Two tall, bearded men dip their hands into a pile of cocoa beans, lifting them up as if to wash their faces with them. “All beans come from a pod, inside fruit the size of a football,” explains Rick Mast, who with his brother Michael started making artisanal bean-to-bar chocolate at their Williamsburg factory in 2007. “The first time I understood that all chocolate, at the end of the day, is a fermented fruit seed, I thought chocolate [production] should be different. You should connect yourself to this."
The Mast brothers recently became the subject of controversy over accusations about Mast Brothers Chocolate Makers' past sourcing practices. At their new L.A. factory, the brothers are aiming for their chocolate-making process to be as transparent as possible.
The 150-pound sack of beans the brothers were just inspecting is lying on a metal table inside a giant black cube. If it weren’t for the neat stacks of colorfully wrapped chocolate bars on display or the big wooden menu near the entrance listing, the minimalist 6,000-square-foot space would seem more like an art gallery than a functioning chocolate factory. In a sense, it is both.
The black cube design was inspired by artist Donald Judd’s outdoor cube installations in Marfa, Texas, and the space is intended to be a sort of chocolate museum, where the public is encouraged to enter and learn about all things cacao. Each of the five cubes houses a specific part of the chocolate-making process.
Like Mast's New York and London factories, this new Arts District location, set to open in mid-April, will offer chocolate-making tours every hour. In the first cube, guests are able to learn how the fermented beans are roasted in a convection oven. In the second cube, the roasted beans are transformed into nibs by being cracked and separated from their shells. In the third cube, the nibs are ground for three days in granite stone grinders. In the fourth cube, the chocolate is tempered and the brothers experiment with new flavors. There, one of the head chocolate makers uses pastry piping to hand-fill a tray of square confection shells with ganache.
“The pink lemon is so bright and awesome,” Rick Mast declares after tasting a spoonful. Orange blossom honey, Angel City stout beer and local pink lemons have been mixed in with ganache, which will fill a special line of confections exclusive to the Los Angeles store.
“And then we’ve got our brewery,” Rick Mast says as he walks into the fifth and final cube. “Chocolate beer is the thing we’re super excited about. It’s like cold-brew coffee, ginger beer or root beer — a combination of all those.” The brothers have crafted three different varieties of non-alcoholic chocolate beer, which comes in sweet and dry varieties and is available on draft at the factory’s in-house tasting bar. It eventually will be bottled for distribution.
Though most of the chocolate currently on display at the new factory on South Santa Fe Avenue (around the corner from Bestia) was made in New York, eventually all of the Mast chocolate in L.A. will be made here, with local ingredients. Along with the variety of creatively flavored bars (olive oil, sheep's milk) and beer, visitors can order hot chocolate, chocolate milk and giant chocolate chip cookies.
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“We bake those fresh several times throughout the day," Rick Mast says. "There’s like a thousand dollars worth of chocolate in each cookie.”
Mast Brothers Chocolate, 816 S. Santa Fe Ave., Arts District; mastbrothers.com.