Mast Brothers – A Chocolate Maker Grows in Brooklyn

Neither Rick nor Michael Mast had been chocolate makers before they started their Mast Brothers chocolate business. Rick had been chef and Michael a film-maker when they identified a niche for high quality, artisanal chocolate amongst all the other new artisanal products showing up amongst the Brooklyn food and flea markets. They then took it upon themselves to learn how to make chocolate and originally did so from their apartment, learning from books and various sources and slowly catching on in those very same markets. This was one of the most intriguing things I learned during a fascinating and tasty tour of the Mast Brothers Chocolate factory recently.

We gathered with about twenty other chocolate lovers for a tour of the factory on a cold and dark late Saturday afternoon. Mast Brothers Chocolate has become something of a phenomenon, rapidly gaining a cult-like following for the single-origin and blended dark chocolate bars. They are one of only a handful of bean to bar chocolate makers in the United States and have become one of my favorite makers of chocolate anywhere, joining the likes of Bernachon, Michel Cluizel, Tcho and Valrhona. The chocolates of Mast Brothers are rather distinctive, unlike any others I have tasted, echoing their makers unusual path into chocolate making. Mast Brothers chocolates remind me a lot of good wine. They are very complex with many undercurrents of flavor and very good acidity. In place of a wine’s tannins, the chocolate has a structure of bitterness, but like a good wine, enough without being unpleasant.

Derek Herbster

Our main tour guide, Derek Herbster, started the tour with everyone gathered around a table. He introduced, Jimmy, another Mast Brothers’ employee who is also now leading the tours. Derek likened the chocolate making process to that of roasting coffee, which is the world he came from before he started working for Mast Brothers. His previous experience was with Stumptown Coffee in Portland, Oregon. Herbster noted that Mast Brothers’ chocolate is entirely vegan with nothing but sugar added to the cocoa. Other ingredients such as nuts, coffee, salt, etc. may be added to specific barsand are always indicated. Their objective for their chocolates are for the individual origins to showcase themselves and let their individual terroirs speak. At the time of the tour, origins used were from Peru, The Dominican Republic (2), Belize, Papua New Guinea and Madagascar with each winding up with a different percentage (all dark – no milk chocolate) and taste.

Herbster continued, noting that the brothers Mast started making chocolate out of their apartment in 2006, formally becoming a company in 2007. The current chocolate factory is new, having only been open to the public for about three months or so.

Herbster described the harvest and seasonality of cocoa beans, mentioning that the beans are grown within a narrow longitudinal band around the equator and are generally harvested twice annually. The beans used by Mast Brothers comes from small growers, using about 100 tons per year, which Herbster said was about what the big chocolate companies like Hershey’s use in a day. They showed a video about one of their suppliers, La Red de Guaconejo, called “The Source.” According to Rick Mast in the video, “When it comes to making great chocolate, you need two main things – you need the best ingredients in the world and you need great execution.” In a much documented event, the Mast Brothers took a sailing vessel down to the Dominican Republic to pick up their shipment of beans to bring back to Brooklyn.

Everyone donned mesh hats to begin the tour. We started with the sorting of cocoa beans. Two employees sort through a 50 pound bag of cocoa beans, picking out any that are unacceptable.

The trays are then placed in the hot roasting oven with different temperatures and roasting times used for different beans. Though the process has similarities with that used for roasting coffee beans, the roasting is not as thorough, only intending to break down cell structure to impart a different flavor from the heat and allow the separation of the husk from the nibs in the next process. Herbster considers the roasting the first step in adding flavor to the chocolate. Roasting in small convection ovens with a temperature window from 275-325 degrees F, the actual roasting times and temperatures for a given set of beans have been determined over time by trial and error. Herbster was asked about where the Papua, New Guinea beans are smoked. His reply was that they are smoked at the source as part of the harvest process on one of the last days of fermentation. They are smoked with coconut husks, giving the chocolate an earthy, smokey, barnyardy flavor unlike any other chocolate I have ever had.

Derek and Jimmy picked up some cocoa beans to pass around, separating the nib from the husk. While they discard the husks, these have a number of potential uses from compost to creating a chocolate soda, as a friend of the company’s does.

The separation of nibs from husks occurs mechanically with a winnowing device custom made for Mast Brothers. The roasted beans are poured into a grinder and mechanically broken up but not pulverized, then in a way similar to a distillation process, the ground materiels are subjected to a vacuum. The heavier nibs fall into the first glass canister, while the lighter husks continue on to the second canister. The process can be adjusted by working an iris in the first canister that controls the level of pressure in that canister. They shoot for a 75% efficiency in the collection of the nibs, meaning that a mixture of 25% husks is acceptable.The separated nibs are then removed for the next step. We were able to taste some of the Papua, NG nibs.

Organic cane sugar is used to mix with the cocoa to achieve their specific percentages, although in a few specific blends, maple sugar is used instead.

Each origin is brought to a specific percentage of cocoa vs sugar to highlight the best flavor features of each one. They are all kept pretty “dark” with high cocoa percentages.

The nibs and sugar are brought to the grinding room where the processes of grinding and conching are combined in the unique, custom made conchers. The nibs are weighed and initially placed in the conchers where the stone grinders are started slowly and the measured sugar gradually added. The cocoa is gradually broken down through friction and limited heat with the natural butters (54%) and oils coming out. The photo above was taken about twentyfour hours into what is an approximately forty hour process. At this point, grit can still be detected in the chocolate, but by the end of two days it is like pure silk. More strongly flavored chocolates or chocolates with added flavorings like Stumptown coffee beans are ground in specific conchers to keep the flavors from bleeding into other liquors. Once it is ready, the chocolate is removed from the grinders and stored in bins to harden and age for a few weeks while awaiting tempering. One thing about visiting a chocolate factory – it is impossible to not be seduced by the aromas of chocolate!

The tempering room is another area with an overwhelmingly wonderful aroma of chocolate. Here, the hard, aged chocolate is melted down to a specific temperature so that it can be made into bars. The chocolate is melted at about 118 degrees Fahrenheit but then brought down to about 88 degrees to temper and pour into the molds.

Once the chocolate is poured into the molds, the molds are placed on a vibrator to release any air bubbles that may have been trapped inside.

The chocolate is then allowed to harden in the molds. Once the chocolate sets, the molds are turned over and  popped out. It is now glossy, brittle and ready to eat.

Detailed records are kept.

Each machine has a sign for the kind of chocolate being worked with.

They like their beards in Williamsburg.

Nuts and other ingredients are added into select bars while the bars are still warm.

The bars are then wrapped in foil.

Each bar is hand-wrapped.

The foil wrapped bars are then wrapped in house-designed paper.

At the end of the tour we got to sample a full variety of of Mast Brothers chocolates. Each was unique and delicious. I was particularly turned on to the Peruvian San martin and the combination Smoke and Vanilla, which had added vanilla to harness the funk of the smoky chocolate from Papua, New Guinea.

One doesn’t need the tour to sample the chocolates at Mast Brothers. There are always some to sample at the factory store, which also has the best selection and prices for purchasing. In addition, they recently hired a pastry chef to make truffles, cookies and more. If one is a fan of fine and unique chocolate, Mast Brothers in Williamsburg is absolutely worth a visit.


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5 Responses to Mast Brothers – A Chocolate Maker Grows in Brooklyn

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  2. Reid says:

    What an experience this must have been. I enjoy the chocolates from Mast Brothers and can only hope to visit the factory someday. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • docsconz says:

      Thanks, Reid. One of the nice things about Mast Brothers, is that it is an easy effort to get there when in NYC. It is a hop, skip and a jump from Manhattan – a quick & easy subway ride on the L and well worth the effort.

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  4. Kellee Herbster says:

    This information was very interesting…..I’ve tasted a few of the chocolate bars and while they are all delish…my fav is the maple bar, I love maple and the dark choc flavor. They will make great gifts, too! Nice job Derek……and Mast Brothers!

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