Masters of the Craft

Another Sunday at the Factory

Brown steel doors set in antique red brick walls, a loaf of olive bread on a rough-hewn wooden table and a two-foot sailboat. I feel like I’m in old-world Europe. I glance around, almost expecting to see a pipe-puffing man paying a visit to a blacksmith. The large sacks of cacao beans and Pabst Blue Ribbons passed amongst casually hip twenty-somethings bring me back to reality: this is a chocolate factory, and I’m in Brooklyn.

The rich scent of molten chocolate, carrying down North 3rd Street from Wythe to Berry, is enough to draw you in to Mast Brothers Chocolate; the beautiful stacks of hand-wrapped bars and a group of friendly, informative “factory workers” are enough to keep you there for hours. You may even be tempted to make good on their half-jest offers to wrap bars for beer and chocolate. It seems like a pretty fair trade.

The Mast Brothers have a keen understanding of fair trade and the art of bartering. They take the middleman out by going directly to the cacao farmers, an approach that has brought the Mast Brothers staff to destinations like Madagascar, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Brazil. They roast their beans in a chicken-cum-cacao bean roaster Marlow & Sons gave them in exchange for an undisclosed number of chocolate bars.

The Mast Brothers’ relationship with Marlow & Sons is one of many ties to local and sustainable food: they use Stumptown coffee in several limited release, coffee-infused bars, while Stumptown uses Mast Brothers chocolate syrup for their mocha; Blue Hill at Stone Barns serves and sells Mast Brothers Chocolate; and Red Hook’s Sixpoint Brewery uses Mast Brothers-roasted cocoa nibs in their Dubbel Trubbel ale.

Arto, one the brothers’ some five odd employees, is my guide for the afternoon. Like the rest of the staff (and various friends milling in and out of the factory), Arto is warm, relaxed, good-humored, and seems extraordinarily content with his job. He describes how each type of bean requires a slightly different roasting time and temperature to bring out its optimal qualities. The earthy beans of the Dominican Republic are best-roasted dark, while the fruity, citrus notes of Madagascar beans shine through with a light to medium roast. After letting me sample a toasty nib from the center of a bean, he walks me a few feet over to the cracking station. Mast chocolatiers crack their wheat and barley with a handheld cracker originally intended for home brewers. They carry the cracked beans to a back room customers can see through a glass wall.

I follow Arto into the winnowing and conching room. Winnowing is the process of separating the husk from the bean. The Mast Brothers winnow with a customer-built machine. A vacuum sucks the beans up and blows them through a clear tube that passes over two containers. The relatively dense nibs drop into the first container, while the lighter husks float on to the second receptacle. They run the beans run through the winnower twice to ensure no renegade husks are left with the nibs. We turn next to the conching machines.

Conching is the stuff that dreams are made of. The cacao beans, along with pure sugar cane, are poured into a large vat with granite rollers. Finding the perfect ratio of beans to sugar is a nuanced process of trial and error. For Madagascar, the Mast Brothers settled on 72%, which translates to 45 pounds of chocolate and 17.5 pounds of cane sugar to a conch. The conch heats and kneads the chocolate until it is ripe for hardening. Conching time is another detail that is perfected for each type of bean; Madagascar nibs spend three days churning, while Dominican Republic nibs require four.

The chocolate’s next destination is plastic tubs, where it settles into untempered slabs. Lacking the consistent color and sheen of its tempered counterpart, untempered chocolate has spots of discolorations called blooms. Blooms form when changes in temperature cause fat and sugar to separate and rise to the top.

Tempering is the process of removing blooms by blending cocoa butter and cocoa solids. The Mast makers achieve this through a delicate process of heating and agitating that melts and diffuses the cocoa butter crystals to form a smooth and shiny texture. Though the switch from hand to machine tempering increased the Mast Brothers’ production from 100 to 3,000 bars a week, the artisanal spirit is very much alive as the temperer steps on a foot pedal which releases chocolate from a spout into handheld trays holding three bar molds each. They sprinkle on any additional ingredients, like Fleur de Sel or olive oil-roasted hazelnuts, before cooling the chocolate. After fifteen minutes in the freezer, the hardened chocolate is ready for packaging.

First comes the gold foil. I try my hand at folding. They make it look easy, chatting and creasing away between dips of artisanal market-bought bread in olive oil, but my bar comes out a bit sloppy. Thankfully, someone will soon cover the foil with Cartotecnica Rossi’s lovely vintage Florentine paper and house-printed labels.

Arto shows me photos of the Mast Brothers’ own trips to the source, explaining that the sailboat is more than a play on “mast,” but also an homage to their goal of “sailing around the world to visit cacao farms and bring beans back to the factory themselves,” in true sustainable fashion. He clicks through pictures of the team’s extravagant lunches, the product of many trips to farmers markets, Trader Joes, and local specialty shops and a much-loved company kitchen. Munching on otherworldly dark chocolate bark dotted with dried cranberries, sea salt, maple syrup-roasted pecans, pumpkin seeds, and, the true X factor — homemade rosemary bread — I gaze at images of happy workers, homemade pasta, and heirloom tomato broth. I’m confident that even I could hone my wrapping skills under these conditions. I hope they were serious about that PBR- and chocolate-paid apprenticeship.

Mast Brothers Chocolate Factory
105A North 3rd Street
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 388-2625 phone
(718) 228-5805 fax
Mast now offers public factory tours on Saturdays and Sundays at 1:00pm.
Tour are $9.99 per person. Get your Golden Ticket here.
Tasting Room Hours:
Thursday and Friday, 12pm – 7pm
Saturday and Sunday, 12pm – 8pm

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