A look into New York’s top chocolate purveyors – pleasantly not as loony as the Gene Wilder rendition.
The Bona Fide Willy Wonkas
If there were a chocolate equivalent to barista or sommelier, Mast Brothers would be it. Similar to coffee and wine experts, these chocolate fanatics are vastly knowledgeable in all facets of the bar process. They are not in the market to produce candy or confections but rather transform our preconceived notions of chocolate indulgence.
From the beginning of their experimental adventure, brothers Rick and Michael Mast have been especially serious about sourcing top quality cocoa beans. Obviously the cocoa is the foundation of their product, but where the beans originate from is of paramount importance. Beans from the Dominican Republic, Peru and Venezuela all have very different flavour profiles that the brothers want their customers to taste and visualize.
They describe their chocolates the way one would describe wine. The Dominican Republic has sweet notes of pipe tobacco, cherries and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Papua New Guinea has notes of hickory smoked bacon and aged scotch. These flavours are developed through the fermenting stage. After roasting, husking and conching (grinding and heating the beans into a smooth liquid) the pure chocolate is aged, comparable to cheese or wine. Where chocolate companies introduce infinite amounts of sugars, stabilizers and flavouring, Mast Brothers only add a small amount of raw organic cane sugar. The sugar is the only additional ingredient keeping bars a rich, complex and luxurious 70% dark.
Derek Herbster, head of press and sale, is part of the small group of employees. He and his coworkers take pride in all facets of the process. He explains the care isn’t just stressed on the final product but like the importance of the coffee bean and grape varietal, sourcing the best cacao possible.
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Who are the people that make up the Mast Brothers team?
We’re such a family. There are only about fifteen of us. I mean with the hiring process you have to be into what we’re doing. We have people with food, pastry and coffee backgrounds and people who don’t even have a food background. It’s more about the vibe and if you are into the product and want to learn about the product and what we are doing.
When Mast Brothers first began was it always about two simple ingredients? Focusing on just the beans and sugar?
Well when the brothers first started doing their product it was little bonbon type of things but the vision has always been to let the chocolate speak for itself in the same way that good coffee and wine does. When you are sourcing stuff from different natural places you don’t want to dumb it down. We are trying to educate people on what chocolate really is.
Were they always starting with the raw cocoa? Or was it buying chocolate and tempering it etc?
No it was always pretty much the raw beans. Online you can buy really small bags. They started just in their house and I mean everything in our factory is just a bigger version of what was in their house. They had a conch the size of this table, hair driers to separate the husk from the nibs. Then they would mix everything in a blender with sugar and basically figure out ways to get that stuff into bar form, never buying chocolate always buying the beans.
How did they know where to get their beans from? Travels?
Yes travels but also asking around. They got in touch with this guy Rich who was our main grain buyer. He goes around all over the place to source stuff and brings back all sorts of bags for testing.
How was the process of taking this from a household operation to a factory?
Lots of experiments, going with our taste. Rick is a trained chef who has worked in the culinary world. He has a great sense of how things should taste. He’s the one who comes up with the recipes.
It seems that you guys are obsessed with ensuring that the raw ingredient comes through, the fact that you don’t use stabilizers highlights this.
That’s pretty much the background. That’s probably one of the reasons we will never do milk chocolate.
Can you tell us a bit more about the retail store?
We had the original space on North 3rd for about two years. Before that the brothers were making chocolate in Greenpoint in a small kitchen. We found this place and slowly built it out. We had like two grinders running. The whole theory behind the company was a really small expansion. Really tighten the space. We have seven grinders going, a crew of like ten including Rick and Michael for two and a half years. We loved the building and neighborhood in Brooklyn. The retail space became available and we were like “great why not open it, do a chocolate factory and do it right.” Now we have bean storage. It’s open for the public to see what’s going on. The old space was great but we thought let’s make it a fulltime retail spot. We were only open for short hours at first. Just on the weekend. Now it’s cool cause people are coming from…Canada! To try our stuff. We can’t be open only two days a week.
So when did it get to the point of selling these chocolate bars on a small scale and then being sold in Dean and Deluca?
We really don’t have a marketing team, we have an education team. People contact us a lot. And yes we have a couple larger accounts; we thought it would be at places we shop. But yeah, it was just through people contacting us and saying, “we really want to sell your chocolate.”
That’s pretty amazing. You didn’t even have to get yourself out there. Sales can be the hardest right?
Yeah I guess that’s what’s cool. I mean there are a lot of people who don’t know about us even in this neighbourhood. And people say, “wow you guys are getting bigger” etc. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s cool cause more people get to try our chocolate. It’s nice being here to see it happen from the beginning and it’s nice to see it grow.
Well when I came yesterday you were closed but I popped in to the local cheese shop down the road and Blue Bottle Coffee and bam! I see beautiful designs of Mast Brothers chocolate wrappers.
Williamsburg is especially funny because we are all sort of friends and we all started doing this food thing together. You know Marlow and Diner all of their pastries are with our chocolate it was one of those things that made sense. We eat at their restaurants, we should sell our chocolate there.
Was the chocolate always thought of as something to supply to restaurants? Or was it just bar form?
The Brooklyn flea is where it really started by the bar. You know, Friday night they would wrap up as many bars as they could and Saturday and Sunday sell till they ran out. Then we had a bunch of restaurants coming to us saying: “can we get a bunch of bars”. We thought we should have a way to do bigger orders and wrap it in butcher paper and sell it as confection chocolate.
Is there a difference between the sugar quantities from what you sell in bar form to restaurants?
We do get special orders. We have so many origins and so many to choose from and everything can be made in a tablet, I mean it’s rare but we will totally do it. We have in the past done 100% chocolate for people just to play around with in the kitchen. Very little waste happens here, which is really cool. If it doesn’t have anything on it like fleur de sel or almonds you can throw it back in the conch and melt it down and do it all over again. It is pretty cool.
Are you still searching for places to get your beans from or do you have a solid amount of countries you trust and like?
It is pretty much an endless search. We have some stuff from Hawaii we haven’t put out yet. We had a woman drop off some stuff from Haiti. People are always getting in contact with us. A lot of it is the farmers and how they are treating the beans, if they are organic and all fair trade we try and do one or two yearly trips where we send the crew down where everyone gets to hang out on the farm and pick.
Wow that’s so nice. How many stores are you selling to?
I want to say about 200. Mainly in New York and the East Coast. A few places here and there throughout the country West Coast, San Francisco, Portland, L.A. A lot of people contact us to ship because it’s within the country.
What about another retail shop?
You know, we have thought about it, maybe a little store in Manhattan.
How did you start being involved?
I started working part time three days a week. At the time it was about six or eight of us. When you work here you do everything, wrapping, roasting, winnowing, tempering etc. I loved the job and then they asked if I wanted to work five days a week and they needed a new production manager so I took that job. I am one of the three we have now. I have my opportunity to carve my role into what I want to do. I have been doing a lot of the tours on Saturdays and Sundays and now do a lot of PR and sales education and events. I love showing people what we do. It’s like nothing else.
What is your personal interest in chocolate? Science? Flavour?
I was working in coffee for so long I see so many similarities even growing regions are the same, flavour profile, roasting etc. The thing with chocolate is it is a lot more charming. Your grandmother doesn’t necessarily like espresso but she will love chocolate. I love working here because we are trying to break away from chocolate as candy because a lot of people still associate it with that in their head.
What is the favourite food you have eaten with your chocolate in it?
I’m a big ice cream fan right now and at Marlow and Sons they’re making chocolate ice cream and threw in some of the nibs so you have the crunch of the nibs with a really decadent ice cream. That was a highlight for sure.
Edited by Arianne Persaud
Layout by Chuck Ortiz
Transcription by Abby Ainsworth
Thanks to Mast Brothers