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A Brootherhood of Nibs

A Brootherhood of Nibs

Charlies in the chocolate factory, we were. Only in lieu of Willy Wonka’s zaniness, the Mast Brothers offered stunning simplicity; patient and precise, the brothers abide by an artisanal, ancient process that produces surprisingly-nuanced dark chocolate bars (favorites at our Café).

Serendipity surrounded our sweet adventure last week. On a sunny wander through Williamsburg, we stumbled upon the Mast storefront just in time for a factory tour (do as we say, not as we do, and make reservations in advance).

Led by insightful Laura, the tour was part show and tell, part taste and smell, starting with showing off the raw ingredients: the bigger-than-a-football cacao fruit, long revered as “food of the gods” and now grown on family farms (that the brothers visit on an annual basis), from which come raw cacao beans. The beans – once fermented, sun-dried and ferried to Brooklyn aboard a Cape Cod schooner – are hand-sorted (picking out pesky twigs and stones) and roasted according to origin in unassuming ovens tucked in the test kitchen.

Once roasted, shells and husks are winnowed from the nibs in a custom machine made by the factory’s resident MacGyver (Kevin), inspired by the Mayans’ method of throwing sun-roasted seeds up in the air and having the wind carry away the feathery husks. The nibs – dense little nuggets – tasted chalky yet familiar, more savory than sweet (a superfood, Laura advised sprinkling them on salads). A no-waste facility, the husks and shells become mulch at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. By this point, we were thoroughly behind-in-scenes, having donned “I Love Lucy”-style hairnets and heeded instructions to keep fingertips from straying in the working factory.

On to the grinding room where, despite the glint of stainless steel, the process is similarly Mayan: the nibs are poured into vats with two granite stone which grind them into silky submission over the course of 72 hours (nonstop, even in nocturnal isolation). The only addition beyond friction: cane sugar, which arrives late in the game. On the dawn of the third day, the chocolatiers taste each batch and determine its “doneness.” During our visit, some Dominican Republic nibs had just begun their transformation, giving off bitter aromatics and looking grainy.

With 16 stone grinders encircling the room, the factory can churn out 450 lbs. of chocolate per session, which translates into 600 bars. In peak season – i.e. the approaching holidays – the factory motors through three sessions per day.

The molten chocolate is then cooled and bundled in parchment paper to rest for three months. Like wine or cheese, aging allows the chocolate to realize its full flavor profile.

Then, after its sabbatical, the chalky boulders are tempered by hand, a warming-up that yields the shiny, snap-able chocolate we know and love. This final phase also introduces the last round of artisanal additions like house-roasted almonds. Poured into molds and cooled, the bars are then wrapped by a retro contraption that apparently has a personality of its own (sometimes double-wrapping, sometimes jamming), and then finished by hand with a sticker label.

The tour concluded with a tasting, roughly following the mild-to-rich progression and ice-cold water as palate cleanser. Each origin contains a careful ratio of cacao to cane sugar. The mild Belize, for instance, is 70% cacao, 30% sugar, a balance that recalled raisins. The more layered Madagascar, 72% cacao, packed a citrus punch of grapefruit and blood orange. The polarizing Peru, darkest at 75%, tasted bold with notes of rhubarb and plum, making it great with wine. Meanwhile, the smokey Papua New Guinea pairs well with bourbon.

Forgoing an alcohol accompaniment, we traipsed two doors down to try the brothers’ latest experiment, the Brew Bar, where nibs become not bars but beverages.

With two types on offer – hot pour-overs and cold brews – the brews, classified by origin or artisanal blend, are surprising hybrids melding the nuttiness of coffee with the clean comfort of tea.

Loco on cocoa, we left the Mast Brothers block fully inspired.