Friday, December 18, 2015

The Mast Bros Controversy

There's a Mast Brothers debate raging right now, as Quartz just ran a story entitled How the Mast Brothers fooled the world into paying $10 a bar for crappy hipster chocolate.

Obviously this is a matter that concerns us deeply as a) a chocolate blog and b) a chocolate-in-NYC-specifically blog. So we are coming out of hiatus, at least momentarily, to respond to these claims that the Mast Bros. have basically pulled the wool over all our eyes and tricked us into buying mediocre chocolate by using questionable marketing strategies and perhaps outright lying.

David has a lot to say about this. He's never been a big Mast Brothers fan, in all the years that he's tried their various bars. But, as he concedes, and I (Leila) agree with wholeheartedly, "They are chocolate, and chocolate is good."

This article makes three claims to try to damn the Mast Brothers: first, some of the original batches were not bean to bar. Second, Mast Bros. did not invent the chocolate-making process. Third, their process is currently opaque.

Each of the three points, while technically accurate, is also somewhat petty and pedantic. And taken together, they still do not prove that the chocolate is, as the headline puts it, "crappy."

So, first of all, according to all evidence cited in this article, some of the first batches were bean-to-bar and some were Valrhona. Mast Bros. admitted this at the time, and they don't deny it now, so it's weird to start making a big fuss about it. It's especially weird, because Valrhona is actually pretty good -- and in fact a separate bean-to-bar company (though obviously a mass-produced one). I'm very skeptical that anyone could tell on a blind tasting that they were using Valrhona unless they had a Valrhona bar side-by-side (e.g. if their bar said "Trinidad," unless you were very familiar with the Valrhona Trinidad bar, I'm skeptical that you would know that the bar was mass-roasted/conched given that Mast re-tempered the bars. Unless of course their conching machines for their actual bean-to-bar chocolates were of an extremely larger grain than Valrhona's, which I don't think is the case, because then that would have been mentioned in this story.) More importantly, i think everyone knows this ended a long time ago, and they were admitting it at the time, so it's hard to say they are conning people based on this.

Second of all, the idea that they invented the chocolate making process is obviously marketing hyperbole. No one believes that. No chocolate consumer believes that. No pastry chef believes that. You didn't believe that. Anyone who thinks they re-invented roasting and refining chocolate and never even bothered to google the process is just sticking their head in the sand. Anyone who thinks they built conching machines by hand knows nothing about how this process works. Obviously they went on Chocolate Alchemy. Everyone has. It would be wildly irresponsible not to. That's not the "gotcha" this article makes it out to be.

Third of all, their current process is opaque because they sell so much chocolate that they are probably not using the best beans or interesting origins. This should surprise nobody. It's the same deal with Valrhona: nothing is wrong with their process, but besides a few single-origin lines, they simply need too substantial a quantity to get from some of these more artisanal plantations. You can criticize that if you want, but again, I don't think they're fooling anyone.

All that said, yes, obviously they got popular due to marketing. Their packaging is beautiful and their chocolate has never been that good. It's that simple. They started out as amateurs, and they were successful regardless of their sourcing process, so they've never had the incentive to source particularly well. I don't think they pick good beans, and I don't think they ever did -- even before they got them in large quantities like now.

But that's not the same as fooling anyone, or scamming anyone, and it's not like they don't do the process right. As they say -- since the beginning, they've made bean-to-bar chocolate using the right procedures. They don't use additives. They make chocolate out of cacao. So even if they aren't super talented at it (as compared to their obviously very talented marketing skills), let's not confuse this with Hershey's or even with Godiva.

BOTTOM LINE: If what you're looking for is artisanal NYC chocolatiers, Mast Bros. isn't the best. There are others we love who work in smaller quantities and use higher quality beans: Antidote, Tumbador, Fine & Raw, and Raaka, to name a few. But that doesn't mean Mast Bros. are lying to anyone. And at the end of the day: they are chocolate, and chocolate is good.