Back in 2006, before Brooklyn had its own artisanal mayonnaise store and craft beef jerky company, there was Mast Brothers chocolate.
With their impressive beards and lumberjack aesthetic, the Mast Brothers were the epitome of Brooklyn hipsters, part ZZ Top and part Brawny paper towel guy. Their chocolate was quintessentially New Brooklyn, made with a small batch process called bean-to-bar, in which the chocolate maker oversees every aspect of the production process.
The Masts worked hard to build a brand as serious artisans. Only 1,500 bars are made each day, and the $10 bars come in beautifully-designed wrappers. In publicity photos, the brothers look almost plaintive, as though making and eating chocolate all day is joyless.
Lately, the Mast brothers have been under attack. A Dallas-based blogger named Scott Craig, in a four-part series, accused of them of melting industrial chocolates into their bars — an anathema to a bean-to-bar manufacturer — and of ripping off their process from others while claiming to have invented it themselves. Quartz and other sites piggybacked on Craig and cast aspersions on the Masts as well.
In response, the Masts acknowledged to The New York Times that they remelted in their first, "experimental year." But they say they have been strictly bean-to-bar since then, and that all other accusations are false.
Craig, however, hasn't been satisfied. He says because their chocolate is marketed on the basis of its authenticity, they're still frauds. It would appear some of Craig's zeal stems from the long-held perception in high-end chocolate circles that the Masts are johnny-come-latelies whose products are overrated.
So if the chocolate isn't that good, are the people who spend $10 on a Mast Brothers chocolate bar suckers?
In a narrow sense, yes. Most people can't taste the difference between the finest chocolate and mediocre chocolate, and so if they believed that what they were getting was some of the best money could buy, then they might have been snookered. Even some of the experts who've always been suspicious of Mast Brothers would likely be fooled in a blind taste test, just as wine experts have been fooled time and again.
But in other ways, the Masts' customers haven't been ripped off. As journalist Felix Salmon wrote for Reuters in 2012, when you buy a lottery ticket, you're essentially paying for a daydream — a fantasy of what you'd do if you won. And that's actually worth a lot, psychologically speaking.
Lifestyle brands like Mast Brothers work on a similar principle, giving you the opportunity to identify with certain ideals – like craftsmanship – and aesthetics. And the beauty of the way our brains function is that, at least in the case of food, it probably tastes as good as you expect it to.
Studies have shown that when people know one wine is more expensive, they tend to rate it higher. Researchers call this "price prejudice." On an episode of my podcast, The Sporkful, one of the co-founders of Patron tequila told me they set the initial price point much higher than the competition for this very reason.
If you have $10 to spend on chocolate, you're likely going to feel good about that decision. The price sends a signal to the brain that it's top-quality chocolate, so you may experience a high level of pleasure when you eat it.
And, consider free-range eggs. Author and food science blogger Kenji Lopez-Alt has shown that if you scramble a little orange food coloring into eggs, people will take the hue as a sign the eggs are free-range, and rate the taste higher. When all eggs are colored green, those people can't tell free-range from supermarket eggs in a blind test.
But, as he told me on a recent episode of the podcast, "It's not a lie to say that knowing a free-range egg is free-range makes it taste better, because it really does. You taste things as much with your brain as with your tongue or nose."
In other words, if you think something tastes better, it really does taste better to you, even if it technically isn't any better.
I don't mean to sound like a gastronomic nihilist. My conclusion from the Mast Brothers fiasco is not that you should distrust your brain, but that you should trust your gut. Eat what makes you happy. I bought a Mast chocolate bar a while back and was unimpressed. But I'd be lying if I said those twee wrappers never tempted me in the years since.
As for you aspiring chocolatiers, my advice to you is simple: If you want to make chocolate that people think tastes better than Mast Brothers, charge $20 a bar.
Dan Pashman is the James Beard Award-nominated creator and host of The Sporkful food podcast at WNYC and the Cooking Channel web series You're Eating It Wrong. He's also a contributor to NPR's Weekend Edition and the author of Eat More Better: How To Make Every Bite More Delicious.