Mast Brothers Chocolate Scandal Challenges Artisanal Brands

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Mast Brothers chocolate

The ethically-sourced, handcrafted, artisanal small batch jig is up for gorgeously packaged “bean-to-bar” chocolate brand Mast Brothers, whose stores in Brooklyn, London and Los Angeles resemble contemporary art galleries that literally put chocolate on a pedestal.

Mast Brother Brooklyn store

A new, thoroughly-sourced and in-depth investigative report in Quartz absolutely melts the main marketing highlights of an artisanal brand that sells nearly $30,000 in chocolate bars in one weekend at one location alone. Until now the heroes of the exploding bean-to-bar chocolate market, Mast Brothers is brutalized in the Quartz expose as a mediocre (but elegantly packaged) product relying heavily on hipster-themed artifice and empty words.

At the heart of the Mast Brothers “scandal” is that the founding brothers’ bean-to-bar claims from the beginning are bogus. Quartz reveals that, in the beginning, Mast used re-purposed chocolate from Valrhona and that when the brand did finally switch to true bean to bar production, the quality plummeted. But by then, the attractive packaging and delicious (Valrhona) chocolate has already created a marketing juggernaut.

Mast Bros Brothers chocolate 2015

The Mast Brothers, who rebranded themselves with new garb and beards, have responded with denials and posted a lengthy rebuttal on their website, which Eater describes as “Rick Mast makes a long-winded explanation and defense of his company’s actions — the gist of which is basically, ‘We thought that since we were making some of our chocolate bean-to-bar, we could call ourselves bean-to-bar chocolate makers.'”

On Facebook today, they posted the following message while driving attention to their blog post:

Mast Bros - Facebook plea

Marketers should take note of the Mast Brothers brouhaha as the croaked canary in artisanality mine.

Frito-Lay now makes a Tostitos artisanal tortilla chip. Domino’s offers an artisan pizza. It’s been almost four years since Dunkin’ Donuts announced artisan bagels. Obviously those corporations make almost no attempt to claim any handcrafted or heritage legitimacy beyond putting the claim on the package.

But naked “artisanal” marketing claims by massive conglomerates are maybe least the problem facing the sector. In an increasing number of cases, smaller artisinal brands whose claims could reasonably be expected to be true, are being exposed as much as marketing as substance. Call it “creative brief-to-customer.”

Last year a Daily Beast profile of the booming “craft” whiskey industry revealed that a lot of those heritage, small batch, craft distilleries were just rebottling booze from a massive bulk distillery in Indiana. A particularly damning passage:

“Or take Breaker bourbon, the ‘first bourbon produced in Southern California since Prohibition.’ The Buellton, California company behind the brand, Ascendant Spirits, wasn’t started until 2013. Yet, they brag their ‘ultra small batch bourbon’ is aged 5 years. So how do you open a distillery one year and have 5- or 15-year-old whiskey to sell the next? Not by making it.”

Ouch.

What the Mast Brothers and the whiskey report reveal is that the craft, whatever-to-whatever movement has in many ways become a brothel of unprovable claims and empty aspiration, late night-advertised exercise machines for Generation Y.

Then there is the increasing acquisition of artisanal “craft” brands by multinationals. In the beer industry, Constellation Brands just bought a load of craft heritage by acquiring Ballast Point brewing. Luxembourg-based JAB Holdings Company, owners of Starbucks peer Caribou Coffee, now also owns craft, bean-to-cup coffee darlings, Stumptown, Peet’s and Intelligentsia.

The Mast Brothers scandal, Tostitos and buyouts all lead to a customer base that is increasingly cynical about the whole artisanal craft ball of wax.

Earlier this year, comedian Paul Riccio ridiculed the Mast Brothers (though not by name) in a video about the Timmy Brothers, a Brooklyn-based brand of “artisanal drinking water.” Along those lines is the Artisanal pencil sharpening service (“Orders take approximately 6-8 weeks to ship”),

Or how about the $1,000-a-bundle artisanal firewood brand Smoke & Flame? The brand was an invention of Canada’s CBC Radio show This is That but that didn’t stop it from pulling in three quarters of a million viewers. Clearly, the artisanal/hipster backlash is on.

The Mast Brothers may be the bearded, hipster-cliche poster children for craft brands behaving badly, but misrepresentation (or even outright lying) is not an ailment of just the artisanal industry—it’s a sign it has, inevitably, matured. Just look at VW’s “dieselgate” scandal.

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