What Happens when Hipsters Make Chocolate?

In 2010, Mark Grief wrote an article for the New York Times investigating the contemporary hipster[1]. He questioned the rationale behind the lack of self-identifying hipsters, and the origin of the term hipster as an insult. Ultimately, he made two important discoveries. First that the word hipster does not necessarily refer to the “couch-surfing, old-clothes-wearing” youths who appear most authentically hipster. Instead, the term often refers to a collective group of young, trendy, hypercritical people. Second, that hipsters are dependent on their knowledge. According to Grief, “hipster knowledge compensates for economic immobility”, implying that outlandish knowledge of a specific craft is one of the hipster’s most valuable tools[2].

So why is this relevant to Chocolate? Well, in the past decade, a few hipsters have entered into the world of chocolate making. However, in two cases, these hipsters are using their knowledge to churn out incredibly defensible small batch bars. Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce to you The Mast Brothers and the Dick and Taylor chocolate companies. Since their conception, both have become incredibly popular as a result of marketing and motive, not necessarily taste. Ultimately, however, the impact of their popularity has been positive. The companies have pioneered and motivated a new subculture within chocolate producers—attracting a new demographic to artisan chocolate makers— as well as continue to promote fair trade practices, localized processing, and ethical labor standards.

Subculture is a complicated topic to define among chocolate makers. It is inextricably linked to style, yet it is more complicated than pure aesthetics. According to Dick Hebdige, subculture is made up of “expressive forms and rituals of subordinate groups”[3]. For the purpose of this piece, subculture is the stylistic expressions and rituals of the chocolate maker. More simply, it is how the chocolate maker processes, markets, and sells their chocolate. In order to evaluate how these two chocolate makers have developed and pioneered a new subculture, it is pertinent to evaluate the chocolate makers themselves.

Mast brothers pictureLet’s first observe the Mast Brothers. The most obvious of the brother’s appearance is their beards. Grouped with the newsboy cap, large eyeglasses, and a brick backdrop in their workshop in Brooklyn—these stylistic choices categorize the Mast Brothers as being part of hipster culture. Pictured right is the second image on Google when you search for “hipster”. See the resemblance?hipsters

Next, we have Adam Dick and Richard Taylor. Similarly to the Mast Brothers, they both have a noticeable amount of facial hair, and big eyeglasses. Adam wears a stocking cap, but instead of a white double-breasted chef jacket or casual button down, they both are wearing plaid flannel shirts. Interestingly, both the Mast Brothers and Dick and Taylor look quite similar in outward appearance. Not to mention they both share a similar interest in chocolate.

dickandtaylor1Chocolate is their craft. However, while outward appearances and interest in the craft of chocolate making do not put their chocolate on par with chocolate makers like Scharffen Berger and Rogue Chocolate, their participation in hipster culture has made them wildly successful within the media. To heavy media users like the population of hipster subculture, social media is a channel in which to promote foods—and in many cases, fair trade, agriculturally sustainable foods. I mentioned earlier that the emergence of hipster artisans is playing a positive role in the chocolate industry. Well, here is where things get interesting.

Cacao beans are a very similar commodity to coffee beans. Both are often grouped with buzzwords like “sourcing”, “fair trade”, and “labor standards” as a result of raised awareness of low agricultural labor standards in West Africa and other high cacao production areas. Increased globalization has disconnected consumers from their food by hiding the process that leads to the final product. Large coffee companies such as Kraft do not source their beans through fair trade purchases[4]. Instead, the largest coffee company in the world continues to exploit farmers and agricultural laborers[5]. However, the hipster culture began to promote the fair-trade label in the early 2000s. Since then, support for fair-trade coffee has increased substantially[6].

The chocolate industry has seen similar results. The small batch companies like Mast Brothers and Dick and Taylor initially appeal to a niche audience, but with growing social media, their impact on fair-trade and labor standards of cacao farmers is substantial. Cacao will soon catch up to coffee with regard to popularity of fair-trade products.

In an article by Cronin, McCarthy, and Collins, they analyze the hipster food-based resistance strategies against large-scale production by companies like Tyson, Kraft, and Hershey’s[7]. Within their research, they note that the two of the most prominent resistance strategies among hipsters is brand awareness and avoidances, as well as the decommodification of mass-produced goods. In other words, they avoid well-known big company brands, and substitute away from products that have been mass-produced and super-processed to “reject corporate-capitalist ‘junk food’”[8]. They look for smaller brand names and marketing that appeals not just to the brand, but to the artisanal qualities of the food product itself[9].

mast brothers chocolateThe Mast Brothers and Dick and Taylor Chocolate are aiding in bringing to chocolate a brand that is not mass-produced. In the United States, there are really only a handful of small-batch producers of chocolate, and these select few often do not market their products to a subculture or demographic that will openly discuss the product’s social and economic significance. As we look at the packaging for the Mast Brothers, it is immediately apparent that their branding isn’t all about the brand itself. The bars are marketed as pieces of art. Each hand wrapped with a different piece of paper. The paper itself, while not apparent though a photo, has the feel of old parchment from before the 20th century. The Dick and Taylor bars, while less flashy, also appear as though they are crafted as a work of art. They boast an old time sketch of a shipyard where a boat is being build. A nod to their past lives as sailboat craftsmen.Dickandtaylor chocolate

When contrasted with a large, mass-produced bar like Hershey’s, it is simple to see the difference in brand management. The localized, bean-to-bar, fair-trade bars of the two hipster companies concentrate much less on the brand, and more on the artisanal qualities of the bar. This is important when you consider the aforementioned qualities that hipsters look for when substituting away from big brands. Furthermore, the Hershey’s bar itself is almost exclusively about the brand. HersheysThe design around the bar has no artful qualities, aside from the brand there is only a dark brown background and a small caption of “milk chocolate”. Cadbury has a similar design on their candy bar. On the bar’s front, a solid color with the mega-brand’s name plastered across it. Again, the concentration is on the brand, not the craft. However, on the Cadbury bar, they print a fair trade label on the front in an attempt to hide any traces of exploitation in the companies past, present, or future. Yet, on cadburythe hipster bars, there is no stamp. The reasoning for this is that the small-batch chocolate makers work so closely with the source of their beans that they don’t need the reaffirmation on the bar itself. Both of the companies directly source their chocolate from small farms. In the case of the Mast Brothers, the two bearded chocolate makers travelled to the Dominican Republic to meet their cacao farming partners, and give them a taste of the final product. The hipster chocolate scene is far from needing a stamp that notifies chocolate enthusiasts about the source of their cacao. It is inherently recognized as a result trust built through thousands of completely hand-crafted chocolate bars.

I had mentioned toward the beginning of this piece that the taste was not the key component of their chocolate. This is for good reason. The chocolate that these hipster companies are producing are not the best in the world. Critics have reviewed the Mast Brothers and deemed their chocolate inconsistent, defective, and just plain bad[10]. Yet, their chocolate is used in restaurants like French Laundry, and other top tier establishments. What is most important with regard to these two trendy companies is their moral and ethical practices. The results may not be of the same consistent quality as Rogue Chocolate, or Amadei in Italy, but what they produce is a result of fair labor practices and a strong knowledge of cacao’s origins. Their gift to the chocolate industry is not only their product, but the messages, the new target demographic, and raised awareness. The Mast Brothers and Dick and Taylor Chocolate act as domestic beacons, hidden in hipster clothing and facial hair that help— if just a little — guide the way to a better chocolate industry.

Works Cited

[1] Greif, Mark. “The Hipster in the Mirror.” New York Times 3 (2010): 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hebdige, Dick. “Subculture: The meaning of style.” Critical Quarterly 37.2 (1995): 120-124.

[4] Howard, Philip H. “Visualizing Fair Trade Coffee.” Michigan State University. 2011.

[5] Martin, C. 2015. “African and African American Studies 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food”. Emerson Hall, Harvard University. Lecture.

[6] Featherstone, Liza. “In Brooklyn, Hipsters Sip ‘Fair Trade’ Brews.” New York Times. 2007.

[7] Cronin, James M., Mary B. McCarthy, and Alan M. Collins. “Covert distinction: how hipsters practice food-based resistance strategies in the production of identity.” Consumption Markets & Culture 17.1 (2014): 2-28.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Giller, Megan. “Chocolate Experts Hate Mast Brothers: Why do specialty shops refuse to carry one of the best-known craft chocolate brands in the country?” Slate. March 2015.


Figure 1. http://behindthescenes.nyhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/brothers.jpg

Figure 2. http://thesocietypages.org/feminist/files/2014/07/about3.jpg

Figure 3. https://whatshotinchocolate.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/dickandtaylor1.jpg

Figure 4. http://lovelypackage.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/mast1.jpg

Figure 5. http://www.centralmarket.com/getattachment/74bf0659-bf7d-48fd-83fc-99295fc46002/Dick-Taylor-Takes-Chocolate-Back-to-Its-Roots.aspx

Figure 6. https://www.hersheys.com/images/products/3480/hershey-bars-milk-chocolate_md.png

Figure 7. http://www.homeduuka.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/cadbury-dairy-milk-v2-1.jpg

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