Exposé lands Iowa City natives’ chocolate business in hot water

Mast Brothers
A popular Mast Brothers chocolate bar — photo by Stijn Nieuwendijk

Fans of the iconically packaged Mast Brothers chocolate, on colorful display at John’s Grocery and Bread Garden Market, may be surprised to learn that the Iowa City native chocolatiers are facing accusations of fraud from the chocolate community over how their famed bars are made.

Michael and Rick Mast, whose beards garner nearly as much attention as their chocolate, grew up in Iowa City and earned degrees from the University of Iowa and Luther College, respectively. After relocating to Brooklyn, they began making chocolate in their apartment, initially selling at farmer’s markets before opening their own store in 2007. The Masts now operate two factories and their bars can be found in ten countries, top restaurants, and, according to the Press-Citizen, the White House.

The Masts’ self-appointed status as “pioneers of the bean-to-bar craft chocolate movement” has been central to their story and success. They take responsibility for every aspect of the production process, including sailing a 70-foot-long schooner to personally source beans in the Dominican Republic, as reported by New York magazine in 2012. They claim to outsource no aspect of the production process, and use a combination of hand-made techniques and specially designed machines to make their much lauded chocolates.

But a new exposé published by Quartz, “How the Mast Brothers fooled the world into paying $10 a bar for crappy hipster chocolate,” reported yesterday that the Masts’ homespun, pioneer mythology is no more than that. The piece expands on a four-part series on the blog, “What Lies Behind the Beards,” which aims to reveal what’s long been an open secret in the chocolate world: that there may be a “fundamental fraud” at the core of the Mast business. Namely, that while they claim to be “bean-to-bar” chocolate makers, much of their product is in fact just remelted industrial chocolate, wrapped in fancy paper.

As evidence of the deceit, Quartz published a 2008 email from Rick Mast to a prospective buyer expressing a “hope to be exclusively bean-to-bar by the end of the year.” Yet in interviews and PR statements, the Mast brothers claim to have been bean-to-bar from the start. If the allegations that the Masts used remelted chocolate from outside purveyors is true, then their process has not been as in-house and artisan as it purports to be. And if the reports are correct, the blogger writes, they “defrauded the press and public.”

Some chocolatiers have long been suspicious of how a small business initially run out of an apartment could have executed such a laborious and expensive artisan production process. But chocolate shop owner Aubrey Lindley told Quartz that the Masts probably did switch to the bean-to-bar method by 2010 — as evidenced by a decline in taste around that time.

Throughout their rise to the forefront of the craft chocolate movement, the Mast brothers have emphasized their small-town roots and the importance of community in their interviews and their 2014 book, Mast Brothers Chocolate: A Family Cookbook. On the tour for the book, they read to a packed crowd at Prairie Lights and spoke at the University of Iowa’s Shambaugh Auditorium.

In response to the Quartz article, the Mast Brothers released a statement on their website that denied the claims and suggested that the allegations of fraud stemmed from competitors’ jealousy. “There is absolutely no need for sensationalized negativity or to spend energy diminishing our contribution to the chocolate community,” they wrote. “There is a worldwide desire for chocolate and plenty of room for many makers to satisfy its appetite.”

The Masts went on to commend the “in-depth research and attention to detail that is done about our company in pursuit of understanding,” but insist they’ve been consistently “open and transparent” about their process. “Any insinuation that Mast Brothers was not, is not or will not be a bean to bar chocolate maker is incorrect and misinformed.”


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