Aging cheese to perfection in the heart of Brooklyn
From Brooklyn’s Bergen street, Crown Finish Caves looks like any other funky old brick building. But as you descend 30 feet down a narrow spiral staircase, the temperature drops suddenly, and you’re greeted by something magnificent — 26,000 pounds of cheeses in various states of aging, sitting on shelves in a repurposed “lagering tunnel” originally built in the 1850’s for brewing beer. You’re still in New York City, but it feels like a different universe.
A Spontaneous Vision
In 2000, artists Benton Brown and Susan Boyle were biking around Brooklyn, looking for affordable real estate that could be both an investment opportunity and a place for artisans to work. They rode past the historic former Nassau Brewery building in Crown Heights and fell in love at first sight.
They purchased the building and the surrounding complex (about half a city block), then sold some of the property to finance renovations. They rented loft and office space to architects, food makers and artists. But what to do with the centuries-old arched brick tunnels deep beneath the streets? The sweeping underground space had been unused since Nassau Brewery shuttered during Prohibition.
After Brown took a cheesemaking course with Peter Dixon, something clicked; the tunnels, used to ferment beer in the 1800’s and possibly as a speakeasy in Prohibition times, stayed at approximately 50 degrees F year round. Cool, humid and dark, it was obvious this would be the ideal environment for aging cheese.
“Affinage” is a French term that comes from the Latin word “ad finis”, meaning “towards the limit.’ The art of affinage means carefully maturing cheese to coax out its optimal, fully-realized flavors and textures. “Affinage is an ancient practice, with generations of strategy and tradition,” says Crown Finish cave master Zakia Babb.
You can thank affinage for Blue cheese’s pretty marbled veins, Brie’s snow white rinds and Cheddar’s rich depth of flavor. It’s also incredibly difficult and complex. Affinage requires a deep working knowledge of bacteria, molds and yeast strains, and the ability to encourage the growth of some, while slowing or stopping others. Brown took his new mission seriously. He travelled to France for an apprenticeship with master affineur Herve Mons. He spent time learning from Mateo Kehler at Bend, VT-based Jasper Hill’s Cellars, which ripens thousands of wheels of cheeses in seven specially-calibrated vaults.
When Brown and Boyle were ready to start working on Crown Finish Caves in earnest, they purchased state-of-the-art equipment and converted one of their three tunnels into a licensed New York State Dairy Plant. Now their caves have been up and running for more than three years. Every day brings both serious challenges and exciting growth.
In its first year, Crown Finish partnered with a single producer — Parish Hill Creamery, which crafts raw milk cheese in Vermont. Their Vermont Herdsman, a cow’s milk washed rind wheel, was awarded first place at the 2015 American Cheese Society Conference & Competition — a big deal for anyone, especially for a brand-new project.
Today, Crown Finish works with a total of 12 cheese producers. Most of their cheeses are made less than 250 miles from New York City, and all but one are domestic. Crown Finish ripens cheese from Quattro Portoni, which makes water buffalo cheeses in Lombardy, Italy. The resulting product, Bufarolo, is mushroomy, lemony and decadent.
The mission of Crown Finish is to provide a valuable, unique skill set and facility to local dairies that lack the time, space, resources or knowledge to make high-quality aged cheeses on their own. For small cheesemakers, aging cheese can be a profit-sucking commitment. Affinage takes hard work, deep knowledge, plentiful space and specific conditions, not to mention time; cheesemakers don’t get paid while their wheels sit ripening in a cellar or refrigerator, waiting to develop.
Enter Crown Finish. Producers can sell their just-made cheese without having to wait or worry, and Crown Finish takes care of distribution. The finished product goes to Eataly, BKLYN Larder, Saxelby Cheesemongers, Whole Foods and other mostly local retailers. Crown Finish also creates exclusive cheeses for restaurants and events.
“It’s about bringing agriculture into an urban environment,” explains Babb. “We’re creating a sustainable circle that helps small producers and lets them do what they do best — make more cheese.”
There’s also a huge list of precautions that go into ensuring each and every cheese’s safety. When I visit, I must sign a waiver, step into clogs, sanitize my hands and don a lovely hairnet. Cheeses are thoroughly tested every month, and a microbiologist comes in regularly to consult on best food safety practices. “Everything that goes in is tested, and everything that goes out is tasted,” states Babb. “It gives us peace of mind.
”Crown Finish now splits its time between tried and true cheeses and experiments. They have a variety of small batch affinage projects with numerous producers, figuring out what recipes and combos will result in winning cheeses. When I visit, they’re hanging an R&D batch of a Sicilian-style cheese from Caputo Brothers Creamery in Spring Grove, PA. It’s shaped like a gigantic brick, tied and suspended from the ceiling. “We’re lucky to be able to innovate and try new things,” says Babb.
There is seemingly endless room for experimentation at Crown Finish. Placing identical cheeses in different parts of the cave can yield a disparate result. Air flow, temperature and humidity are carefully controlled, yet many microclimates exist in a single cave. Babb hopes “there are still some microflora floating around from the lagering days,” even though the space has been scrubbed within an inch of its life and repainted.
Shelf after shelf holds cheeses at varying stages of ripeness. The oldest wheel here is Tubby, a 30-pound Alpine-style cheese from Spring Brook Farm in Vermont. It’s hand-made in a copper vat before travelling to Crown Finish Caves, where it’s sprinkled with sea salt and washed in brine for one year to encourage the development of a sturdy rind that the Crown Finish folks liken to “crunchy peanut butter.” Inside, its paste is complex, nutty and delicious, with notes of tropical fruit.
Crown Finish usually receives “green cheese,” vacuum packaged mere days or weeks after being made, in order to stop its aging. A team of two employees take care of the cheeses every day, washing, brushing, flipping, turning and monitoring. There’s a lineup of beer, cider, wine, brine and culture that will get sprayed and rubbed into the wheels. The different concoctions attract various diverse bacteria, which in turn create diverse colors, flavors and aromas. Lest you think the cheeses just sit there, ripening them correctly takes an enormous amount of finesse, labor and constant cleaning.
“I love watching the progression,” says Babb. “We get them when they’re super young and not much is going on. They change so much, the smells change, the rind develops, it’s a whole process with different stages of life.”
I am lucky enough to try a gooey sliver of Gatekeeper, a soft-ripened cow and sheep’s milk triple crème made at Old Chatham Sheepherding Creamery in New York’s Hudson Valley. It comes to Crown Finish at only a few days old, when it’s washed with MillStone Farmgate, a tart, funky American farmhouse-style hard cider. It’s luscious, complex and incredible.
There are so many truly unique, imaginative and delicious creations here. Dutch Knuckle is an Adirondack Mountain Cheese made from the raw milk of nine Brown Swiss cows in Upper Jay, NY. There’s Goat Boy, a lactic, bloomy rind goats milk cheese from Coach Farm, located in Plains, NY, which receives a layer of ash and smoked salt at Crown Finish. It’s inspired by the Loire Valley chèvres, but it’s something entirely original.
Trifecta, a mixed milk triple crème made by Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. gets washed in Wandering Bine Saison from Three’s Brewing in Gowanus, Brooklyn. It’s vegetal, mushroomy and a true New York cheese.
Pherno is a peperoncino provola-style cheese based on the traditional cheeses of Calabria, crafted by Caputo Brothers Creamery. Every log is infused with a Calabrian hot pepper the locals call diavulillu, or “little devils,” and rows of Pherno hang joyfully in the caves. The peppers bring heat to a milky, buttery cheese, which melts beautifully.
There’s even butter here. It’s made by Marisa Mauro in Fayston, VT, with milk from the St. Albans Co-op. As it ages, it takes on the funky depth of the cellar.
The most visually-striking (and dramatically-named) cheese at Crown Finish may be the Bone Char Project, a special collaboration with Saxelby Cheesemongers and Blue Hill Stone Barns. The cheese arrives around five days old, when the affineurs apply a thin layer of “bone-char” from carbonized pig and lamb bones. It takes on an earthy barnyard flavor and a lush creaminess, and is exclusively available at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York City.
At Crown Finish, cheeses sit on shelves from floor to ceiling. They have officially reached capacity in their first cave — the founders are making initial preparations to expand into a second tunnel. We can’t wait to see what’s next for this gem.