If I were to put Mast Brother’s Chocolate through The Hustle product review test (known as Douche or Cool), Mast Brother’s Chocolate would most certainly fall into the douche category.
Started in 2007 by two hipster brothers from Iowa, Mast Brothers Chocolate has quickly become the world’s most recognizable artisanal chocolate brand. Even if you don’t know the name “Mast Brothers,” you’ll probably recognize their famous wrapper – and their infamous $10 price tag.
Mast Brothers are known for their stylish and chic wrappers, which are found at the checkout counters of high end cafes, Rag & Bone, Shake Shack, and hundreds of other locations. They claim to be the world’s greatest “bean-to-bar” chocolate company. They’re one of the few organic chocolate makers that charge $10 and $12 a bar.
But here’s the thing…it turns out that the Mast Brothers are apparently completely full of chocolatey crap.
In a recent Quartz article, Rick and Michael Mast, the founders of Mast Brothers Chocolate, were called out for purposefully misleading consumers into thinking they were buying genuine artisanal bean-to-chocolate candy bars.
Quartz, along with a handful of chocolate experts and food bloggers, claimed that Mast Brothers chocolate is more like a Hershey’s bar wrapped in fancy packaging, not the organic artisanal chocolate they claim it is. And even worse, the former bro brothers are not the artistic hipsters they pretend to be, but great marketers instead.
The Mast Brothers’ past is full of lies
The Mast Brothers story is one we want to believe. Two self-taught, Iowa-born brothers moved to New York to make their entrepreneurial dream a reality. Starting in 2007, the brothers began by wrapping their homemade “bean-to-bar chocolate” in fancy paper and priced it at $10. Within a year they moved production out of their cramped apartment and into a small factory in Brooklyn. Business quickly took off, and they upgraded to a 3,000 square foot factory. In 2014 and 2015 thy opened stores in New York and London, with one planned for Los Angeles.
Today the Mast Brothers are the envy of the chocolate world and a favorite of consumers who enjoy eating their “high-quality artisanal candy.”
So what fueled their growth? According to Rick Mast it was because they “make the best chocolate in the world.”
The brothers have publicly said that there was no equipment or guide to help make high-end chocolate when they started out.
“There’s no such thing as commercial equipment for [small-batch chocolate making]. You can’t say, I’m going to start a small chocolate company and then go online and get a couple of machines,” they told NPR in 2010. “We had come up with how everything is done, every step of the way.”
They now offer toured guides of their Williamsburg factory, and a tour guide told Quartz that the brothers figured everything out through “trial and error.”
But Quartz pointed out that the Mast Brothers bought everything they needed, including recipe ideas, from Chocolate Alchemy, an artisan chocolate site launched in the early 2000’s. Quartz had receipts and emails to prove this.
As the Mast Brothers chocolate gained popularity, experts started questioning the authenticity of the brothers and their chocolate. How could two young guys come out of nowhere and get popular so fast?
“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 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.”
In other words, many experts suspected the brothers of buying generic chocolate and rebranding it as artisanal. The fancy wrappers, “bean-to-bar” claims, and the brother’s bearded hipster looks were just a ploy to trick consumers.
Numerous blogs started calling out the brothers as phonies. That’s when they attempted to make their own chocolate. But things didn’t go so well.
“The change was remarkable and obvious,” Lindley, of the Cacao shop in Portland, said about her experience trying their 2010 bars. “Most of the chocolate was simply inedible, by my standards.”
Since then, many experts claim that the brothers have returned to repackaging generic chocolate. And they stopped listing the source of their beans on their wrappers. In the organic and artisanal world, listing ingredients is typically a point of pride.
So how did an awful chocolate bar sell millions of dollars of product?
The power of marketing.
“[The Mast Brothers] is not an ingenious story of passion for cocoa, instead a sophisticated marketing strategy, to earn as much money as possible as fast as possible,” one chocolate expert said.
One blogger even claimed that the brothers repackaged themselves as well from “bros to beards.”
— Nick Zukin (@extramsg) December 16, 2015
Their PR agency told Quartz, “Any insinuation that Mast Brothers was not, is not or will not be a bean to bar chocolate maker is incorrect and misinformed. We have been making chocolate from bean to bar and will continue to do so. Through the years, we have continuously improved our methods, recipes and tastes. We love making chocolate, and we have the audacity to think that we are pretty good at it too.”
Either way, it’s tough to deny their marketing abilities. But can we blame the Mast Brothers for what they’ve done? Urban Outfitters, Whole Foods, and dozen of other brands have been profiting big time from selling overpriced products portrayed as artisan or organic. This isn’t new. The Mast Brothers are just trying to live the American dream of slightly lying to get ahead. So then why does spending $10 for a shitty candy bar enrage us more than dropping an entire paycheck on organic asparagus water? I’m not entirely sure, but something tells me it’s because of the beard. We trusted the men with the gorgeous burgundy beards. They’re suppose to be wholesome and granola. But instead they’re just like the rest of us… kind of full of shit.
I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed.