The Dark Bite: Mast Brothers are the New Stars in Bean to Bar Chocolate
By Colleen Canney
Although many self-professed chocolate snobs think we know all about our vice, most of us have no idea how the sweet stuff is actually made. Brothers Rick and Michael Mast, co-founders of Mast Brothers Chocolate, can explain - with taste. "We don't want to be preachy; it should be fun. It's just chocolate!" says Michael.
Rick, 31, and Michael, 28, the only "bean to bar" artisan chocolate producers in New York, plan to show locals the entire chocolate-making process at their flagship store, slated to open this month. The pair originally started experimenting with chocolate in 2004 for friends and family at their shared Williamsburg, Brooklyn apartment. After working as an apprentice and chef at high-end New York restaurants Gramercy Tavern and Soho House and apprenticing under celebrity chef Dan Sauer and confectioner Jacques Torres, Rick decided the brothers were ready to launch their own business. Mast Brothers Chocolate was incorporated in September 2007, when the brothers began perfecting their techniques and recipes full time. The Masts found their hometown of Williamsburg, Brooklyn to be the ideal spot to settle, in a century-old Brooklyn warehouse covered in scaffolding and urban art. "Williamsburg was once filled with manufacturers of all sorts, I think it's also the greatest place in the city for food," says Rick. "We want to bring food manufacturing back to the neighborhood."
For the last year, the pair produced 300 bars per week out of a small loft, which was kept at a cocoa-comfortable 65 degrees and decorated with a poster of cacao bean varietals, an ad for the San Francisco Slow Food Nation Festival and several rickety shelves stacked with carboard boxes of nuts, sugar, sea salt and syrup. Their new, 1,000-square foot space is still intimate albeit much more impressive: Chocolate-making machines hum, filling the shop with a warm and earthy "barnyard and grandma's brownies" aroma. There's an everlasting supply of fresh cacao beans in burlap sacks, and customers can watch the brothers at work while sipping hot chocolate and nibbling on confections at a cozy, cafe-style bar in front.
The brothers produce ten types of chocolate bars, with top-sellers including 81 percent cacao chocolate with French Fleur de sel, dark chocolate mixed with toasted almonds and sea salt and dark milk chocolate with pecans roasted in maple syrup (which comes from their family's farm in Quebec). They use only certified organic cacao from co-op, fair labor farms in the Dominican Republic and the Ocumare region of Venezuela, which Michael says produces the rarest and most valuable cacao. It's chocolate at its purest, with licorice and raisin notes balanced with a touch of berry. Dominican chocolate has a spicy cinnamon-banana start with a rich, leathery finish. "Choosing the bean is the single most important part of the process," says Rick. "Any food will only be as good as your ingredients."
Transforming high-quality beans into chocolate bars chez Mast is an elaborate process that lasts five days, during which the brothers first sort and clean the beans by hand and lightly roast them for two days in four-pound batches, increasing their amount of work but preserving the complexity of the cacao. "I think our carefully controlled roasts separate us from the competition," says Michael. "It's pretty easy to taste the difference." They then remove the husks with a toaster-sized winnowing machine and use a hand-mixer-sized grinder to refine and liquefy the cacao, adding sugar or milk powder for their "dark milk chocolate" (it's 60 percent cacao, which the brothers consider milk chocolate but fits under most other chocolatiers' definition of "dark"). Finally they use a conch (two granite rollers commonly used to mill rice) to mix and grind the chocolate for another two days, creating a smooth texture and balanced flavor. The process is far from consistent, however, as they are always experimenting with various techniques to create new textures and flavors. With the opening of the new shop, Mast Brothers Chocolate will satisfy plenty of chocolate cravings - they've got a waiting list of over 50 retailers from around the country and as far away as Portugal. "But we're trying to keep everything authentic and simple," says Michael. "Our customer is our community and hopefully always will be."