My New York State on Mind: Part Two the Mast Brothers

Note: This is a second post from Darren Hoad, Senior Lecturer, Edge Hill University, UK.  Check out his beautifulbizz blog

My Trip to New York was intended as research but there was a point where work and pleasure became indistinguishable. As a consumer of chocolate, my visit to Mast Brothers Chocolatiers in Williamsburg in New York was a long anticipated indulgence (for research purposes you understand). I had used the case of the Mast Brothers during teaching sessions in the UK, examining the nature of consumption, production, localism, arts and craftsmanship. I have to admit to being a lover of chocolate. I tend to eat most types, most brands, milk or dark, it doesn’t matter. I consume but don’t think too much about where it comes from and how it is made. I eat chocolate therefore I am. However, industrially produced and mass manufactured chocolate is changing. The chocolate doesn’t taste as nice as it once did, and the bars are getting smaller!

Williamsburg, the home of the Mast Brothers, offered me an opportunity to glimpse voguish, neighbourhood New York. Williamsburg was an intriguing place. I would not go so far as suggesting some form of European style gentrification had taken place but there was certainly a sense that shabby equated to stylish, and run-down had been reconstituted by the urban fashion alchemists. It was now called keeping it real. It is certainly one of Brooklyn’s most popular and exciting neighborhoods, straddling old and new, with a boho arts, music, and boutique scene, numerous cafes, and restaurants with creative energy and the young vibe. The hip Williamsburg scene plays out against a backdrop of old industrial buildings, modest attached homes and a long-standing residential community of Hasidim. Williamsburg is a mish-mash of cultures and vistas, but it is a neighborhood that’s indicative of the new Brooklyn.

Mast Brothers Chocolate had the warehouse factory chic. Warehouse conversions typically come with high ceilings, enough room to swing several felines, and exposed brick walls and industrial fittings. A truly artisanal chocolate factory, the ambiance and the vibe were immediate. This was a cool place to work and although this was done well, it still had the sense that it had been created, which goes to prove that real or not, traditional craft and artisanal heritage is an increasingly viable currency amongst businesses and their consumers.

Bearded, bandana wearing young hipsters listening to extremely mellow music, piped through the workshop speaker system, just about set the scene. The principles of what constitutes a beautiful business may be debateable but the emphasis on a good working environment and ambiance, is essential. This place had it all. Exposed beams, sanded oak wood floors, delicately chosen antique industrial lighting, bespoke industrial angles and hand-made machines resembling any found in a steam-punk catalogue. Oh, I nearly forgot…nice people; smiling, talking, exchanging ideas and happy in their knowledge of the process. This was total chocolate (n.b. This is an idea taken from European Soccer, whereby all players are interchangeable and could fulfil any of the roles allocated) a world away from industrialised market leaders. Recent trends in the chocolate industry have seen mergers and acquisitions as a chocolate industry oligopoly has emerged. Nestle, for instance, has remained the most transnational of all corporations, whilst Cadburys, the producer of Dairy Milk, one of my favourites, was recently bought by Kraft, the American multinational. Indeed, the United Nations Committee on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) reported this worrying trend towards oligopolistic concentration in their 2008 report The Cocoa Study: Industry Structures and Competition.  Vertical and horizontal integration in the marketplace was concentrating power in the hands of a few like Nestle, Hershey and Kraft. Cocoa trade and processing has been focussed in the hands of a few like such as Barry Callebout, Cargill and Daniels Midland. Far more serious to the chocolate industry were the accusations of child labour and slavery in cocoa plantations, with evidence of this in the plantations of West Africa and the Ivory Coast in particular. Exploitation by powerful cocoa processors is often brought to bear on rural farmers scraping a living.

I am well used to eating mass-produced chocolate made in faceless factories, pouring off the production line in their thousands. I came across this website posted below. It showed flow charts, processes, weights, measures, mixing speeds and technology on an industrial scale. The final two points of the process were illuminating and demonstrated the difference between the mass manufacturer and the artisan;

2.1.8 The reformed chocolate is passed quickly to the cooling cabinet via the Cooling Conveyor and then the chocolate is shaped.

2.1.9 The shaped and finished chocolate is sent to the automatic Wrapping Machine to be wrapped.

It’s funny, but as I get older, chocolate does not taste as nice as it once did. Something was leaving a bitter taste in my mouth; Was it exploitation of cocoa farmers in places like Guatemala, Dominican Republic and the Ivory Coast or just poor production?. Whatever it was my chocolate did not taste as sweet as it once did.

This is where our artisanal heroes come in. Mast Brothers bean to bar chocolate is the creation of eponymous Rick and Michael. Epitomising the boho-artisanal vibe, sporting the two biggest beards in Williamsburg, these guys had re-created chocolate along their own fair trade and equitable lines.

Sailing the beans is the term they had coined to describe the beginning of their role in this process. Maybe it was part of their attempt to be distinctive and have a unique selling point. Whatever it was, even the Wall St. Journal got in on their act, describing landing the beans in New York,

 ‘On the Red Hook waterfront next to a container ship carrying 1,241 tons of Ecuadorian bananas, a group of stevedores, sailors and makers of artisanal chocolate spent Tuesday morning unloading 20 tons of cocoa beans out of a 70-foot sailing schooner. It was the first time a sailing ship had unloaded commercial cargo in New York since 1939, according to one city official. Two years ago a pair of bearded brothers decided to try importing cocoa for their Williamsburg chocolate factory—which focuses on simple, ecologically friendly sweets—by sail. They hoped it would save energy, help lure environmentally conscious buyers, and, maybe eventually, cost less. Their ship finally came in from the Dominican Republic on Monday night. “We tend to think of everything as simple as possible,” said one of the brothers, Rick Mast. “Why can’t you sail it?”

Bringing the beans from countries in equatorial Central America, the Brothers had negotiated with their own farmers, who had created their own cooperatives and had effectively cut out the resource draining tendencies of the middle man. A supply chain as scrutinised and transparent as could be. Once back in the Williamsburg factory the beans were sorted, baked, de-husked and ground.

It is one thing to work somewhere which is pleasant, but you could not imagine the smell of heated coca butter, as the grinding stones turn the mixture for a couple of days, generating a luxuriant heat and texture, ready to be laid out in trays to set, before heating gently again to be piped into moulds. Upon setting each bar hand is wrapped in exquisite gold wrapping and incredible designed papers. This truly was a work of art straight from the soul and not from a conveyor belt. Mast Brothers chocolate is not cheap but it should be the way all chocolate is made. This is not a one dollar bar, but if all chocolate was made this way, the economics of this art might make it affordable to most pockets. What you get is handcrafted chocolate, made by those who care about the process, the plantations and the producers, rather than the profit. The lessons of this visit? Small tastes extremely good.

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