Walk into the Mast Brothers chocolate shop/factory in Williamsburg and the scent of dark, almost bitter cocoa hits you immediately. This is not a chocolate factory like Willy Wonka‘s. The only experimenting here is done with pure, preservative-free ingredients. Brothers Rick and Michael Mast have been making American craft chocolate since 2007.
What started as a tiny operation in the kitchen of their Brooklyn apartment has grown to the point that they’ve just opened a new production facility in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We went behind the scenes at their location on N 3rd Street in Williamsburg with Derek Herbster, the Mast Brothers’ Executive Manager, who gave us the lowdown on the bean-to-bar process of making chocolate and some exciting news about what the Mast Brothers have in store.
American craft chocolate—for the Mast Brothers, at least—means only using the highest quality ingredients. The only things that go into their chocolates are single origin cocoa beans and organic cane sugar, which they source directly from farmers around the world. At the front of the shop, sacks of chocolate from Belize, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, and the Dominican Republic are piled up.
The cocoa beans are picked from the trees in pods, at which point they’re like a pulpy white fruit. They’re spread on drying racks to dry and then they’re fermented. The farmers the Mast Brothers work with prepare the cocoa beans to the point that they’re ready to be roasted. All of the beans are roasted in the Mast Brothers’ factory, in convection ovens in the test kitchen.
When the beans are roasted, the husks are removed using a winnower machine. The cocoa nibs are then ground in stone grinders. When left in the machines for 48-72 hours, the cocoa nibs liquify on their own, without any milk added. Sugar is added, and the machines churn the sugar and cocoa together until the mixture is smooth.
Like wine or cheese, the chocolate rests for one to three months in order to strengthen the flavor profile. The Mast Brothers staff pours the liquid chocolate into bins and separates them according to origin. This way, they can keep track of the different flavors and nuances, and make any necessary adjustments to the recipe.
Finally, after the chocolate has aged sufficiently, the staffers melt it down again and pour it into moulds. At this stage, they might add sea salt, maple syrup, or Stumptown coffee to flavor the bars. They gave us a taste of the Reynard Granola chocolate bar, made with their signature Brooklyn blend chocolate (73% cocao) and granola from Reynard, the restaurant inside the Wythe Hotel. Those bars are sold exclusively at the Mast Brothers shop and put in the rooms of the Wythe.
If you were wondering about those beautiful wrappers, they’re designed by the Mast Brothers’ in-house art director and printed locally in Long Island City. Each bar is wrapped in gold foil (the only thing these chocolates have in common with Willy Wonka’s) and then in paper.
The Mast Brothers employ a team of forty-five dedicated employees, many of whom have culinary training. In the test kitchen, they experiment with everything from rich chocolate truffles to cupcakes and gluten-free cookies. Samples of their single origin chocolates are always set out on the long table inside the shop and their chocolate bars are sold at gourmet food stores around the country. Their first cookbook, Mast Brothers Chocolate: A Family Cookbook, was published in October 2013 by Little, Brown.
The Mast Brothers are currently working on a top secret project for The French Laundry with Thomas Keller. They’re planning to start giving public tours of their factory. Stay tuned for details!