The arrival in London of the Mast Brothers, Brooklyn’s acclaimed bean-to-bar pioneers, is something to be celebrated. London’s chocolate scene is thriving and the fact that these noted American chocolate makers have chosen to open their second chocolate factory in London, rather than say Paris or Brussels, is confirmation of its vitality.
Rick and Michael Mast, the eponymous brothers who founded the company in 2007, bring a particular, gloriously obsessive approach to the making of chocolate – one which has struck a chord and been hugely influential in starting a chocolate-making movement. Talking to Rick, who, excitingly, was not only about to open a chocolate factory but expecting the arrival of his second son any day now, one can see why. Thoughtful, indeed philosophical, he is a supremely eloquent spokesman for the joys of good chocolate, with his fascination for the subject shining through.
Raised in Iowa, making things together was part of the brothers’ childhood. “We would create and build a make-shift baseball diamond in the backyard, make forts inside the house, make a mess of our mother’s kitchen! Anybody who is close to their siblings, explores together and I think tapping into that sense of curiosity is something we were good at doing together.” Chocolate, however, did not play a large part in their childhood. “We get asked a lot, were you always into chocolate? And the answer to that is no, because we didn’t know what good chocolate was!” There was not a lot of good chocolate to be found in America during the 70s, 80s and 90s, he points out.
Rick’s “passion” for food, however, saw him pursue a career as a chef. “I was very curious about all kinds of food. Home-brewing beer, curing meat were things I loved to do at home. I started thinking about chocolate and wondered can you make chocolate at home? Sure, you can buy chocolate and make bonbons. No, I mean can you make chocolate? Chocolate doesn’t grow on trees! I remember being very astonished that all of my cook friends, at all of these famous restaurants I was working with, didn’t know exactly how chocolate was made. Chocolate is everybody’s favourite food around the world and nobody has a clue as to how it’s made. I thought that’s really interesting. It was as simple as that.”
The quest to make his first batch of chocolate at home, involved logistical challenges, the first being where to find cocoa beans. “I thought maybe some of these hippie grocery stores will have it in the bulk section , but of course they didn’t. I knew cocoa beans were sold on the futures market – so eventually I called Wall Street and spoke to a cocoa bean broker and asked if they’d ship a small bag to us? And they said sure. So we got hold of our first bag and turned our little apartment into a makeshift chocolate factory.” As he thinks back to that first cocoa encounter, one can hear the excitement in his voice. This, for Rick, was his chocolate epiphany. “I pinpoint my love of chocolate to that time we first tried to make chocolate in our apartment. Even that first very primitive batch, introduced us to a whole new set of flavours. This is unlike any of the other chocolate I’d tried before. It was a very rewarding experiment.”
The act of transformation – the alchemy by which cocoa had been transformed into chocolate – resonated deeply with him. “There’s a lot to be said for participating in the process of making something you eat” he muses. “You know what the raw product smells like, tastes like –to make something connected to that stimulated my intellect as well as my taste-buds. I think that’s really what got me going. It wasn’t a single one-dimensional experience of eating chocolate any more. It was this very complex, multi-faceted experience with a story and a process that I was connected to.”
The two brothers continued their hobby chocolate making, which at this time (around 10 years ago) presented challenges both in terms of accessing know-how and equipment. Information came from “obscure on-line forums. When we started we were pretty much having to invent or re-purpose every little bit of equipment that we were using.” One senses, however, that it was precisely the exploring and the overcoming of problems which intrigued Rick.
From that first experimental foray in their Brooklyn apartment, Rick and Michael, have developed and honed their own meticulous way of crafting chocolate, with Rick’s background as a chef informing their particular approach. “What we do is we are willing to go to any lengths to make the chocolate taste better. The way we define it, is that our goal is to celebrate the unique characteristics of the single origin and single estate cocoa beans. The first thing we do is to find the best, the rarest, most complex cocoa beans in the world – a monumental task in itself. We’re fortunate enough to be working with the best cocoa farmers in the world and looking to learn from them – that’s a thrilling part. Whenever possible we try to visit them as often as possible, to connect ourselves with the cocoa.” The cocoa beans are then carefully hand-sorted; “We have strict criteria of what a bean that’s ready for a Mast Brothers bar looks like and tastes like.”
Each origin of bean gets a different roasting profile, with the brothers spending weeks developing these. All their roasting profiles, “tend to be on the delicate side,” explains Rick, “to bring out and emphasise the unique flavours of the cocoa rather than masking them.” The beans are roasted in small batches, of 10-12 lbs and they are also roasted using convection, as opposed to, say, a coffee drum. “My background is as a cook. I want control and I know how I want them roasted, so I use the tools I’m familiar with and I understand. We didn’t want to overthink – we always de-fault to simplicity.”
After roasting, the ‘fibrous and tannic’ shells have to be taken off, for which the brothers use a winnowing machine For their new London factory, the brothers have sourced one that was first made to winnow rice, making a few alterations to it. “The technology of winnowing has been around for 1000s of years – interesting to harness it.” At this stage it is important to carefully ensure that every little bit of shell is taken out. “We really go ultimately for clarity of flavour. Over-roasting would muddy the flavour, as would too much shell in the chocolate.”
Now, they are left with the cocoa nibs, “the foundation for all chocolates” The cocoa nibs are broken down slowly over 2-3 days, using a stone-ground method, which both grinds the nibs and emulsifies them. “What’s going on in these barrels when we stone-grind is reducing the particle size and also conching – a little more of a poetic process. The way we describe it in-house is ‘releasing the acidic volatiles’. What we mean by that is balancing flavour. You must never forget that a cocoa bean in essence is the fermented seed of a fruit. Once you understand that reality, you want to capture that but it can be very acidic, so you need to balance it. And conching does that. The more you stir, you balance the acidity with the chocolate notes you’re bringing out.” This stage is monitored in a characteristically straightforward way – “continuous tasting as it grinds. Everything for us is about the taste. It’s about trusting your palate.”
After the stone-grinding, the chocolate is set overnight in big 10lb blocks, wrapped and aged for about 30 days, a process which affects the flavour. “Out of the barrel it’s much more single dimensional – over time there is much more going on.” There is, Rick asserts, a “purity” to the Mast Brothers’ approach. “A cocoa bean is about 55% cocoa butter. You don’t have to add in emulsifiers, etc. Large-scale manufacturers have to add them to make their process work. We don’t need to. Our process is simple and pure. It will turn into chocolate. We add sugar – cane sugar, maple sugar, birch sugar.” The aged chocolate is then tempered, poured into moulds and set, forming the bars for which Mast Brothers are famous.
Even once the bars have been formed, considerable care and attention goes into their handling and presentation, with the distinctive wrappers, designed by Nathan Warkentin, a 33 year-old former menswear designer, enjoying cult appeal. “In London every bar will be hand-wrapped. Wrapping is something we take very seriously. Our chocolate is not just a single dimensional experience, not just about how it tastes – it’s how you encounter it. Even the paper itself is something that we’re very specific about. It should be reminiscent of butcher paper – the idea of sliding your finger through the sticker, unwrapping it, seeing this food you’ve purchased from your local chocolate maker. That experience is very important to me.”
Turning what was a hobby into a flourishing business, is no easy matter. Since leaving their jobs to set up Mast Brothers, Rick and Michael have been on their own work adventure – one which Rick has found fulfilling. “I’m thrilled at growing a business,” he declares happily. “I’ve found a really deep satisfaction and love for crafting a business – thinking how I can approach that in the same new, unique way that we made chocolate to begin with. I’m fortunate to have fallen in love with that side of it too. We’ve been very fortunate that people want to eat our chocolate. I never want to take that for granted. Luckily the world wants to eat good chocolate and hopefully always will. Everybody has a deep, emotional, nostalgic connection to chocolate. The way we’ve been growing our business has the same simple, hands-on approach that has made our chocolate a success.”
The decision to open a second factory in London is informed by a sense that the market here is right for an active Mast Brothers presence. “We get teased by our friends here that we don’t even have a second location in Manhattan yet and your second location is in London! laughs Rick. “We fell in love with London, my brother and I, particularly on a visit that we took a little over a year ago. We said let’s go there and walk around and be led by our intuition. From the second we hit the concrete, we knew that we wanted to make chocolate there. We do have a lot of family connections – there’s an ancestral history. And I think that there’s a very similar thing going on that we could relate to – there’s an open-ness to new ideas, a curiosity for re-thinking how things like chocolate making can be done. The coffee scene is being explored, re-defined – so I think the timing is perfect. Our chocolate is sold in London and is successful – has established itself in the craft chocolate world.” The decision to locate in hip Shoreditch was motivated by the brothers’ affection for the area. “We were spending a lot of time there when we were visiting. Did a pop-up shop with the amazing Ace Hotel. There’s an eagerness for new ideas in that part of London that is remarkable and which we can really relate to; we feel embraced by the community already.” Rick speaks with great positivity of his London team. “ I will tell you, and it’s not just pandering here, the people we have found in London are amazing. We’ve been joking that when we want managers here in Brooklyn we’re going to send them to London to train. The quality and passion for craftsmanship we’re finding in London is just remarkable. I couldn’t be more pleased and proud. I’m learning more from them than they’re learning from me. “
The London factory – “a stunning space” says Rick happily - will open with a celebratory party on February 14th, Valentine’s Day. “There will be all sorts of new things – some available from the get go, others we will be rolling out as time goes on, as we perfect them. We do a Brooklyn blend – and so we will be doing a special London blend of various origins that we’re sourcing directly to our London factory, that will be debut-ing soon. The other exciting thing is that everyone who goes there will be able to see the full bean-to-bar chocolate process. Also, something we’re really passionate about now is re-thinking and re-defining what chocolate as a beverage is about – so a whole brew bar, where we are brewing cocoa beans like tea or coffee – doing it hot, cold, having it on tap.” His excitement at this latest chapter in the Mast Brothers’ story is tangible. “My wife and I and our soon-to-be-two sons will enjoy spending a good portion of our life sharing homes with Brooklyn and London – it will be a great experience.”
Mast Brothers opens in Redchurch Street, Shoreditch, on February 14th. Visit MastBrothers.com for more information. Photos © Mast Brothers.