Anna and the Chocolate Factory

Monday, Aug. 11, 2014 9:02 am

The first thing you notice upon stepping through the glass doors of Mast Brothers Chocolate in Brooklyn, NY, is the smell. Not the usual Williamsburg neighborhood funk, but something closer to a cloud of fudge, the air thick with earthy, fruity, buttery scents of melted chocolate.

Though the Mast brothers, Michael and Rick, hail from Iowa, they’ve been leading the craft food movement in Brooklyn since the early 2000s, and are known worldwide for their artisanal approach to dark chocolate. It was this ethos that drew Anna Halpin-Healy ’13 to work for the Midwest emigrés, combined with a longtime passion for food she had developed at Grinnell.

Getting Used to Chocolate

Stirring a vat of chocolate with a large spoonHalpin-Healy works five days a week in the chocolate factory as assistant retail manager and tour coordinator — but she hardly notices the mouth-watering smell anymore. “You get used to it in fifteen minutes.”

At Grinnell, Halpin-Healy led the reboot of Bob’s Underground Cafe with Elena Gartner ’14 and Angela Voos, vice-president of strategic planning. A housing coordinator at Food House and volunteer with the Grinnell Local Foods Co-op, Halpin-Healy has now brought her communication skills and passion for all things culinary back to her native New York.

“Mast Brothers is a really social atmosphere — we all have to work together,” she half-shouts above the clanging machines. “I think working with different people and communicating effectively is something I really learned at Grinnell . . . coming up with and applying for budgets at SGA, being an SA and communicating things to students on my floor, being an advocate for Bob’s and talking to the students and talking to the administration. I think those [experiences] really gave me the communication skills I use now.”

Touring Mast Brothers Chocolate

The tour begins behind the counter, next to a huge pile of 150-pound burlap sacks, each one filled with cacao beans from different countries, regions, and sometimes individual estates. Halpin-Healy explains that farmers in Papua New Guinea, have to smoke the beans with coconut husks to protect them from the equatorial humidity, and this process imparts them with “a uniquely smoky character,” like a peaty Scotch.

Anna Halpin-Healy ’13 holding a handful of beansFrom the sacks, the beans go into a bin with a “course strainer at the bottom —  it’s basically a cookie sheet,” she says. “And we shake it around, to remove small bits of debris: husk, pebbles, and pieces of bark.” It’s hard work; the chocolate-makers must sort each bin by hand, picking out any imperfect beans before roasting the batch in an industrial convection oven. After they’ve cooled, the beans go through a device called the winnowing machine, a giant nut-cracker that separates the nibs from the husks.

Another room is lined with large silver barrels full of swirling chocolate. A chorus of stone cylinders whirring inside metal vats drowns out the sounds of customers and loud music in the main room.

Halpin-Healy approaches one of these silver barrels, called a conch, dipping a spoon into the swirling chocolate. She had made clear that “all of our chocolate is between 70 and 75% cacao,” and that “the ingredients are just cacao and sugar,” but the melted chocolate seems to taste like wood, dried berries, and a flavor that comes close to duck pastrami.

This is one of the vats of chocolate from Papua, New Guinea, smoky from the burnt coconut husks. In the warm conches, the chocolate is at its most pungent and will need time for its flavors to settle. For four to six weeks it will rest into the shape of thirty-pound blocks. “This way,” Halpin-Healy explains, “the tannins become less intense; they kind of mellow out.”

To get a product you would recognize as chocolate, the chocolate-makers break up the blocks and put them into a tempering machine. The chocolate hangs out at 120 F, “a nice, happy liquid temperature,” before dropping down to 80, when it’s poured into molds, and quickly refrigerated. “The rapid cooling prevents the cacao molecules from expanding, and gives it that nice sheen and snap that we associate with a chocolate bar,” she says.

“Then we bring it to the front of the factory, where we have this old-school Swiss chocolate wrapping machine from 60’s.” Despite its sinister conveyor belt and white enamel — part car engine part Kitchen Aid — the Swiss device manages to sheathe the bars in a beautiful gold foil and then wrap them in crisp matte papers.

With a few freshly packaged bars, Halpin-Healy moseys over to the table by the entrance, and begins straightening the piles into neat rows as a crowd of visitors circles the sample plates. “I think that people love gathering around food,” she says.

“I love talking to people about chocolate, to get someone who’s really engaged, and who’s surprised by how Mast Brothers tastes . . . I think people are able to relate [and] I think that food is linked to community in wonderful ways.” Anna eyes the door as another batch of hungry customers wanders inside.

Anna Halpin-Healy majored in French and lives in New York.

Anna Halpin-Healy ’13 on far right at the counter of the chocolate factory