Deception and Chocolate

Like most of us, I had not heard of Mast Brothers chocolate until the explosion of negative publicity began several weeks ago. Mast Brothers' Chocolate Empire MeltingHere’s the gist of the story:

Rick and Michael Mast started their company in Brooklyn in 2007, devoting themselves to producing hand-crafted chocolate “from bean to bar.” It certainly isn’t cheap—a 2.5 ounce bar sells for $10—but the brothers seem devoted to reviving a spirit of artisanship that had long since vanished. With their fluffy beards, serious expressions and formal dress, they are the quintessential outer-borough hipsters. Within a short time, they had a factory and store in Brooklyn, as well as boutiques in Los Angeles and London.

From the beginning, chocolate experts were critical of the Mast Brothers product, and most of the top chocolate boutiques around the country refused to carry it (details appeared in a March 2015 story in Slate). Personally, I couldn’t tell the difference between Hershey’s and Mast Brothers. I simply don’t have the palate for it, even though I’ve visited artisan chocolatiers in Switzerland, watched them work and sampled their wares.

From December 7-16, Scott Craig ran a four-part exposé about the Mast brothers on his website, dallasfood.org. The story was a serious and damaging piece of investigative journalism, basically stating that the Mast Brothers were fakes who melted down commercial chocolate and resold it as their own boutique product. It quickly went viral. The brothers have since admitted doing this with Valhrona in the first year or two of their operation, and chocolatiers in France have come forward and admitted selling product to them since then. Even so, the Masts still insist that their chocolate is “bean to bar.”

In addition to treating this story as the chocolate equivalent of the Watergate scandal, the media coverage has morphed into agonizing examinations of the American public’s gullibility and susceptibility to branding. I would make two observations about the Mast Brothers:

  1. As with wine, there aren’t many people who really know what good chocolate is supposed to taste like. There wouldn’t be so many fake bottles of 1982 Petrus on the market if consumers could really tell the difference.
  2. Cheap may be good, but expensive is way, way better.

Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is forthcoming from Black Opal Books in Spring 2016. For more information, go to amazon.com

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