GUEST POST BY Melissa Kravitz
In writing, we learn to avoid cliché like the plague. If it has been used before, the phrase will certainly not fly in a piece of creative work. Unless you’re blind as a bat, you know better than to compose an essay out of stereotypes. As Salvador Dali once said, “The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.” To cut to the chase, I have been adamantly taught to avoid all that is known and expected, to break the literary rules and restructure words to create new, compelling ideas. And what we value in writing, we certainly value in life. When has a stereotype ever been considered a positive perception? But what do we do when that cliché works?
Walk down North 3rd St in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and any clichéd idea you once had about local hipsters will suddenly burst with life. Thrift shops, independent boutiques, local eateries, and a sketchbook library populate the one-way street down to the waterfront, where you’ll find poets composing short works in their recycled notebooks and photographers taking artsy portraits of their rescued mutts.
At the corner of 3rd and Berry St sits the very epitome of this hipster culture: a local chocolate factory created by two tall red-bearded, flannel-wearing brothers. Yes, the Mast Brothers and their business are the spitting image of all that Williamsburg stands for. And so indeed, those of us tempted to avoid cliché might ponder the value of Mast Brothers Chocolate so prominently built on 3rd. Why is this shop any different? Why should I pay upwards of $7.00 for a chocolate bar made by a bunch of hippies who are too alternative to buy a wrapping machine but rather fold local artist designed papers over each chocolate by hand?
As a fervent avoider of cliché yet a lover of all things alternative, my visit to Mast Brothers Chocolate confused me. Yes, the factory, its staff, and its products were all predictable, but a distinct energy, or perhaps just the sweet scent of chocolate in the air, made me feel a certain propensity for the shop. From the exposed brick walls, to the recycled canvas cocoa bean bags transformed into purses and baskets for sale in the shop, Mast Brothers Chocolate offered a certain charm to almost negate the atmosphere of cliché wafting out of the cozy factory.
During my hour-long tour of the chocolate making facilities, I learned the ways in which cocoa beans imported from small farms in South America and Africa were roasted, transformed into nibs, winnowed, conched, tempered, molded, and wrapped into gourmet chocolate bars. Vocabulary expanded—although I still cannot quite explain what many of the chocolate making terms mean—I began realizing the impressive labor and care with which each Mast Brother’s chocolate bar is made. The machinery, which the brothers themselves invented and local artisans and engineers manufactured, confused and impressed me. Breaking out of the status quo to make an age-old food product unique and quite possibly better than the original is certainly something I endorse.
The best part of Mast Brothers Chocolate is the tasting room, which I truly would not have appreciated without seeing the extensive personal labor that went into crafting each bar. The tasting room at the front of the factory offers bite-sized samples of chocolate from all over the globe, flavored with local Stumptown Coffee, chili flakes, or Kosher salt. The most perplexing item by far was the truffle-infused chocolate, which tasted much more like a savory mushroom amuse-bouche than a sweet chocolate treat. The confusing compilation of flavors left me thinking for days, unsure whether I even enjoyed the truffle dark chocolate and intrigued by this new introduction to my palate.
A consumer can only enjoy a Mast Brothers delicacy if she has at least $7.00 to spare. The stereotypical hipster can barely afford to pay rent, let alone purchase premium food items. In his book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan advises, “Shake the hand that feeds you”. The Mast Brothers Chocolate factory allows the urbanite to do just that, learning about the chocolate making process directly from the brothers themselves, but at what cost?
And thus lies the paradox: how can the production of these sustainable products sufficiently sustain itself? The hipsters and the alternative individuals working in the factory and those who live in the neighborhood are not Mast Brothers’ prime customers. The high level and quality of labor that goes into hand sorting the beans and hand wrapping each bar leads the products to cost significantly more than your average mass produced Hershey’s bar. Perhaps the cliché stops here, the presumed impoverished hipsters are truly successful business people, masked in the clothes of alternative Brooklynites while hiding a Platinum American Express Card in their back pockets. Or not.
The Mast Brothers Chocolate Factory insights new and fascinating questions about the future of local eating, its affordability, practicality, and long term potential. Will the impending gentrification of Williamsburg help Mast Brothers? Will those dying to be trendy purchase hand wrapped dark chocolate bars by the dozens? Or will the clichés and stereotypes overpower the independent chocolate factory in all its glory? I have brought many a friend back to sample the Mast Brothers chocolate, but I have yet to purchase a bar, wondering why I would spend my food budget for the entire day on a measly candy bar lacking nutritional value.
So as I write this from Modca, an independent coffee shop a little further down 3rd, sipping organic espresso out of a reusable Mason jar, I’ll confirm that some clichés are here to stay. Yes, Williamsburg overflows with independent businesses, beanie donning hipsters, and an excess of local art most of which will probably never be purchased for a profit, but from these stereotypical staples can come true creativity. The Mast Brothers are not the first to open a local business in Brooklyn, sell their products locally, or even make chocolate, and perhaps much of what they achieve has been accomplished before. Yet, there is a certain beauty to knowing where your food comes from, who spends time preparing your dessert, that makes Mast Brothers a chocolate shop worth supporting.