The Mast Brothers, a pair of bearded chocolatiers in Brooklyn, have built an empire on beautifully packaged "artisanal" chocolates that run $10/bar, billed as "bean to bar" confections.
Other chocolatiers were skeptical of the "bean to bar" claim, because the production volume as well as the product's taste and texture beggared belief. The company, which touts its "transparent" values, stonewalled on the contradictions between their story and the evidence and inconsistencies that suggested they'd embroidered the truth.
It's a parable about the extent to which we trust packaging and placement as markers of quality. Most of us are not in a position to evaluate whether a chocolate we're buying is "bean to bar" or not, and the incorporation of commercial chocolate produces a balanced, easy-to-enjoy product. Psychologists have long demonstrated that packaging can change the way we taste things (all the way up to serving white wine with red food coloring to wine experts, evincing praise for the bold, classic red wine in the glass). The combination of clever packaging and marketing with a willingness to lie about the product is a recipe for commercial success.
That June, though, Art Pollard, co-founder of the bean-to-bar chocolate company, Amano Artisan Chocolate, was introduced to the brothers as they were selling their bars at the Brooklyn Flea, a weekend flea market in New York, including a dark milk, Trinidad single-origin bar. He had already heard about the brothers, and was curious to meet them. He saw they were selling six varieties of bars. "I wasn't accusing," he tells Quartz. "I was just amazed they were able to pull that off right from the beginning." Coming up with just a single new bar is "a royal pain in the butt," he says. He asked the then-beardless brothers about their sourcing since he had had trouble getting cocoa beans from Trinidad himself. "These three bars are ones that we made," the Masts told him. "And these other three," pointing to the single-origin and dark milk chocolate varieties, "are Valrhona." (Pollard told Quartz that other chocolate experts who were with him that day remember hearing those comments, but don't want to speak to the press.)
These accounts contradict the statement from the Mast Brothers PR team which stated, "We made our chocolate from 'bean to bar' when we started." Similarly, in a response to an inquiry from Grub Street, the Mast Brothers wrote, "Needless to say, we were then and are now a bean to bar chocolate maker."
Eventually, however, experts believe that Michael and Rick Mast did start making at least some of their own chocolate, and as Scott explains, the quality of their bars dropped. "The change was remarkable and obvious," Lindley, of the Cacao shop in Portland, says of trying the bars in 2010. "Most of the chocolate was simply inedible, by my standards."
How the Mast Brothers fooled the world into paying $10 a bar for crappy hipster chocolate
(Image: Mast Brothers)