering one flavor profile throughout the melt. Some might have two notes, but very few offer flavor complexity” (Adler).
This applies more weakly to aroma as well. For example, when I merely sniff Ritual Chocolate’s 75% Madagascar bar (image far below), I sense not only nutty chocolate but also hints of tropical fruit. When I place the bar in my mouth, I am initially hit by a starburst of citrus and plums and apricots, followed by warmer nutty cacao of a milder roast, and then waves of bright fruit and cacao wash back and forth as I swirl the chocolate around until it is gone and all that lingers is a tantalizing hint of fruit. Note the distinction between a chocolate tasting “good”—which many mass-produced chocolates arguably satisfy by dumping in sugar and milk solids—and the orchestra of evolving flavor tones that wash over the tongue in a fine chocolate. Moreover, just because one may not enjoy certain flavor notes doesn’t necessarily make a chocolate bad.For texture, unless the bar is intentionally unrefined like Taza, one generally expects a smooth, shiny, yet non-waxy look and touch, as well as a bright, crisp snap that signals fine tempering. In the mouth, it should still be smooth and creamy yet not pasty, and certainly not chalky or gritty. Adler comments that texture is where most makers fall short and that poor texture can ruin a bar’s chances despite fine flavor.

When I eat Mast brothers’ dark chocolate, I admire neither the taste nor the texture. Take their relatively new origin Tanzania bar (pictured later as well). Opening the package, I see a chocolate that is shiny but markedly coarser than, say, Ritual bars; there are noticable granules and defects. The chocolate feels drier to the touch, yet somehow still has a dull snap that verges on bendiness. What little aroma exists is of darkly roasted cacao. And when I finally place the chocolate in my mouth, I taste harsh, burnt ash and dust, against which cacao and a vague hint of Madagascar-esque fruit fight vainly before being defeated by bitterness. Their milk chocolate line is better. Owing probably to the increased sugar and milk fats, their sheep, cow, and goat bars are much more velvety, and the two that I sampled had a crisper snap. In particular, their goat milk bar (to the side) has the most delightful tang of goat cheese. Yet, the flavor of the cacao itself is quite one-dimensional, just a “normal” slightly nutty cocoa without fruit. The bar shines not as chocolate but as a general confection. All in all, it seems absurd—in fact downright sacrilegious—to compare Mast bars to masterpieces of the top bean-to-bar makers.

Experts agree. According to Good Foods Awards chocolate judge Clay Gordon in an interview with Slate magazine, their bars frequently have “defects” and are moldy, stale, bitter and astringent, such that “[i]f you were to ask the world’s top chocolate reviewers to rate bars, Mast Brothers would hit in the bottom 5 percentile” (Giller). Small wonder that Mast is almost never found in chocolate specialty stores, where a panel of judges that taste samples for the aforementioned taste and texture qualities, and only their top-rated chocolates make it onto the shelves. Based on chocolate quality, the Mast Brothers would certainly should have sunk long ago—nobody would buy Mast over other similarly priced but much more exquisite bars. So why are they the popular bean-to-bar favorite? Why is it that Mast is more often found in grocery stores and local food shops than the best craft chocolate brands?

The key to the Mast Brothers’ success is their marketing genius, both in artistic design and in public relations. Note that Mast doesn’t call it “marketing”; rather, they claim they have “education” department and “designers” (Williams 148). These are just semantics; at the end of the day, they have maestered the “considerable publicity opportunities by virtue of their singular position as a craft bean-to-bar-manufacturer focusing exclusively on fine flavor in media-mad and food-obssessed New York City” (Williams and Eber 148).

The design genius starts at their packaging. Wrapped in thick textured paper printed with a clean modern logo and minimalist abstract patterns designed by former fashion designer Nathan Warkentin, the Mast Brothers’ bars are quick to catch the eye of a casual browser, especially those who are novices to craft chocolate. Consider the selection below of single source bars, by Mast Brothers as well as Amedei and Ritual, two chocolate makers often praised by craft chocolate experts. All are beautiful, but their aesthetics embody entirely different approaches to branding.

Origin bars by Mast, Ritual, and Amedei.*

In the center, Ritual’s Sambirano Madagascar bar displays a lemur, the signature animal of Madagascar, along with information about the batch and harvest year for the true aficionado. Amedei, aiming for subdued classiness, avoids imagery altogether and merely highlights the Ecuadorian origin using elegant Serif E. Then we have the Mast bar, which has a bright pattern formed by abstract silkscreen-esque imprints of a blob that a small population would actually recognize to be an imprint of Tanzania. Very eyecatching, very modern, very pop.

These are fairly representative of general packaging trends. If there is imagery, it usually clearly references the cacao tree, the workers around them, or, in the case of origin bars, the animals or scenery characteristic of the source of the beans, catering to audiences that know more about cacao and its production. Otherwise, designs tend to be elegant but nondescript like Amedei. Mast designs, on the other hand, are bold, often-colorful patterns that have oblique connections to the product itself but are always aesthetically pleasing and reminiscent of patterns in clothing, websites, and modern stationery (Leissie 25). Both Mast and Warkentin have commented that the designs are intended to “allude” abstractly to the product within, but at the end of the day, most consumers will miss the nuances. Frankly, it is a “modern hipster” aesthetic that attracts people who aren’t necessarily concerned about cacao and its sourcing and production but simply enjoy living under that aesthetic (Greenbaum). And the Mast Brothers probably know this.

After all, they pump up their hipster aesthetic in other ways as well. For example, at their factory, which they open to the public in a mass display of transparency, they have large open spaces, wood shelving, blackboard walls scrawled over with beautiful script and drawings and taglines, and three-striped burlap sacks piled on the ground. Many of the employees are bearded and/or have large Warby-Parker-esque glasses, most of all the Mast Brothers themselves, who are often even referred to in the press as “the bearded brothers.”

A coffeeshop-esque blackboard about the bean-to-bar process at the Mast Brothers’ factory in Brooklyn, NY. (Bromley)
Michael and Rick Mast, the bearded brothers. (Bromley)
The reason for this hipsterism is simple: it sells. The vibe appeals to small independent grocery stores, cheese and wine shops, and craft coffeeshops, like Forge Baking Co. below in Somerville (shown below) or Central Bottle in Cambridge, which thus stock Mast bars. Happily for Mast, the primary customer base of these stores tends to be the type to purchase small pricey craft foods yet is not-too-educated in chocolate—a wide, less insular, and more press-happy audience than devout chocolate experts alone.
A rather stereotypically hipster arrangement of goods including Mast Brothers chocolate at Boston General Store's pop-up shop in Somerville, MA.
A rather stereotypically hipster arrangement of goods including Mast Brothers chocolate at Boston General Store’s pop-up shop at Forge Baking Company in Somerville, MA.*
Hipsterism aside, the Mast Brothers’ “education” strategy also sells themselves as a more delicious and ethical alternative to mass-produced chocolate. This they do by evangelizing their direct sourcing of cacao from organic, family-run farms in Belize, Madagascar, the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Papua New Guinea. A paramount example is the video below, titled “The Source,” which they released about their relationship with La Red de Guaconejo, a small organic cacao co-operative in the Dominican Republic.

In this video, we pan through lush green forests and luscious close-ups of colorful cacao pods while Rick Mast tells us that they “only source the best,” and the “most delicious.” Switching to shots of farmers, he then says, to get the “beautiful flavor notes” of Mast chocolate, they need beans grown on “great land from great farmers… who work tirelessly to produce the best cocoa beans.” Unfortunately, he laments, too few makers bother to taste the cacao fruit, and too few farmers have the chance to taste the end product of chocolate. The Mast team, however, traveled all the way to the Dominican to meet the farmers and “put a face to the name.” At that point, a production manager of the cooperative gushes in Spanish about how amazing it is to get to taste the chocolate, and how special the relationship is between Mast and the farmers. All the while, lazy jazzy tunes warm our hearts.

The video is a masterpiece of direct sourcing PR towards chocolate novices. First, they now expect that Mast chocolate should taste good and have “beautiful flavor notes” because the beans are of the “highest quality” and produced by happy workers. Despite not being backed by true taste evidence, these mellifluous descriptions work on the consumer who knows not what constitutes fine chocolate. With no basis of comparison, when they next eat a Mast bar, they automatically associate the taste and texture with direct sourcing. Second, those unfamiliar with chocolate labor practices may believe that farmer co-operatives are a solution to some ambiguous notion of farmer poverty, and that the Mast Brothers are among the most ethically concerned of chocolate producers because they actually bothered to visit their farmers who sourced the beans. This is a shadow of the truth: while it is true that the farmers in these cooperatives do better than the average cacao laborer, especially those in Africa (including enslaved / child labor), at the end of the day, these farmers are still living on a dollar or two a day, and a rare visit from the chocolate makers won’t make that better. Moreover, cooperatives uniquely suffer from the communist problem of incentivizing individual labor despite pay amortized across a group. Unfortunately, these darker truths are masked from the audience because they would make poor marketing material, leaving the viewer with a false feeling of understanding about chocolate sourcing.

That said, the video has its merits, for it raises awareness of facts generally abstracted away from consumers. For example, few realize that chocolate comes from the fruit cacao; that cacao is raised through backbreaking work by human farmers to whom we should be grateful; that often these farmers are extremely poor and don’t know what chocolate bars are; that the quality of cacao farming impacts the flavor complexity of chocolate. But, at the end of the day, the video shies away from disclosing the colder, harder truths of cacao production in favor of saying just enough to make the audience feel like they deserve pats on the back for choosing eating supposedly delicious, ethical Mast bars.

The Mast Brothers’ public presentation of their small-batch production processes similarly deludes novice consumers about the taste of bean-to-bar chocolate. In their public factory tours and tastings, they devoutly adhere to bean-to-bar practices. As documented by Fathom blog, the process begins with roasting the beans in-house in two small ovens (Cheang). After that, beans are dehusked in a “custom-built” winnower, and then ground with a few quality ingredients—always organic cane sugar, possibly with milk powders, vanilla, and other flavorings in certain lines, never with cheap additives like soy lethicin that would decrease the smoothness and warmth of chocolate—for over thirteen hours until they are “Mast-levels of smooth” (Cheang). (Never mind that the chocolate isn’t actually smooth, and their grinder is actually a refurbished paint mixer that can lend a strange metallic taste to the chocolate) (Martin). The chocolate liquor is then aged for up to a month to bring out “natural flavors,” before being tempered, molded, and handwrapped into their beautiful packages (Cheang). Mast chocolate is rather special in that it remains unconched (Williams and Eber 165).

This account is by Fathom, but similar profiles as well as interviews with the brothers abound in popular food magazines like Saveur and Bon Appetit. The content, both factual and subjective, almost certainly derives from Mast representatives’ words, for no expert would have lavished the bars with such glowing praise. All in all, whether through the press or directly during the tour, the Mast Brothers present to the public a true bean-to-bar practice, and inculcates them that their production methods lead to chocolate of the finest texture and most complex flavors. When consumers then sample Mast chocolate, they associate that taste with what they learned from the marketing propaganda. Those experienced with craft chocolate may just disregard the hyperbolic praise, but non-aficionados may easily assume that the bitter burnt Mast flavor is actually what bean-to-bar seeks to offer. Unimpressed, some may turn away prematurely, unwilling to experiment further with craft chocolate, particularly given the high prices of the bars.

Fortunately, this immediate disillusionment is not always the case. Shawn Askinoisie, founder of the bean-to-bar maker Askinoisie Chocolate, summarizes it best: the Mast Brothers are “a gateway chocolate” into “another strata of chocolate possibilities” (Askinoisie). As flawed as a Mast Bar may be, neither the taste nor the texture are unpleasant enough to revolt. For craft chocolate newcomers, the bitter bars may still feel refreshing or at least interesting compared to sugary Hershey’s and Mars bars. This is particularly true for the type of consumer that the Mast Brothers’ hipster branding targets, the type of consumer on average is more likely to want to learn more about craft foods and artisan goods and to buy small, local, and eco-friendly. Thus intrigued, they visit the Mast factory, possibly listen to videos and read articles, and in so doing, hear for possibly the first time about bean-to-bar philosophy, cacao production processes, and labor and environmental concerns related to the industry. The could then be motivated enough to try out other fine chocolates as well, eventually learning to discern craft chocolates of better taste and texture than their initial Mast bars. In the best cases, they might even seek out knowledge about cacao production and history from more reputable sources.

At the end of the day, the Mast Brothers have done an outstanding job—arguably better than any other maker—at crafting a bean-to-bar brand that can lure newcomers into taking a chance on the pricey but exquisite world of craft chocolate. It is a shame that their marketing quality is so far ahead of their actual chocolate, for because of this, they instill a poorer first impression of craft chocolate quality than it deserves, possibly losing potential aficionados as a result. What the craft chocolate world still needs is a maker that only markets like Mast but also creates smooth, shiny, velvety bars that melt in the mouth in cascades of dynamic flavors.

Works Cited

Adler, Lauren. “How We Curate Our Chocolate Collection.” Chocolopolis. Blogspot, 16 Mar. 2015. Web. 5 May 2015.

Askinoisie, Shawn. “The Mast Brothers Have It All Wrong: Success Is Not about Being Dangerous.” Huffington Post: The Blog. Huffington Post, 30 Mar. 2015. Web. 5 May 2015.

Brammer, Mikki. “The Mast Brothers.” The Dreamers. Map Magazine, n.d. Web. 5 May 2015.

Cheang, Becky. “Brooklyn’s Mast Brothers Are Modern Willy Wonkas.” ForbesLife. Forbes, 18 Apr. 2015. Web. 5 May 2015.

Giller, Megan. “Chocolate Experts Hate Mast Brothers.” Slate Magazine. Slate, 16 Mar. 2015. Web. 5 May 2015.

Greenbaum, Hilary. “Who Designed These Labels?” New York Times. New York Times, 5 Apr. 2011. Web. 5 May 2015.

Leissie, Kristy. “Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate.” Gastronomica 13.3 (2013): 22-31. Print.

Martin, Carla D. Personal interview. 21 Apr. 2015.

The Source. Prod. Mast Brothers. Dir. Conor Hagen. Vimeo. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 May 2015.

Williams, Pam, and Jim Eber. Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. Vancouver: Wilmor, 2012. Print.

*These photographs were taken by the author of this post.

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