The hand-built, three-masted sailboat sailed into Brooklyn on wind power, loaded with 20 tons of cocoa beans. Awaiting it were two men who had bushy beards, Amish-style clothing, and a chocolate shop — the Mast Brothers, Brooklyn chocolate makers who boasted of making their chocolate from scratch, from "bean to bar."
Except, it turns out, maybe they didn't.
At least not at first. In the first years of their business, the Mast Brothers bought Valrhona chocolate from Europe, melted it down, and made it into bars — something they admitted only after an investigation from the food blog DallasFood.org.
The revelations are unlikely to have much effect on the Mast Brothers' business today. Since 2009, they really have made most of their chocolate from scratch.
But the story is resonating because the Brooklyn chocolate company has become the quintessential stereotype of the artisanal food movement. Even before the Mast Brothers were accused of selling repackaged European chocolate, chocolate experts were arguing that they were all hype and no substance.
The argument over Mast Brothers' chocolate isn't just about the origin of their chocolate — it's about their origin story itself. More broadly, it's about whether it matters if the stories you're buying along with your overpriced artisanal food are really true, and how much that matters.
The Mast Brothers make very expensive chocolate in beautiful packages
The Mast Brothers' chocolate presents itself as the quintessential artisanal product: simply made in small batches, wrapped in appealing packaging, made in Brooklyn by men with beards. And the chocolate's price might seem exorbitant, around $10 per bar.
With that $10, customers are buying not just the chocolate but the story behind it, a story that promises that it's not like other chocolate.
Most chocolatiers don't start with cacao beans. They let someone else do that part, and instead buy industrially produced chocolate that they melt down and transform themselves. The Mast Brothers' mystique is built on being different, by starting with the beans and making them, a small batch at a time, into the exquisitely wrapped final product.
And they say they figure out how to do that by themselves, in their New York apartment. As Rick Mast told Bon Appétit in 2011:
We thought, since we’ve made everything else, let’s see if we can make chocolate in our apartment. And we were successful pretty early on. Even the first primitive batches were still some of the best chocolate we’d ever tasted because it just seemed so fresh and complex. It was so fun to have a big burlap sack full of beans in our living room and to really connect ourselves with that. It started becoming sort of a thing: these brothers that are making chocolate from scratch in their apartment.
The real story, it turns out, is more complicated.
The Masts were buying and melting industrial chocolate in their early years
Scott Craig, who blogs about chocolate at DallasFood.org, argued in a series called "What Lies Behind the Beards" that the Mast Brothers' early chocolate could not have been entirely made from scratch, for four reasons:
- It tasted like industrial chocolate. Craig quotes multiple chocolate experts who were impressed by how smooth the Mast Brothers' chocolate was in their early days, but who also thought it tasted commercial. In 2009, when they were working directly from the beans, the taste got worse.
- The Mast Brothers were selling far more varieties of chocolate than would have been possible for them to make from scratch if they were describing their equipment accurately to the media. "Week after week, one wholesale account was ordering more than double what the Masts could have possibly produced from the bean with the equipment they had, even with improbably charitable assumptions," Craig wrote.
- The earliest bars didn't list ingredients at all. After Mast began listing ingredients in 2008, the lists noted that their bars had cocoa butter, vanilla, and soy lecithin, before switching to just two ingredients — cocoa and sugar — in 2009. But the Mast Brothers claimed they'd been using just two ingredients all along.
- The brothers privately admitted to several people in 2008 that they weren't making all of their chocolate from scratch.
The Mast brothers may well have had a big burlap sack of beans in their living room, and they say they were making some chocolate from scratch in their apartment. But they were also selling chocolate they'd made in the more conventional way: by buying commercially manufactured chocolate, known as couverture, and melting it down.
Craig's final conclusion: "In their first two years, the Masts appear to have built their company and their reputation largely on mountains of chocolate that they did not make."
After Craig's blog posts were re-reported by Quartz and picked up by the New York Times, the Mast Brothers admitted the allegations were true:
Before we opened our first chocolate factory, my brother and I experimented and honed our craft constantly for nearly a year, which is typical for any entrepreneur, craftsman, and innovator. At that time, in addition to making chocolate from bean to bar, we also tested with couverture Valrhona… And while we never claimed to make all our chocolate exclusively from bean to bar in those early days, we did describe ourselves as a bean-to-bar chocolate maker. Since we were in fact making chocolate from bean to bar, we honestly thought we could say as much.
The Mast Brothers didn't just sell chocolate — they're selling a story
Nobody is accusing the Mast Brothers of continuing to pass off commercial chocolate as craft chocolate. All accounts suggest they stopped doing this around 2009 and have truly been a bean-to-bar manufacturer since then.
But their early deception matters, critics argue, because the Mast Brothers company was built on a story — the story of two guys messing around in their kitchen and creating, from scratch, a better, simpler way to make chocolate. Plus, they grew beards, and dressed in Amish-style clothing, and built a factory-showroom in Brooklyn, and shipped their cacao beans to New York on a hand-built ship.
"More than anyone else in the New Brooklyn artisan movement, they exemplify to an almost implausible degree the daguerreotype stereotype of the bristly hipster, in newsboy cap and tweed britches, pedaling his penny-farthing to a north Brooklyn industrial space to make handcrafted nano-batch sweetmeats," New York magazine, which also reported the ship anecdote, wrote in 2011.
The story is especially important because chocolate experts say Mast Brothers chocolate isn't really that good. In 2013, the DallasFood blogger surveyed 13 chocolate experts about their favorite chocolate makers. Mast Brothers didn't show up on the list. In March, Slate wrote about why expert chocolate makers don't think much of Mast:
Many skeptical specialists contend that Mast’s Brooklyn location, hipster image, and beautiful packaging are the real reasons for its popularity—not its taste. "If you were to ask the world’s top chocolate reviewers to rate bars, Mast Brothers would hit in the bottom 5 percentile," said Clay Gordon, a Good Food Awards judge and the author of Discover Chocolate. "There are defects in every bar, and the chocolate is bad." Writer, chocolate educator, and International Chocolate Awards judge Eagranie Yuh said she’s tried Mast bars that tasted stale or moldy. Both Yuh and Lauren Adler, the owner of Seattle-based specialty shop Chocolopolis, commented that some Mast bars have an unpleasant chalky texture.
So the Mast Brothers story isn't just getting widespread attention because an artisanal chocolate scandal is inherently kind of funny if handcrafted chocolate isn't your livelihood.
It's striking a nerve because it lays bare the fact that part of what you're paying for, when you buy a $10 artisanal chocolate bar, is the story behind it.
But if it's all an act — if what really happened is that two guys saw artisanal food as an emerging trend and decided to get in on it, rather than figuring out a revolutionary chocolate-manufacturing process through trial and error — that raises a question about what the exorbitant price of a chocolate bar is really buying.