[Disclosure: This is a long one, might as well get a cup of tea and put your feet up.]
A particular tasty trend has been creeping along the past few years, you know, this whole bean to bar chocolate thing and it’s only growing in popularity. It’s already been heavily marketed in the London foodie world this year with Crosstown Doughnut and Pump Street Bakery’s bean to bar chocolate doughnut collab and bean to bar has been on my mind ever since. Therefore, it was a merry little time where I was wandering down Redchurch Street in Shoreditch and passed by Mast Brothers – having somehow escaped the news that they had a shop in London.
Mast Brothers is the chocolate baby of two brothers, Rich and Michael. The story goes that at a dinner party, the conversation moved to trying to figure out how chocolate is actually made, where does it come from and what makes it so good. After the dinner party, this chocolate chat stayed in the forefront of the brothers’ minds who then got hooked with all things chocolate. From then they started experimenting, teaching themselves and falling in love with the bean to bar process and result. They opened their first shop in Brooklyn, New York in 2007, obviously have one in Shoreditch and the word on the street is that one will be popping up in LA soon.
BEAN TO BAR
Bean to bar is an artisan ethos of producing chocolate. The bean is delivered straight to the chocolatier in those hessian bags straight from the plantation. These beans are rendered useful and whisked into chocolate in house under the mighty eye of a chocolate wizard. Admittedly, there is so much more to it than and I by no means want to patronise what is a true artisan craft, but to the layman like you and I – that’s the jist.
MAST BROTHERS CHOCOLATE
The two brothers curate a new collection each year and they currently have 12 bars each in three sizes. Central to the way they work and visualise their chocolate, they all start from the producers of the cacao; the plantations they work with directly. They always focus on single origins but like to jazz it up and add particular elements that render the bar more unique or helps to bring out the naturally occurring flavours of the single origin beans.
For example, two milk chocolate bars are made with the exact same Peru cacao beans but one is made with goat milk and the other sheep milk. Being a lover of all things cheese, the bluer, the stronger, the goatier the better I was v keen to try these out. It’s such an inspiring idea to keep all variables the same, but just change the milk to show how greatly it can affect what something tastes like – we all know what it’s like in cheese, or straight up drinking milk but I had never considered it with chocolate. I was a little nervous, I must admit, but the difference between the two are so incredibly more feral and animalistic than a straight up cows milk. If you’re feeling a little brave and don’t tend shy away from strong cheeses, these will definitely knock your socks off and surprise you. I preferred the goaty number as it was slightly milder than the sheep, and the flavour took longer to develop which gave you more time to mentally prepare.
Some more conservative ones include the Brown Sugar bar with Tanzanian beans which is so rich and luxurious. Or ‘Sea Salt’ where Maldon Sea Salt is sprinkled into the mold before pouring liquid, tempered chocolate so that you get a layer of crunchy, crystal saltiness with you bar. Perhaps ‘Smoke’ where the Papua New Guinea beans are smoked in the plantation, often by burning the cocoa pods to help with the fermentation process to keep them food safe to travel. If you’re into your smokey teas or oak smoked everything – this’ll be one for you.
As I walked into the Shoreditch shop (sadly not the NYC flagship, plane tickets please?), on the immediate right were stacks of these hessian bags – an immediate statement that provenance and single origin beans are core to this business. As I continued, I felt the interior to be a little clinical to me. It’s all white walls, white tiles and large black blocks as display tables. There is a long bench at one side, and a counter with an incredibly knowledgeable team of chocolatiers bustling about making drinks (like an aeropress but with cocoa beans) or sampling and talking chocolate. If the staff aren’t behind the counter, they are networking with the customers offering them samples of a non-alcoholic chocolate beer (aka fizzy chocolate juice!) or talking about the current Mast Brothers collection.
To be honest you can understand why the interior is so plain when on each blackened block are little stacks of their chocolate bars in technicolour spectrum and patterns. They have a Creative Director that designs the packaging, and it really shouts personality before you even take a bite (click here to read about his inspiration). The paper packaging almost makes you want to buy multiples of each bar so that you can make some sort of jazzy mural on your bedroom wall, fit for an Urban Outfitters Homeware Instagram. (Not too far-fetched, the only remains of my three bars are the wrappings, pressed flat, not a rip and stacked on top of each other waiting for more friends.)
At the end of the ‘show room’ is the real scene of beauty – a fully glassed wall giving a glimpse into the curious life of a chocolate maker. You can see a row of grinders and mixers, churning liquid chocolate to a gloss. A mass shelving unit store hundreds of chocolate blocks wrapped in white paper to protect it. I was incredibly intrigued, having worked in an artisan jam producer for two and a half years, I’m always wanting to learn more about the back end workings of other food manufacturers. I noticed a little sign on the counter top advertising tours exactly for that, at £10 a pop it was an easy sell.
MAST BROTHERS FACTORY TOUR
All dolled up with trendy hairnet, coats off and bags stored safe, we started our chat with part chocolate maker, part Front of House Manager Stacey. The tour should be around 45 minutes ending in a tasting, but ours ran over and lasted over an hour. Admittedly it was most likely due to my incessant curiosity and questions – but it was just me, boyf and a friend, therefore practically a private tour so I had to take advantage of the devoted attention we were receiving!
We started talking about Mast Brothers the company and the actual brothers – some learnings of which are detailed above. Then we moved to the tactile part of the tour; talking about where chocolate comes from and seeing, touching and tasting the cocoa pods. What completely blew me away is how rainbow they are, they can come in greens, blues, yellows and purples – something straight out of Willy Wonka (hashtag where are the umpa lumpas and can I be your friend?) The pods are all hand picked to peak ripening – and this comes the fascinating part – upon cracking one open, you are left with some sort of membrane that encases the beaut beans. The membrane is gellatenous, tastes just like a lychee and looks like some sort of alien lobster. I could suck on that white goo all day.
We learned that the purpley beans are left to ferment for a few days and this is where the magic begins. The flavours develop and change, and that lobster dries off in the sun and fades away naturally. The farmers use their artisan knowledge to judge when the beans are ready, turning them every now and again waiting for that reduction to the 7% moisture sweet spot. From this, they can jet off in their hessian bags and be safe and sound away perfectly preserved.
After chatting about the pods, we were taken around the unit to see where the beans are then hand sorted, roasted, ground and aged for at least three months. Mast Brothers like to age their chocolate as they find it ameliorates the flavour profile; making the strong flavours subtle to allow the subtle ones to mature. Everything is about bringing out the best in the single origins, they do not add cocoa butter unless specifically needed and don’t mind that this means you have to wait a while for the chocolate to break down in your mouth until the flavours come through. I mean, it’s probably better for all our waistlines if we have to work a bit to get the best out of the chocolate than vacuum seven bars down due to their fast meltingness. After this, it is a quick temper, mold and wrap – and voila, a bar is made. In the unit, I saw a large block of Madagascan chocolate with white kaleidoscopic shapes all over it and it was the unstable crystals in the chocolate showing themselves as they had not been regulated through tempering. I always knew that tempering chocolate made it crack and shiny (thanks Bake Off) but never realised the science behind it, and now it makes perfect sense. The molecules in the chocolate are bouncing around and having a party. The act of tempering it brings them all to a level to give them structure and level them out into regular patterns. Result : the perfect chocolate snap all baking judges search for.
The whole tour was truly fascinating and I really felt like I had expanded my knowledge on chocolate and the amount of work that goes behind a little bar. Not just for the actual chocolate, but that the fact that all bars are hand labelled (apart from the minis), a horror I know very well first hand. It was really interesting to question further about single origin chocolates, the fair trade debate with the farmers and the ethics behind it all. Mast Brothers are extremely proud that they work direct with their producers and pay double fair trade prices in order to eliminate heavy and pressure harvesting behaviours and to support the communities of their farmers. To be honest, this sort of ethics is something you expect from an artisan company with a strong product and ethos.
The only caveat I have is their desire to celebrate the use of single origin chocolates, that is their whole thing and what sets them apart from other chocolatiers. And yet, nowhere on their bar packaging is labelled the single origin. Admittedly it was listed last year, and this year’s packaging is even more minimalist with often a list of the three ingredients. However, it’s slightly missing the boat that their main USP is not shouted about, and that the reeducation of chocolate that they are trying to achieve cannot come to fruition because it is not even boldly, or subtly, stated that this is what the chocolate is all about.
Regardless of that, it was a pleasure to wander around talking and eating chocolate. A definite unexpected turn of events for a casual Saturday afternoon strolling through Shoreditch.
[This is not a sponsored post, just loving chocolate life and wanted to share it.]
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