February 21, 2017

Photo Essay: From Bean to Bar at a Chocolate Factory

Update: The Mast Brothers factory and retail location in Downtown LA shuttered in March 2017. 

At some point in the six years that I've lived in LA, the Arts District (kind of our equivalent of the Meatpacking District in NYC) has become a hotbed of artisanal products, with production facilities you can tour.

I'd already hit Greenbar Distillery, The Spirit Guild distillery, and the Blue Bottle Coffee roastery..., being a lover of both factory tours and chocolate bars, my next stop—of course—was the LA home of the Mast Brothers...

...the Brooklyn-based, self-proclaimed makers of "bean to bar" chocolate.

With factories also in Brooklyn and London, MAST is taking a leaf from the "farm to table" book of cutting out the middleman—with no artificial ingredients, chemicals, preservatives, emulsifiers, or other nasty nanoparticles—and making chocolates that are, shockingly, made mostly from what comes out of cocoa beans.

And what does come out of those giant cocoa bean pods—which grow like fruit off the side of the cacao tree trunk—is shocking (and slimy).

Sure, once the mature beans have been dried and roasted (and their husks have been picked and shipped off to use as compost), you can eat the "nibs" straight. Without added sugar, they're nutty and—depending on their country of origin (Guatemala, Papua New Guinea, Madagascar, Tanzania, Peru, Venezuela, and so on)—have various flavor profiles that can range from naturally sweet to smoky.

Or you can, as MAST does, brew a non-alcoholic cocoa drink that's more like tea than the "hot chocolate" we're used to drinking.

But the bulk of the bean business here is in bars—and on the LA factory tour, you get to see (and taste) the process every step of the way.

Tempering the chocolate is probably the most essential and time-consuming part of the process...

...with agitators spinning non-stop to incorporate any other ingredients (like milks, sugar, botanicals, or other flavorings like miso or olive oil) and get the right smooth texture.

Tasting the chocolate at this stage—in our case, the LA-exclusive horchata flavor—is akin to drinking a craft beer straight out of the conditioning tank. It's not technically finished, but it's so delicious... and exclusive.

For all of its small batches of craft chocolate made with innovative ingredients, the MAST factory has, of course, the necessary tools for modern bar-making—including some machines, some molds, and so on.

But a vast amount of the work is actually done by hand—right down to the precise, origami-style art of wrapping the completed bars. The process of packaging them is either zen-like or infuriating, depending on your personality.

But the process of indulging in them—and you do get to eat a lot on the factory tour—is sublime.

If you're a milk chocolate person, you can choose between bars made with cow, goat, or sheep milk. Or, you can branch out to the almond butter variety, whose creamy texture is all nut and no dairy.

If you're a dark chocolate person, you can get as high as 76% cacao, with flavors like sea salt and mint.

But it's in the regional special editions where flavors can be particularly daring—like gin in the London collection and (Jewish) rye bread in the Brooklyn collection. Other geographic exclusives are more of a hat tip to the chocolate-friendly flavors of the region, like chilies from Brooklyn Grange and orange zest for those of us in Southern California's former citrus belt.

Why go to MAST just to buy chocolate, when you could really experience it for an hour—and taste something you've never even thought of before?

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