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Half Mast

December 21, 2015

Fifty bucks. That’s about where I tap out on buying a bottle of wine at the store. I almost never spend close to that amount of money on a bottle of wine, but that’s my upper limit. Maybe, maybe that can go up to $100 for something like a grower-produced Champagne if the occasion was right. I’ll go up to $100 on a bottle of booze, although if I ever came across another bottle of that 1983 Domaine Boingneres Folle Blanche Armagnac, I’d easily go up to $200 for the privilege of getting to experience it again.

But eight bucks a pound for dried beans? It’s not going to happen. Even though my final dish of Cuban black beans and rice would only cost about a couple bucks per serving, it’s still too staggering of a premium for me to accept.

We all have these price caps in our head. There are some things one person can justify that are entirely beyond the pale for someone else. And it’s not necessarily a question of income, but more a question of values.

This is where marketing plays a very critical role. But marketing relies a lot on trust. If you’ve been paying close attention to the food world over the past couple of days, you may have noticed the ugliness that comes out when that trust starts breaking down.

I’ve got no skin in the game when it comes to MAST chocolates, because I’d never buy a 2.5 ounce bar of chocolate for $10 in the first place.

It’s not because I don’t care about good chocolate. I do. When Scharffen Berger first came out, I was buying their bean to bar chocolate all the time for a fraction of the MAST price. In fact, that was the very first chocolate that I let Young Master Fussy ever taste. My guiding principle back then was that if I introduced the lad to great chocolate, he’d never be able to tolerate the crappy stuff.

Sadly, that didn’t work out so well.

To me, it was always clear that MAST was as much about packaging and positioning as it was about product. That’s the only way to justify such a hefty premium. And God bless them for making a go at it and finding a market.

But recently, when a sliver of doubt was introduced about the veracity of the brand’s production methods, all the jackals descended and the echo chamber roared with retribution. It turns out that people may pay a tremendous premium for a piece of chocolate in a pretty package with a good story. However, if they lose an iota of faith in the integrity of the brand, the schadenfreude will be immeasurable.

Here’s the story in Vanity Fair, Jezebel, Washington Post, and The Guardian. But it all started with one blog.

You know what? I really don’t care. Like I said, I’ve never sung their praises, so I won’t personally look foolish if the accusations turn out to be true. Heck, I’ve never even put their chocolate in my mouth, so I can’t say I’ve been burned by buying expensive chocolate that didn’t live up to the hype.

What I am concerned about is the rapid and vociferous backlash against this relatively small company that seemed to be trying to do things the right way.

We have a few small local producers and purveyors who sell things at a premium based on marketing promises of better production practices. And I would like to think that if there was ever any doubt in how they were conducting their affairs that people would stop to listen to their side of the story.

So I’m going to do something for the Mast Brothers. Below is the full text of the public response they posted to their website. It’s not seeing nearly as much press as the accusations. But the accusations are much sexier.

If you want, you can see the following direct at the source, right here in all its well-designed glory.

Dear Friends,

I wanted to personally make a follow-up response to the misleading, unsubstantiated and in many cases unsourced articles being circulated by the media about our business and be perfectly clear about a few key points:

Mast Brothers is a 100% bean to bar chocolate maker. Every chocolate bar made by our company that you have lovingly purchased since we opened our first factory, including those purchased for the coming holidays, was made “bean to bar”. Any claim or insinuation otherwise is simply false.

Mast Brothers has always been making chocolate from “bean to bar.” From the beginning (2007), my brother and I have produced a bean to bar line of chocolate with an obsessive attention to detail, meticulous craftsmanship, groundbreaking innovation and inspirational simplicity. Despite the best efforts of various competitors and “critics” to disparage us or pull us down, we are proud of our work and proud of the journey we took to get where we are today: We employ over 50 beautifully talented, hardworking and inspiring chocolate makers. We partner with family-owned specialty shops and renowned culinary institutions alike, across the globe. We deliver a superior bean to bar product to our customers.

Mast Brothers has been open and transparent about our experimentation, techniques and recipes since day one. To set the record straight, 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 despite wild speculations about our production levels or sales, we made no more than 200 or so bars a week, did not make a profit and generated a rather modest revenue, which we obtained primarily from setting up a folding table at a weekend market, the occasional wedding or special event. Additionally, we did not sell our chocolate bars for $10 but $5-$7 at the time. We have always been open and transparent about our chocolate, and have eagerly and honestly discussed our methods with inquiring customers, chefs, fellow chocolate makers and journalists. 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. We sincerely apologize if you or any of our other loyal customers feel they were misled about the chocolate we made when our company was just getting off the ground.

That all said, having to write this letter saddens me more than anything. We have spent precious time away from our family on the week of Christmas to manage a senseless, mean-spirited “takedown” by determined individuals with an agenda to harm our reputation solely for the purpose of their commercial or professional gain. I would hope that the press covering these unfounded speculative allegations would examine the motives of those in the business of spreading this misinformation. It is very disappointing personally and professionally. Our wonderful team and our beloved partners have to go home for the holidays and try to explain to their families and friends that yes, indeed, Mast Brothers is actually making their own chocolate. This is not the chocolate industry that we wish to be a part of. To that end, we will continue, as we have always done, to not participate in chocolate industry conferences, conventions or competitions until the culture changes.

More importantly, however, we will work even harder to challenge, improve, and innovate. We will continue to focus on growing our business in an ethical, honest and transparent way. We will continue to buy hundreds of tons of cacao from the world’s great farms. And we will continue to deliver a superior bean to bar product to our customers for all to enjoy.

We wish you all a happy and peaceful holiday season.

Rick Mast
CEO / Co-Founder

Mast Brothers – Q & A

What is “Bean to Bar”?
“Bean to bar” is a phrase used to describe that the entire process of making the chocolate is done by the chocolate maker, including roasting the cocoa bean, winnowing, refining, tempering and molding. This results in a more authentic, high quality chocolate.

What is Couverture?
Couverture is a style of high quality chocolate (also made “bean to bar”) that often adds additional cocoa butter for a more buttery mouthfeel and to facilitate chocolate confectionary work.

Who/What is Valrhona?
Valrhona is a leading maker and supplier of chocolate couverture to top professionals around the world.

Do you remelt couverture (Valrhona)?
No. This year alone we will have purchased around $500,000 worth of cacao from top farms. We make chocolate, from bean to bar, in London, New York and soon in Los Angeles.

How did you use couverture such as Valrhona in your experimental first year, before opening your factory?
Alongside making chocolate from bean to bar, we used couverture in countless experiments. We happily used it in scores of truffles, various confections, and pastries. Valrhona was one of many chocolate makers that inspired our early bean to bar efforts. Occasionally, we would resort to using couverture feves to seed these tempering batches, or use melted couverture to clean, flush or warm up our stone-grinders. Our early bar production was so minimal, around 200 bars a week, so we couldn’t afford to waste a drop. Even this hardly controversial act was done on a miniscule amount of chocolate and even though it technically was ‘bean to bar’, it wasn’t labeled ‘bean to bar’.

Do you or did you ever sell a chocolate bar as ‘bean to bar’ when it was remelted couverture?
No. We were proud of our bean to bar work and were eager to show it off but were always open and transparent about any auxiliary experiments.

Did you make chocolate from bean to bar in your first year?
Yes. My brother and I quit our day jobs in late 2007, and spent most of the next year experimenting with how to improve our chocolate products, produced consumer research and market testing, learned more about the intricacies in making chocolate, and discussed our business plan. During this time we settled on our recipes, company vision and even opened a factory.

Were you open and transparent about your experimental first year?
We have always been open and transparent about our chocolate, and have eagerly and honestly discussed our methods with inquiring customers, chefs, fellow chocolate makers and journalists. 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.

Do you claim to be the first ever ‘bean to bar’ chocolate maker?
No. There have been countless interviews and reports dating back to our beginnings in which we say otherwise. We have even written about various chocolate makers that predate us (Patric and Amedei, in a New Yorker piece I wrote in 2008). We are however, one of the first in this bean to bar space and I do believe the first in New York.

What goes on at your Chocolate Factory and HQ that is on 46 Washington Avenue in Brooklyn?
It is a 100% bean to bar, beautiful chocolate factory that produces chocolate using the same techniques as is open to the public at our Brooklyn flagship in Williamsburg. This factory employs nearly 30 people in our HQ facility, from chocolate makers to bookkeepers. It also houses our inventory and fulfillment departments and our offices. It is not designed to facilitate the public on a walk-in basis.

Where do you source your beans?
Currently, we are sourcing beans from a variety of origins: Peru (including the famed porcelana bean), Venezuela (Chuao), Tanzania, Madagascar, Brazil and Papua New Guinea. We have sourced in the past from all around the world and have a queue of samples from new regions to explore for our 2017 collection and limited reserve bars.

Why have you taken origin off of the label?
We didn’t take it off, we simply aren’t offering single-origin chocolate bars in our 2016 collection. We have never put origin on the label when a chocolate wasn’t exclusively from one origin. Our chocolate in the new collection features cacao of a variety of origins. We have designed a label that clearly communicates and emphasizes the simplicity of ingredients used. If customers want to know more, we are an open book.

What does the future of Mast Brothers look like?
We are a growing business and the outlook for the future is positive. Despite some individuals with an agenda to harm our reputation solely for the purpose of their commercial or professional gain, we will work even harder to challenge, improve, and innovate. We will continue to focus on growing our business in an ethical, honest and transparent way. We will continue to buy hundreds of tons of cacao from the world’s great farms. And we will continue to deliver a superior bean to bar product to our customers for all to enjoy.

For all press inquiries, please contact press@mastbrothers.com

That’s it. I’m still not going to buy a $10 bar of chocolate regardless how this turns out. But I think it’s important to hear the producer’s perspective before forming your own judgement.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2015 11:41 am

    Thank you for posting this. I ran across the “MAST takedown” on Facebook and took the time to read the posts on the dallasfood.org blog (which has nothing to do with Dallas). It did not reach the level of outrage for me. The cites from other chocolatiers seemed like circumstantial evidence and the complaints about the brothers growing hipster beards has nothing to do with chocolate making and in fact raised my suspicions about the motives of the critics.

    We know that in the age of social media a marketer has to respond massively and immediately to negative press and it’s too bad the Mast brothers did not do it sooner. But after reading your detailed FAQ and statement from them, I’m satisfied. May even buy some of their chocolate.

  2. jazzngas permalink
    December 21, 2015 6:12 pm

    I happily pay $7.99 when I’m in St. Petersburg Fl at Locale Market. Healthy Living NY recently took them off their shelves. In my opinion the bars are a real treat.

  3. Elizabeth permalink
    December 23, 2015 2:18 pm

    Take a look at their updated FAQ, they’ve deleted the portion below and now it states that you can find origin information under each bar on their website. Seems very odd/suspicious to me.

    Why have you taken origin off of the label?
    We didn’t take it off, we simply aren’t offering single-origin chocolate bars in our 2016 collection. We have never put origin on the label when a chocolate wasn’t exclusively from one origin. Our chocolate in the new collection features cacao of a variety of origins. We have designed a label that clearly communicates and emphasizes the simplicity of ingredients used. If customers want to know more, we are an open book.

  4. January 5, 2016 1:07 pm

    You might change your tone once you’ve tried it. I’ve had two varieties of Mast, and both were pretty uninspired, overly bitter (I love dark chocolate, 90% cocoa bring it on) but they were unnecessarily so, with an aftertaste that just didn’t belong. You want amazing chocolate, go try a bar from Rogue. Although good luck finding one… So that’s my problem with them. Its 10 bucks and its not all that good. Then there’s the whole problem with charging 10 bucks or more per bar, saying its bean to bar, and then admitting after the fact that its melted Valrhona, thus making it the same as good commercial chocolate. I’ll pay 10 dollars for amazing chocolate. I even love commercially sourced chocolate like Lindt. What I don’t love is deliberate misinformation…

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