~Black SwanThe Mast Brothers’ chocolate is seductive. It’s easy to fall in love with the exotic flair, perfect geometric forms, and the wallpaper-like packaging, that invite you to unwrap their bars. These Brooklyn hipsters have played their cards well, they’ve gotten called, and now they have gone bust. The explosion of media coverage, some equating this a chocolate Ponzi scheme, has fuelled heated debate in the chocolate community. Some of these claims are warranted, many are sensationalized, and some are downright misinformed. The Mast Brothers—and their beards—may be in the spotlight, but they sit in an even darker room surrounding ‘authenticity’ of the artisanal and craft industry. Professor Ryan Galt of Agricultural Sustainability and Society at UC Davis draws parallels to claims to the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and craft beer industry:
“The question of authenticity and how it is governed is very important in both CSA and chocolate, with large economic implications… In a nutshell, the process of producing good (in multiple dimensions) chocolate and veggies is extremely difficult and time consuming, and there are a number of routes through which corners can be cut, but then the final product can be presented to consumers as being just the same and as legitimate as those who have not cut any corners. We see this kind of mimicry in craft things all of the time (e.g., have you seen Beer Wars?), and I think it poses a real threat to those trying to do the right thing.”I think we can easily become caught up in the image of “craft,” “good,” and “quality” without asking the deeper questions to understand how those terms are being subjectively defined. I think chocolate is a perfect arena for critically engaging in discourse to unveil the many faces of chocolate production. In their public response, the Mast Brothers defend that they have, from the start, had “an obsessive attention to detail, meticulous craftsmanship, groundbreaking innovation, and inspirational simplicity.” This risk-taking, creative, and innovative spirit is what defines the American craft chocolate movement and is, I truly believe, what we need to re-invent the way we make, talk about, and taste chocolate. It’s when we have a narrow-minded concept of perfection that leads us down the dark path of self-destruction.
“I can affirm that we make the best chocolate in the world." Rick Mast said in an interview with Vanity Fair (February 2015)This mentality is not productive for the industry. We should recognize what the Mast Brothers have done well: they have been very successful businessmen. They have helped popularize the craft chocolate culture. What the chocolate community needs right now is collaboration. These attacks are hurting the craft chocolate industry as a whole. Bean-to-bar is still a relatively new term, there are more people involved in production than we often realize, and plenty of hidden processes. That’s part of the enigma of bean-to-bar chocolate. Let us not be distracted from the core issues at hand. Bean-to-bar is only one side of the production. What about seed-to-bean? We have only begun to unmask chocolate’s dark, sweet façade. References Galt, Ryan. Personal correspondence. 21 December 2015. Email. Judkis, Maura. “Does ‘artisanal’ equal ‘special’?” The Press Democrat. 25 December 2015. Khemsurov, Monica. “The Influences of Mast Brothers Creative Director Nathan Warkentin.” Sight Unseen. 8 October 2015. Maslin, Sarah. “Unwrapping the Mythos of Mast Brothers Chocolate in Brooklyn.” The New York Times. 20 December 2015. Press: Mast Brothers. <http://mastbrothers.com/pages/press>. Shanker, Deena. “How the Mast Brothers fooled the world into paying $10 a bar for crappy hipster chocolate.” Quartz. 17 December 2015.  According to the UNESCO criteria, “artisanal” good are those “produced by artisans, either completely by hand or with the help of hand tools or even mechanical means, as long as the direct manual contribution of the artisan remains the most substantial component of the finished produce.”