Now That We’ve Got Our Pitchforks Out, Who’s The Mast Brothers of Specialty Coffee?

I’ve tried multiple times to put all of this together in a coherent way, but I’m giving up. Being Christmas week, there’s enough work running a coffee company and enough other distractions to prevent me from crafting this piece into a single narrative. So I’m going to just share some related and disparate thoughts on the subject instead.

I’ll start by answering the question: There is no “Mast Brothers” of coffee. By that, I actually mean that there are many “Mast Brothers” of coffee.

When certain events occur that catch us off guard, we see a pattern of reactions: there’s the initial shock, then people look for someone or something to blame, reasons are proposed, and a consensus response emerges that requires the least amount of action from the most number of people.

The Mast story is still early, and we’ll find out whether the brand survives the revelations. But my question for the fans of craft chocolate and coffee is: Will you learn to change the way you choose what to consume, or will you just cross Mast off the list and go on the same way?

Helen Rosner, features editor at Eater, wrote a smart commentary yesterday about the Mast Brothers story, and how we consume authenticity. “We buy into stories of value and authenticity all the time, and not just when it comes to chocolate. They’re built into almost every purchase, almost every lifestyle choice.” I agree with these ideas, but is authenticity is the main issue with the Mast Brothers story? Not for me.

It’s trendiness.

Authenticity is one perception that fuels trendiness. Another is perceived quality. Another is beauty (in Mast’s case, the beautiful packaging that everyone always mentions). But we all know that what really drives trendiness is trendiness. The faster that trendiness-dynamo spins, the higher it carries and spins faster still.

Trendy is for brands. The human form of trendy is “popular,” in the most high school way you can define it. Popular kids are popular because the other popular kids include you in their peer group. Or is it that the other kids include you because they think you’re popular?

Both being “popular” in high school and “trendy” as a brand has little to do with whether or not you’re of good quality, authentic, or smart. For every trendy brand, there are dozens of quality companies who are producing superior quality products, more authentically and of greater overall value. Can anything help them, or will the high school social rules always apply?

I know this is an age-old topic, but I have to bring it up. Can the food media really absolve itself of responsibility in Mast Brothers’ rise? Is it unfair to say that the Masts have been the “darlings” of the food media for years?

In what ways was the food media complicit in this deception? It’s typical for journalists and media folks to hold up their hands and claim that they are not the story, that they merely report what’s happening. But from politics to chocolate, can we not hold the media to some responsibility as a collective? Can we expect “reporting what’s happening” to be anything more than “reporting what others are reporting about?”

It makes sense that we would turn away from processed, artificial, and unattractively packaged goods. It’s a reclaiming of our surroundings, of our apparel, of what we consume. If the process to create it is more difficult, so be it. Actually, all the better.

“But wait! What if the process is difficult for others, but all I need to do to enjoy authenticity is to find out where it’s for sale and go get it. Authentic, and easy for me! Perfect!”

“Hey, so people want it to be easy and authentic. You know what? It’s hard producing this stuff in a truly authentic way. What people really want is to be happy, so as long as people think it’s authentic, they’ll be happy. So let’s find a quicker, easier way to produce this ‘authenticity’ (whatever that means). They’re happy, we’re happy, everyone’s happy! Also, we’ll save money by not shaving our faces anymore.”

The quality of the Mast Brothers chocolate is what it is. Some people like it, some people love it, some people don’t think it’s good. One of the more contentious topics in artisan-anything is quality vs. personal preference, and whether “objective quality” exists in food, drink, and other crafts. Personally, I never liked Mast chocolate. Though my coffee professional palate isn’t particularly trained in chocolate, there was a familiar aesthetic choice that seemed to come through in my mouth, one that’s, perhaps not coincidentally, currently a certain sort of trend in coffee: The less we influence the flavor of the beans through roasting, the more authentically we can taste the intrinsic flavor of that bean.

This happens with coffee, and for that matter a lot of food and drink, all the time. The current trend is to put a lot of value in quality ingredients. Quality ingredients are expensive and relatively scarce, therefore the final product is more expensive than what most are accustomed to. The problem is that it doesn’t take rare skills to price an item higher than average, and while there’s something to be said for certain modes of sourcing of ingredients, on the whole, if you have the money, you can choose to buy more expensive stuff. Someone with absolutely zero talent at playing the violin could buy a Stradivarius, if they have the money. Does then their cacophonous screeching sound better than if it were played on a cheaper instrument?

Unlike music, which has music schools and conservatories, and for which it doesn’t take years of experience to differentiate true mastery from middling abilities, there’s a lot of infrastructure that both the chocolate making and coffee industries lack. There isn’t a Julliard of chocolate, nor is there a Royal Conservatory for coffee. It’s something that many industries perhaps take for granted, but without certain institutions, you’re left with a lot of people trying to figure shit out the best they can. Sometimes people come up with wonderful results. Sometimes not.

The fact is, most coffee roasters and cafes are doing a shitty job. There’s this idea of “third wave coffee” that’s become popular to describe a new approach to coffee by both professionals and consumers. However, an authentically* third wave approach requires a certain mastery of the craft. Third wave can be aspirational, but it has to actually appear in the cup in order to have any meaning. Much like the term “chef” or “black belt” (as in martial arts), in certain contexts and usages, “third wave” is meaningful as an ethos, philosophy or aesthetic. Otherwise and unfortunately, it’s a nebulous term that’s going to be coopted by anyone who has half a reason to.

*there’s that pesky word again

So you have coffee shops that buy all the right equipment, roasters who source great quality green coffee, and baristas who (what a coincidence) grow properly-shaped beards and learn how to sound skilled, but don’t actually know much about what they’re doing. The Mast Brothers quality issue is one that coffee enthusiasts should take care to learn: Take a little bit (just a little bit) of time to learn how to distinguish the good stuff, because it’s going to be worth it. Otherwise, just don’t pretend to have discriminating tastes, because you’re bound to end up looking like a fool.

There isn’t really a bean-to-bar analogue in coffee, except for the idea of “direct trade.” Direct trade (DT) is an idea proposed about 10 years ago that means that coffee is sourced with some level of engagement between the roaster and producer. This is in contrast to selecting coffees from an importer’s current and available offerings, which is the more common way that smaller roasters buy coffee. The problem is that beyond “some level of engagement,” there is no established industry definition for DT. In fact, there’s usually nothing that could truly be called “direct” aside from the name.

“Direct trade” evokes images of coffee roasters traveling to farms and leaving with satchels of coffee. The most common version of coffee sourcing that is labeled “direct trade” is that a coffee buyer will travel to a producing country as a guest of an importer or exporter, usually together with a group of other buyers. Let’s call this version “buying trip direct trade.” That group will travel together on a planned tour of coffee farms, processing facilities, and exporter offices, and get first crack at tasting and contracting those coffees before they’ve shipped out. Sometimes they’ll have a chance to meet someone who works at the farm they’re buying from, and tour the farm and learn some stuff. At best, they’ll learn meaningful information about what’s happening on the farm that makes the coffee taste the way it does. At worst, they’ll snap some pictures and gather trivial info to help them market the coffee back home.

The best version of direct trade (let’s call it “proper direct trade”) is ultimately about pricing, transparency, and reducing the importers and exporters to a logistics (sometimes financing) function, rather than the gatekeepers of all information. This level of direct trade, where prices are negotiated directly between farmer and roaster, is rare, and is not a place for newbies. However, another popular activity marketed as “direct trade” occurs when a coffee roaster buys from an importer’s offerings, and the importer purchased with commitments to price transparency and relationship-building. Maybe we can call this one “proxy direct trade.”

Mast Brothers said they’ve always been bean-to-bar, but never that they were 100% bean-to-bar. Customers and the general public interpreted “bean-to-bar” to mean 100% bean-to-bar.

For better or for worse, “direct trade,” while the closest thing to “bean to bar,” is far too nebulous a concept to ever be a very good bone to pick. However, there’s one point of contention that reminds me of the Mast Brothers story, namely that very few roasters exist that can claim 100% direct trade, regardless the definition. Unless that roaster is actively marketing themselves as 100% direct trade, you can be sure that they aren’t. Does this matter? Not buying direct trade doesn’t mean automatic exploitation, and you can source ethically and fairly by buying from an importer’s offering list. In both instances, it take some effort. Imagine that.

The level of disdain other chocolate makers seem to have for Mast Brothers is bewildering. I can think of no coffee company that would be treated similarly (at least at that level), and I’m curious about why so many seem to be so happy to see Mast taken down.

I know this will upset many people, but it deserves mentioning: this is a white people story.

The current trend of authenticity is a very white (and probably American) cultural phenomenon. Why do we admire a restaurant because they cure their own charcuterie? Why don’t we get charcuterie from the best charcuterie place? Why do we like hearing that the chocolate or coffee tastes more of the intrinsic qualities of the raw ingredient?

I’m pretty sure authenticity is a white thing. What I’m not as sure about is why. Maybe it’s a search for cultural identity and history through “things.” I don’t know.

You know what’s not such a white cultural phenomenon? Deliciousness. Everyone can dig delicious. Can we get back to deliciousness, and cool it with the authenticity?

There is no Mast Brothers of specialty coffee.

Also, there are many Mast Brothers in specialty coffee.

Branding and image over quality. Access to money. Trendiness begets trendiness. As third wave specialty coffee has developed around the country, more roasters are popping up that are high on style, low on substance. Everyone deserves an opportunity to start and build a successful business, but it’s a bummer when a new coffee roaster pops up that draws all of the attention, run by newbies who simply don’t know what they’re doing yet. Even then, why not give the newbies a chance? Well, what I’ve observed in our industry, that reminds me of the Mast Brothers story, is that when you combine fat financial investments with inexperienced coffee people, you have a high probability for bullshit-peddling and smoke and mirrors.

These new, well-funded entrepreneurs tend to be the most sloppy with industry terms like “direct trade.” They try to make up for their lack of relevant skills by hiring people who have them, but you see a high level of staff turnover because they can’t seem to stay out of the way of people and let them do their jobs. It’s important that they, the entrepreneurs, are “the story,” so they constantly undermine the work of their key staff.

Normally, a newbie needs and takes time to learn the craft, the complexities, nuances, and to develop the necessary skills. But when so much money has been invested up front, there’s no time to actually develop the ability to produce a quality product. Enter the pretty packaging, the PR engine, the image-crafting, the over-indulgent buildout, and designers, designers, designers.

I know this will upset many people, but it deserves mentioning: this is a male story.

Men haven’t cornered the market on bullshit, but while I can think of more than a dozen newbie well-funded entrepreneurs who fit the profile I described above, zero of them are run by women. The woman-run coffee roasting companies that I know all took the more arduous route of growing while learning, or more commonly, paid their dues and learned the craft over many years before launching their own ventures.

I can’t physically grow a big beard, but I’ll resist the temptation to make fun of the beard thing. That said, this is a very male-normative story.