America’s favorite hipster chocolate brand was thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight last week, when several detailed investigations cast doubt on pretty much every aspect of the Mast Brothers’ Brooklyn-flavored, ingenuity-fueled origin story. But for chocolate lovers, the allegation that matters most is this one: the Mast Brothers sold $10 craft chocolate bars under the pretense that they were “single origin,” when, in fact, some of that chocolate was re-melted factory stock.
Quartz has a great run-down on the details of the scandal, which surfaced last week after a Dallas food blog ran a four-part series titled “Mast Brothers: What Lies Beneath the Beards.” I’d recommend checking out both of those stories for all the deets on how we’ve apparently been had by the lumberjack-styled makers of a dubiously artisanal candy bar.
But if you’re not a chocolate aficionado, one question might linger in your mind even after digesting all of this: what the heck is “single origin” chocolate—and why should I care?
As a concept, single origin is simple enough: chocolate is made from cacao harvested in one particular region. Just as grapes grown in different climates and soils produce wines with distinct flavors, cacao tastes different depending on where it’s grown. Sourcing from a single origin allows a craft maker to have much more control over the taste and quality of his or her final product, and to build a catalog of flavors that are truly one-of-a-kind.
Single origin also helps ensure integrity in the supply chain. Since the early 20th-century, chocolate from the world’s largest companies, including Nestle, Hershey, and Mars, has been tainted by the specter of child and slave labor. It’s a problem that refuses to go away. The large cacao operations in West Africa and South America also take an environmental toll, as farmers will clear-cut rainforest to plant vast monocultures of the prized tree. If you’re a chocolate-maker, the best way to ensure that both humans and the environment are being treated with respect is to know exactly where your cacao comes from. That’s an idea many craft chocolatiers now embrace, and it’s one that the Mast Brothers have definitely helped broadcast to the public.
A worker holds a handful of dry cacao beans at the Agropampatar chocolate farm Co-op in El Clavo, Venezuela. Image Credit: Fernando Llano/AP
Of course, from a business perspective there are downsides to being socially responsible. Not surprisingly, it’s a lot more expensive to purchase cacao from trusted growers versus a shadowy supply chain whose sole aim is to maximize profits. But for fledgling chocolate makers, there’s an even bigger problem: it’s very difficult to make a single-origin bar in a small, craft operation, that stacks up to what large companies can mass-produce in factories—in terms of flavor, texture and consistency. Sure, Cadbury may not be known for the individuality of its chocolate bars, but if there’s one thing the company does offer, it’s a flawless texture and utterly dependable, enjoyable flavor.
That’s why, when craft chocolatiers are first getting started, they’ll sometimes beef up their product with mass-produced filler.
Which brings us to the Mast Brothers kerfluffle. In the early days of their operation, evidence suggests that Rick and Michael Mast cut their home-brewed, bean-to-bar chocolate with factory stock bought from the French manufacturer Valrhona. It’s even possible that some of their early bars were 100% Valrhona. More problematically, it seems that the pair attempted to obscure this fact, always claiming that they made their chocolate from scratch. (To be fair, the Mast Brothers recently admitted that they did experiment with melting industrial chocolate in the beginning. This point is now elaborated in a post on their website.)
But for years, the chocolatiers did not make this clear, and according to some accounts, they went as far as to mis-label bars single origin. As Quartz explains, it was the high quality of the Mast Brothers’ early chocolate bars that caused other chocolate makers to raise eyebrows:
In the chocolate community, the suspicions of remelting began early. The Mast Brothers’ original bars had a taste and texture that was too much like the palate-friendly kind available at the drug store to be truly “bean to bar,” Scott explains in his first post. Bean-to-bar chocolate has a distinctive taste that, like wine, ties it to its origin, and craft chocolate makers use minimal processing to retain that taste.
“I was confident that they did not make the chocolate at that time,” Aubrey Lindley, co-owner of craft chocolate shop Cacao in Portland, Oregon told Scott and confirmed to Quartz. “It had an overly refined, smooth texture that is a trademark of industrial chocolate. No small equipment was achieving a texture like that. It also tasted like industrial chocolate: balanced, flavorless, dark roast, and vanilla.”
According to Scott, the first-name-only blogger who broke the story earlier this month, when the Mast Brothers transitioned away from mass-produced chocolate, the quality of their product took a nose-dive. Earlier this year, Slate published an article detailing the gripes of the chocolate-making community with Mast, which basically boil down to a simple conclusion: the Mast Brothers’ chocolate is not all that great. It’s chalky and off-balance—at times, insultingly bitter.
The Mast Brothers are by no means the only company that’s struggled to perfect both flavor and texture as a bean-to bar chocolate maker. In fact, the more details about the company’s origins unfold, the more their story seems illustrative of the challenge facing all single origin, craft chocolate companies.
Which brings us back to the original question: is single-origin chocolate better? That depends on your tastes—do you like bold, individual flavors, or dependable, comfort desserts? It also depends on your budget and your values.
What is clear is that it’s probably not a great idea to obfuscate the truth about where your product comes from—especially when your brand is staked on authenticity.
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Top image: Cacao from the Bolivar, Los Ríos and Guayas provinces of Ecuador, via Ministerio de Turismo Ecuador / Flickr