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The Twee Party

Is artisanal Brooklyn a step forward for food or a sign of the apocalypse? And does it matter when the stuff tastes so good?

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Illustration by Zohar Lazar  

One afternoon last June, the quaint silhouette of a three-masted sailboat made its way into New York Harbor and pulled up at the Red Hook Marine Terminal. The Black Seal, a 70-foot-long schooner, had just completed a 3,000-mile wind-powered round trip to the Dominican Republic. There, it had taken on twenty metric tons of cocoa beans, mostly from La Red de Guaconejo organic-cacao cooperative, whose beans are said to yield chocolate with notes of “sweet pipe tobacco” and “Cabernet Sauvignon.”

The 400 bags of beans were headed for the Williamsburg factory of Mast Brothers Chocolate, maker of artisanal chocolate bars wrapped in gorgeous, thick paper printed with repeating anchors, Florentine swirls, antique bicycles. At first, the brothers bought off-the-rack wrapping paper at a nearby art-supply store, but they now design the patterns in-house and have the paper printed in Long Island City, and the almost-opulent packaging has been no small part of their success.

The boat itself was equally artisanal: It had been built by hand, over 25 years, in the Cape Cod yard of its captain, a man the Masts have called “an American hero.” One of the brothers, Rick, had stayed home from the trip with his pregnant wife, late in her third trimester, but Michael had been aboard the ship for the whole four-week journey from Cape Cod to the Caribbean and back. A lot of work goes into supplying Whole Foods with $9 single-origin craft-chocolate bars sprinkled with Maine sea salt, “created using solar salt houses” on “the mystic coast of Maine.”

The brothers both have magnificent Civil War–period beards. They grew up in Iowa and moved to New York to become a chef and a filmmaker, only to be waylaid by artisan dreams. When they speak of their chocolate, they’ll say things like it “represents more than just a candy bar; it represents a new way of crafting food,” and it embodies “a fiercely independent, almost Emersonian spirit.” In their shiny new 3,000-square-foot showcase factory on North 3rd Street, they feed their ­direct-trade cocoa beans into a custom-built winnower before milling the nibs in repurposed stone grinders. (They replaced an earlier blown-glass version of the winnower, fearing glass might end up in the chocolate.) There’s an upright piano in one corner for impromptu ivory-tinkling.

Touring the space recently, elder brother Rick, who runs operations, takes pains to point out that Mast Brothers is a bean-to-bar chocolate-maker—sourcing the cocoa, roasting it—rather than a mere chocolatier that outsources production. But if the Masts are Luddite chocolate-makers, they’re also figures in a very contemporary caricature. More than anyone else in the New Brooklyn artisan movement, they exemplify to an almost implausible degree the daguerreotype stereotype of the bristly hipster, in newsboy cap and tweed britches, pedaling his penny-farthing to a north Brooklyn industrial space to make handcrafted nano-batch sweetmeats. If you’ve ever wondered what a Christopher Guest documentary about Brooklyn artisans might look like, Google “Mast Brothers YouTube.”

Michael, younger, laconic, handsome, heads sales but leaves it to his big brother to declaim the company’s unimpeachable artisanality. As Rick explains, they avoid preservatives like soy lecithin, develop customized “roasting profiles” to bring out the unique character of each type of bean, and let their chocolate “rest” for a luxurious 30 days (makers of high-end dark chocolate believe this improves flavor). Their chocolate is used by chefs like Dan Barber and Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse, but they do their own local distribution in the company station wagon.

“The restaurant and food industries have some of the gnarliest environments,” Rick says. “We’re trying to reinvent that for the modern world.” It’s a rather grand vision of chocolate modernity. In a back office, an employee sits at a computer editing a movie about the schooner trip. In another room, a man is hand-sprinkling that Maine sea salt onto still-soft chocolate bars. The wind-powered Caribbean sourcing voyage, arranged by the brothers as a kind of anti-­industrial act, a proof that old ways could be made new again, was merely their latest, most exuberant step back in time.

The schooner is obviously great PR, not that the brothers Mast would ever put it that way. “We don’t have a marketing department,” Rick says. “We have an education department.” For a chocolate bar that has sailed into the hearts of urban sophisticates largely under power of its packaging, backstory, and media-bait olde-tymey-ness, this statement sounds like rank corporatespeak, but the brothers seem to earnestly regard their candy bars as a pedagogical tool. And the White Man’s Burden top notes aren’t limited to their org chart. They have the used burlap cocoa sacks sewn into tote bags, which they sell. There are 25 employees, most of them full time and each with medical and dental insurance. Capital and labor eat lunch together at a common table.


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