Controversy Brews Around Mast Brothers Artisanal Chocolate

Photo: Courtesy MastBrothers.com.
For the better part of a decade, Mast Brothers Chocolate has been a pioneer in the Brooklyn artisanal food movement. When they first began selling beautifully wrapped bars in 2007, Michael and Rick Mast were darlings of the press — what with the bushy beards, Williamsburg-based lab, and a lot of talk about "small-batch" before everything was "small-batch."

Now, it appears that the tables have turned. Following a scathing story in Slate and an extensive multi-part exposé in DallasFood.org, Quartz has put together an investigation into the discrepancy between the Mast Brothers image — one that convinces consumers to pay $10 for a bar of chocolate — and what's really going on beneath its wrappers.

At issue, first of all, is the Masts' story about always being a "bean-to-bar" chocolate company, which meant that the company obtained raw cacao from a single source and roasted it in-house for each recipe. According to emails obtained by Quartz, as well as experts who tasted the early Mast bars, the company melted down chocolate from French manufacturers Valrhona when it was first starting out.

"Any insinuation that Mast Brothers was not, is not or will not be a bean to bar chocolate maker is incorrect and misinformed," reads a statement posted on the Mast Brothers site. "We have been making chocolate from bean to bar and will continue to do so."
Another issue is the lack of transparency about where the cacao beans come from now. While the bars used to state the beans' origins on the package, such as the Dominican Republic or Trinidad, they no longer include such information. That would be a potential problem if Mast Brothers was sourcing its beans from places such as West Africa, where practices of rainforest clearing and child labor are the norm. The Mast Brothers statement does not directly address this issue, but says, "We are steadfast in our guiding principles of simplicity, honesty, connection, innovation, love and respect. We are proud of our sourcing, our process, our employees and our incredible partnerships."

These sourcing and melting controversies may seem complex for those of us who aren't professional chocolate connoisseurs. However, it is worth noting that, as described on The Hustle, experts don't rate the taste of Mast Brothers bars particularly high. Is the consumer paying $10 for ethically sourced, artisanal chocolate? Is the consumer paying $10 for fabulously delicious chocolate? Why doesn't the consumer just pick up a bar of Hershey's and call it a day?

In the end, chocolate is a matter of taste and price tags mean more to some people than others. The consumer will decide if Mast Brothers survives this controversy. The food industry — particularly the artisanal and craft food scene — insists that purveyors be transparent about their products.
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