Mast Brothers scandal: A news roundup

As much as I have been following the revelations regarding the Mast Brothers and their bean to bar practices, I wasn’t sure I had read it all. So now that the dust has settled a bit, I thought I would do a roundup. No doubt we have not yet heard the last of the “scandal,” but it seems a good moment to make an archive of stories; there certainly have been plenty.

As several reports have noted, craft chocolate makers and industry experts have long been open, at least among themselves, about their dim view of Mast Brothers chocolate. I’m not sure that the brothers themselves ever heard this, though, before the recent flurry of press. In a community that is remarkable for its openness and dialogue, Rick and Michael Mast have never been very participatory. When they first opened in New York, I used to try to arrange for a factory tour and meeting whenever I was in my hometown, hoping for insights for whatever research project I was working on at the time. But while other makers opened their doors freely, excited to show their factories and share chocolate, I never could reach a human being to talk to at Mast Brothers, much less meet them. I gave up some years ago, even though as Director of Education for the Northwest Chocolate Festival (2010-2013), I would have been delighted to have the Mast brothers give lectures or host an exhibitor booth.

It also seems to me rather icy that the brothers have (as of January 8, 2016), 6,973 Twitter followers, but follow no one themselves. Nearly every craft chocolate maker I know has expressed the utility of social media in creating and maintaining community ties. Many are active on Twitter and Instagram, and follow one another. It’s an important way of keeping up with developments around products and process, and to participate in the dialogues that help shape everything from industry ethics to events. For the Mast brothers to stay removed from that discussion is perhaps their way of preserving time for other work and personal priorities. It is also possible that they never felt participation was a professional necessity, given their commercial success. But perhaps too they hadn’t a meaningful contribution to make to the dialogue, and so kept out of it.

In any case, the open secret that was once confined to chocolate nerd circles busted wide open in late 2015. The first major report had come earlier, in March, by Megan Giller in Slate: “Chocolate Experts Hate Mast Brothers.” In this excellent and ultimately foundational piece, Giller revealed the craft industry’s distaste for Mast Brothers chocolate, and the fact that prominent retailers around the country—led by people who taste virtually every new bar on the market—refuse to carry the brand, citing various aspects of technical impoverishment in the bars (“chalky,” “tasted stale or moldy”).

While no doubt a revelation to many readers at the time, the story did quiet down for a while—only to be revived in a much huger fashion. Between December 7-16, 2015, the blog Dallasfood.org released a four-part series that ignited the recent storm. These posts went beyond Giller’s report that Mast Brothers chocolate is just not very good. They made the serious allegation that the brothers, who claimed to have been bean to bar makers from the start, had in fact re-purposed chocolate made by others (known as couverture).

This is a common practice, and no one disputes its necessity for certain business models. Making chocolate from beans is a capital intensive process, and requires all sorts of machinery and expertise, acquisition of which simply does not make sense for many businesses. Many chocolate bars have thus been melted down, recombined, and branded by “melters,” as they are often known, who do not start from the bean.

It amounts to heresy within the industry to claim that you are a bean to bar maker, doing all that hard work to produce chocolate, when actually you aren’t. Debates have raged before, when companies have been accused of making chocolate from semi-finished products, while claiming otherwise in their marketing. But these remained, for the most part, hearsay within chocolate circles. The Dallasfood.org reports, in contrast, included numerous testimonies by industry experts, spanning years of interactions with the Mast brothers and their products. All pointed out inconsistencies in Mast Brothers chocolate and supported the allegation of false advertising. Given the range of evidence—and no doubt too because of the brothers’ commercial success, which is often disparagingly linked to their supreme hipster image—this accusation went viral.

The day after the fourth Dallasfood.org installment came out, December 17, Quartz published, “How the Mast Brothers fooled the world into paying $10 a bar for crappy hipster chocolate.” Author Deena Shanker noted that Quartz had independently verified many of the claims made in the Dallasfood.org series. The article further delved into the importance of hipster imagery to the Mast brand, and its worldwide expansion. By then deluged with press inquiries, the company’s public relations agency had provided a statement to Quartz, refuting the allegations. This included the spectacular line, “We love making chocolate, and we have the audacity to think that we are pretty good at it too.”

Giller picked up on the story once again. The next day, December 18, 2015, she published a follow-up article in Slate, “Why Chocolate Experts Think the Mast Brothers are Frauds.” This further publicized the Dallasfood.org allegations, and included a quote from Mast Brothers public relations representative, Tim Monaghan: “We completely refute all of the allegations—which are unfounded and factually incorrect.”

The same day, Vanity Fair ran, “Celebrity Hipster Chocolatiers Reportedly Sold Remelted Commercial Chocolate,” by Tina Nguyen. Reporting language became even stronger: “The Mast brothers face allegations that their $10 chocolate was an artisanal lie.” Vanity Fair also smartly recognized its own previous celebratory coverage of the company. A standout here for me was the image reprinted from DallasFoodOrg Tumblr (from Twitter) of the brothers, sans their too-often-mentioned beards, looking adolescent and cocky.

01 mast debearded

Around this time, the brothers admitted, at least partly, to some basis to the allegations. Rick Mast acknowledged to The New York Times that he and his brother did use couverture in early experimentation, as they worked out their bean to bar process. This came to light on December 20, 2015, in “Unwrapping the Mythos of Mast Brothers Chocolate in Brooklyn,” by Sarah Maslin Nir. The admittance seemed to fuel the journalistic storm even further. Grub Street’s Alan Sytsma titled his December 21 article, “Mast Brothers Admit to ‘Remelting’ Industrial Chocolate in Their Early Days.” On December 29, Food & Beverage followed with: “Mast Brothers ‘remelting’ stirs debate over high-end chocolate,” by Adam Samson.

The best title, in my opinion, came a few days later: “Are You A Sucker If You Like Mast Brothers Chocolate?” headlining Dan Pashman’s take for NPR. CNBC followed with a nicely dramatic warning in, “Inside the Mast Brothers chocolate drama,” on December 31, 2015. The subtitle of this piece by Heesun Wee was, “Hipster code unwrapped: ‘Artisan’ pitch better be ‘authentic,’ or else!”

Or else is right. By January 5, 2016, it seemed to be accepted fact that the Mast brothers had lied, their fraudulence already a part of craft chocolate’s historical record. Simran Sethi (author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love) and Clay Gordon (consultant and author of Discover Chocolate: The Ultimate Guide to Buying, Tasting, and Enjoying Fine Chocolate, who had also been quoted in earlier reportage) collaborated on an article for the Huffington Post, “Peak Mast Brothers (It Was Never About the Beards),” based on a series of conversations about the laborious bean to bar process. By providing greater detail on the how-to of chocolate making, this piece underscored the gravity of misleading consumers that a company is bean to bar, when it isn’t.

And then yesterday, January 7, 2016, came the nail in the coffin: “DC’s New Chocolate Company Is What the Mast Brothers Wanted to Be.” Matt Blitz’s piece about Harper Macaw (formerly Concept C) used the Mast Brothers “embarrassment,” as he called it, as a foil for the hard work that Sarah and Colin Harman, the company’s founders, do to really make bean to bar chocolate.

And so, in a few short weeks, the bearded men have moved from prominent to piteous. While many in the industry have expressed justified anger that a company could be so successful, and at the same time so misleading, while plenty of honest bean to bar makers struggle to sell, I think the whole scandal has a net value. Such widespread and excellent coverage, in my opinion, only elevates public dialogue about the craft chocolate industry. Readers of the above articles no doubt gained a new sense of what it takes to make chocolate. Perhaps they are now in a position to ask more pointed questions when they fork over $10 for a bar. In the end, Mast Brothers likely did an unwitting favor for the industry, and we should thank those reporters—starting with Dallasfood.org—who took the time to bring it all to light.

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