The Mast Brothers’ Controversy

EDITED 21 December 2015

The Mast Brothers have brought artisan chocolate into even bigger headlines. This time I suspect they’re less pleased about the coverage.

“Why did anyone ever pay $10 for a chocolate bar?”

So asked Dave Bry on the Guardian website.

A. Because they realised that paying $2/bar means that some in the supply chain – most likely the farmers – aren’t being paid enough and they hoped/were led to believe that the higher price meant that the farmers were being paid more. Or they wanted to support a business doing things in an artisan way and employing local people.

B. Because they wanted to be perceived like the people they perceived as buying or advertising the chocolate. The power of branding.

C. Because they believed it tasted different to anything else they were able to buy for less money and liked it enough to pay $10.

All of those are pretty valid reasons. Yes, B or even C might make you a sucker – especially to those who don’t share your tastes. But almost everyone I know – including me – is guilty of “B” at some time or other. The only real concern with this is when people who really can’t afford to and don’t know any better are being encouraged to spend their money on things they don’t need at prices they shouldn’t need to pay, that just ends up lining the pockets of the already wealthy. (I’m not saying this is the case here with Mast Brothers!)

The other issue with B is that part of it is buying into a story. No one likes to find out they’ve been lied to. And what individual has time to investigate every company they’re purchasing from? Especially something that seems as inconsequential as a candy purchase.

I am thrilled for what the Mast brothers have done for drawing people’s attention to artisan chocolate and they should be applauded for that. Also for their brilliant branding, marketing and publicity. And for their values they claim to have.

It seems like they’ve got themselves in an awkward situation of tripping over lies or misquotes. They possibly never meant they were the first bean to bar makers in the US or that they invented the process themselves or even made it all themselves. It might be enthusiastic journalism.  They’re probably not lying when they say they’ve always been making “Bean-to-Bar”. The trouble is suggesting to customers that EVERYTHING is bean to bar. And if you advertise yourself as bean-to-bar the assumption is that everything you sell is, unless explicitly stated where it’s easily visible to the customer, like, on the packaging.  It’s kind of like a local strawberry grower selling artisan jam in pretty jars in delis and farmers’ markets and to cafes and restaurants with an elaborate and attractive story about the strawberries growth and the method of jam-making. But failing to mention that some of the jars are just repackaged jam from another premium manufacturer, or are a mix of homemade and the premium jam and others still are made in-house with strawberries bought frozen from a factory in Poland, not from the farm pictured on the jar. Customers have the right to feel ripped off. The advertising agency wouldn’t stand for it. They made Häagen Dazs remove the map of Denmark from their packaging because it implied to customers there was some link when there wasn’t. It doesn’t mean Häagen Dazs isn’t good, just that they shouldn’t mislead customers. Back to the jam: other jam makers (in this case, chocolate makers) can be expected to feel indignant that they’re struggling to make the quantity to meet demand by keeping their products in integrity with their claims while others are being lauded in the press for what isn’t really what it’s claimed to be.

I don’t think anyone’s judging Mast Brothers for having used couverture in the beginning, just for not being open enough that they did. We do all make mistakes. Especially in our communication. They made a statement on their website to supposedly clarify the claims against them.  But it’s still not quite clear.  It does seem slightly lame to apologise if anyone feels misled, when how could they be anything but misled if they were claiming “Bean to Bar” from the beginning but not making it clear which bars were actually bean to bar?  I have an as-yet-personally-unverified source claiming Valrhona confirmed Mast Brothers were ordering 2.1 metric tonnes a week at one stage.  I realise I might be adding to a rumour mill here but if that’s the case then the claim that it was just being used to seed or clean machines is stretched at best.  There’s a layer of shadow over their current practices still that doesn’t help their case.

 

I am sure Mast Brothers will continue to sell chocolate successfully, regardless of whether the fine chocolate industry thinks it’s good. If Mast Brothers success encourages more people to try new and different brands than they would have, then net net it is a good thing for the whole industry. But it’s a better industry if everyone plays fair.

To “C”: whether the taste is worth it? That’s entirely subjective. I judge a variety of chocolate awards, including the International Chocolate Awards and the Academy of Chocolate Awards, and I know the results from the collectives there would say it’s not. But I’m sure some of the individuals would – both intentionally engage a wide range of judges. And I have introduced thousands of members of the public to artisan chocolate through Chocolate Ecstasy Tours over the last ten years and the range of taste preferences is huge. I wouldn’t like to judge someone on what they love just because I don’t love it. It’s wonderful introducing people to artisan, craft chocolate, but not everyone is a convert to the taste. Everyone does leave a tour with the consciousness of what cheap chocolate costs to the growers in countries much less wealthy than ours. If you don’t like the sour notes or chalkiness and grittiness found in some artisan bars there are definitely some that you will like. Milk chocolate can be craft and artisan, too. There is a huge range. It’ll definitely cost more. But hopefully this will at least mean everyone in the supply chain is receiving their fair share. That’s the question we should (and hopefully more will) when we pay any price for a bar of chocolate.

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