Friday, December 18, 2015

In Defense of Chocolate

Anyone in the chocolate industry should be excited about the recent bean-to-bar conversation. If you are uncertain of what conversation I speak of it’s the one about the brothers Mast. They had been promoting themselves as a bean-to-bar producers. However, it should be noted that they don’t always label which chocolate bars are specifically produced using B2B methods. Publicly the bros. promised that they were in 2007 and are today a bean-to-bar chocolate maker. Only after a storm of evidence mounted did they backslide and admit to a blendology approach.

I first met the brothers while in their Brooklyn store shooting a chocolate show for Discovery Channel. I found them to be curious and determined about chocolate making. While they were a little aloof, I chalked it up to the fact that they were busy figuring out how to make chocolate at their bourgeoning business. This is not an easy process. 

Prized California winemakers import grapes from all over the world in various processed forms from frozen pulp to fortified juice. For some, the pretty trees at the front of the vineyard are prop mostly. Winemakers are not vilified for this but instead even the prestigious ones are celebrated for their creative and scientific ability to blend grape flavors to produce a superior finished product.

That the Mast's were blending couverture into their final products while attempting to tweak their B2B production methods does not make them confectionery rapscallions. Disingenuous, yes. They merely ramped up with a little help from some finished chocolate friends. This should have allowed them an ability to focus on blending and flavor. When I heard their claims about not leaning on a commercial chocolate crutch I was amazed and gave them much credit. However, now it seems they did source from Valrhona and not directly from origin. It's not surprising that Valrhona opened a chocolate school in Brooklyn. The Mast's lack of transparency is a big bummer but be careful when you yank at the beards. Many chocolate makers have them. 

Secrecy has long been an ingredient in chocolate making. M&M’s were originally made using Hershey’s chocolate. Sure, on the tour Willy Wonka was making “bean-to-bar” chocolate with both beans and workers from Amazonia but if you really read between the lines you can just imagine the Cadbury tanker trucks behind the Wonka factory pumping Ivory Coast chocolate directly into his river. Truffle empires have been built on pre-made chocolate shells. Adulteration this is not. Artistic liberty it is.

While the Mast product may have indeed changed through the years, Mast Brothers Chocolate is not “bad” tasting. That is not a technical term we use when evaluating chocolate. We discuss flavor profiles like sweet and bitter. We develop references for instance: sweet like cooked fruit and bitter like black tea. We talk about dairy notes like lactic acids and powders that can be sour or sweet. We can talk about how fast or slow flavors are released often revealing information about fat in the chocolate. We analyze textures which inform us about production techniques and ingredients. We never refer to chocolate as “bad” as that is considered a personal preference and not a sensory evaluation term.

When using sensory evaluation methods we agree there is no golden tongue meaning that one person should not get to say what is when it comes to flavor or taste. We determine taste profiles as a group so that we can produce chocolate that is in keeping with the quality that is outlined in our brand guidelines. This is because consistency and quality matter to consumers. On the topic of Mast Brothers Chocolate we can debate consistency, quality, and manufacturing methods all day long but it seemed their consumers had spoken. Upon learning of their deception, they will speak again.

Why should my chocolate brethren and sisters be elated about this public conversation on flavor and production methods? I believe that transparency is always a good thing and this uproar has many chocolate enthusiasts curious about terminology, where a chocolate bar comes from, and what really happens inside a chocolate factory. An educated consumer is a committed one. This recent chocolate news has made headlines and as a result consumers will be even more savvy about chocolate making. Knowledge about ingredients, origin, and manufacturing is purchasing power. I think that it will benefit the entire industry from artisanal to industrial. My prediction for 2016? Consumers will ask for more chocolate with more transparency and, yes Rick, more love.



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