29 August 2015

Sofie and the Mast Brother's Factory

I'll forgive you if you've never heard of Mast Brothers - I hadn't heard of them either until news that they were partnering with Shake Shack hit my inbox. And with the offer to try Shake Shack (I know I know - where have I been?) and an indie chocolate brand, I couldn't say no.

Mast Brothers were selling their non-alcoholic chocolate beer, complete with a scoop of Shake Shack ice cream. Let that settle for a moment. A non-alcoholic, chocolate beer. That's a lot going on for a drink. I had my reservations, I'll be honest, but it didn't look so intimidating in the Shake Shack branded glass...

It was, admittedly, quite bitter for a sweet-toothed gal like myself, but as the ice cream melted a bit, it was easier on the tastebuds and - dare I say it - a little moreish.

Before I move on, let me indulge you in the feast I had with my friend courtesy of Shake Shack. I went for the Smokeshack burger which is a cheeseburger topped with smoked bacon and their trademark Shakesauce with cheesy fries and ohmygod, what a treat. I was so pleased I finally got to see what all the fuss was about and even more pleased that it lived up to the hype.

My friend and I agreed that the cheese was the best type of artificial cheese and she even went as far as to scrape every last morsel off the tray with her fingers. She'll hate me for saying that BUT that is how good it is.

Oof. That burger though.

If you're ever in Covent Garden (they also have a branch in Westfield, and towards the end of the year there will be one on Wells Street near Oxford Circus, yay), brave the queue.

It was at the event that I met Lani, the general manager of Mast Brothers.

For those who are as clueless as I was, just know that Mast Brothers are indeed two brothers called Michael and Rick Mast. They hail from Brooklyn, and have the most brilliant hipster beards you've ever seen.

They have two branches in Brooklyn, with their first UK outlet in Shoreditch (where else?) having opened in February '15 on Redchurch Street.

Lani said that if I was interested in a factory tour, to let her know. And obviously I emailed her the next day asking "When can I visit?"

The factory shop is a sight to behold - Lani had told me that lots of people walk past and think it's an art installation. It's easy to see why, actually, because everything is pristine and perfect.

Inside, beautifully packaged chocolate is stacked impeccably, and you're instantly hit by the strong scent of cocoa. It's pretty intense, but your nose is accustomed to it within minutes.

We were just in time for the 3pm tour, ready to be inducted into the world of chocolate. It struck me that the last time I'd had a chocolate factory tour was at Cadbury World, and all I really cared about was getting all those bars of chocolate as I went around...

Our tour guide was called David, and he was great - really informative, friendly and more than happy to answer questions. He told us about the background of the brothers - Rick was a chef, and Michael worked in TV - and how they discovered that no one in New York really knew where chocolate came from. So they endeavoured to do the whole process themselves and bring the art closer to home.

They roasted the beans in their apartment and gradually refined the recipes, trying and testing until they were happy with the result. They were so hands-on that each bar was hand-wrapped at their kitchen table. And actually, each bar is hand-wrapped in the Shoreditch store today.

In 2007 they sold their chocolate at local farmers markets and steadily it gained enough popularity to become a full-time occupation for the pair. Pretty cool, huh?

It's also worth noting that they pay their suppliers double the fairtrade rate, simply because by the time they receive the beans, they believe most of the work has already been done. It explains the high price point of the chocolate (£7 per bar), but the two things you cannot fault with this stuff is the quality and the attention to detail.

We were given the low-down on the manufacturing process, and these were my favourite lil nuggets of information I took away...

  • Once the beans arrive at Mast Brothers HQ, they are hand-sorted for quality purpose. No bean is left unturned, literally.
  • The beans are roasted for 2 hours between 140 and 160 degrees celsius
  • To separate the shell of the bean and the cacao nib (the bit they want), they use a winnower which detects the weight difference of the two components (the shell is heavier, the nib is lighter)
  • The nibs are then checked to make sure no shell residue has cheekily outsmarted the winnower
  • The nibs are then ground together until they emulsify into a liquid which takes up to 3 days
My friend are I were such chocolate geeks, it was great.

The emulsified chocolate

Then came everyone's favourite part - the tasting! After I'd dragged myself away from this beauty...
(I filmed a video on Instagram of the mixing and it's just the most hypnotic thing, seiously).

We tasted five different chocolates - one from Peru, one from Madagascar, one from Papua New Guinea, then a goat's milk, sheep's milk and chili chocolate. Naturally my friend and I upset the mix because we picked up the chocolates willy-nilly and then wondered why we weren't experiencing what everyone else was...! Oops.

The thing that struck me most was how fruity they tasted, You often forget that cacao nibs are in fact fruit. Chocolate is grown from a tree, but this origin is often lost in translation when it's mixed with high proportions of cocoa butter and sugar - which is incidentally what makes it so bad for you! The purer the chocolate is, the healthier it is.

However, the big chocolate brands out there - I won't name and shame - give chocolate a bad name. The samples we tasted had quantities of up to 75% cocoa, and the only ingredient MB use are the cocao nib and sugar.

We had an amazing time on the factory tour - if anyone ever finds themselves near Shoreditch it's definitely worth a trip. In addition to the chocolate bars they sell, they also offer the chocolate beer I had at Shake Shack and other yummy things like chocolate on sourdough - drool. 

If you have a spare half an hour, the tour is £10, and you even get to wear a hilariously ugly bag over your hair, laugh at your tour buddies and take an attractive selfie.

*My meal at Shake Shack and Mast Brothers chocolate factory tour were complimentary, but all opinions expressed are my own.

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