Thirty feet below street level, in the basement of an Italianate-style red brick building in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, 25,000 pounds of cheese and 300 pounds of butter sit in a climate-controlled room, waiting for nature to take its course. To walk into the cave is to be assaulted by the dank, ammonia-heavy scent of resting cheese. But the nose adjusts quickly and soon the tangy air isn’t so overwhelming, somehow tempered by the mustiness. Kept at a precise 52 degrees Fahrenheit with 93 percent humidity, the space feels — perpetually — like a pre-dawn morning after a night of heavy rain.
This is Crown Finish Caves, one of the few traditional affinage, or cheese-aging, facilities in the United States. “Some might say that we have a lot of existing flora in there, which gives the cheese that comes out of our caves a certain taste,” said Benton Brown, a local sculptor and one of the co-owners here. “That there’s something similar that goes through them, and that’s maybe based on our terroir.”
In the basement of the building sit four, 70-foot-long caverns. One hundred fifty years ago, they served as lagering tunnels for the Nassau Brewery.
In the basement of the building sit four, 70-foot-long caverns with low, vaulted ceilings. Fragments of a stone foundation are visible against the brick walls. One hundred fifty years ago, they served as lagering tunnels for the Nassau Brewery (and its predecessors, the Bedford Brewery and Liberger and Walter Brewing Company), where barrels of bottom-fermenting beer would be left to age for several months. After the Nassau Brewery closed in 1914, the building complex was acquired by the H.J. Heinz Company, the tunnels used for storage. By the time Brown and his wife, Susan Boyle, an environmentalist, purchased the building, it was mostly empty, under the ownership of a moving company.
“We were just looking for a property that we could develop and have rentals and ended up with this one.” Brown said. The couple converted the brewery’s former ice house into residential units in 2001, followed soon after by commercial development in 2005. “After we did that, we were working our way down and the tunnels were the last piece of the puzzle.”
Brown and Boyle first toyed with the idea of using the caves for aging wine, but quickly moved on to cheese-making. However, that, too, fell through, due to a lack of access to raw materials in New York City. “It wasn’t until understanding more about cheese [that we turned to affinage]. It was sort of in the same realm of what I had been doing in working with sculpture — it’s this never-ending experimental process,” Brown explained. “I felt that [affinage] worked a lot with the kind of person I am, and that’s when we decided to give it a shot.” After spending time working in a French affinage facility and undergoing rigorous food safety training, Brown and Boyle officially opened Crown Finish Caves in 2014.
In its first year of business, Crown Finish worked with just one producer — Vermont-based Parish Hill Creamery, which specializes in raw milk cheese. Despite its small stock, the company was recognized at the 2015 American Cheese Society Conference & Competition, garnering first place honors for its cow’s milk washed rind cheese, the Vermont Herdsman. Business took off, and Crown Finish now works with a total of 12 producers. Having reached capacity in its first cave, the company is looking to expand into a second tunnel.
In most cases, Crown Finish plays the role of both affineur and distributor, purchasing cheese from a creamery — most of which are local, within 150 miles of the caves — and selling the finished product to specialty cheese shops like Eataly, BKLYN Larder and Saxelby Cheesemongers. “On all of our cheeses, the labeling will include our name and the creamery name,” explained Cave Master Zakia Babb. “It’s a joint project. They make the cheese, and we age it.” Yet while the finished product is co-branded, Crown Finish has free rein over the aging process. “Once it’s here, for the most part, it’s ours,” Babb added.
A willingness to experiment is what sets Crown Finish Caves apart from traditional affinage facilities. The brand uses its R&D program to toy with salt brines and beer washing, different placements within the cave and aging times — all in pursuit of new, complex flavors. The company’s R&D cheeses are then used to establish new aging practices, or they’re simply sold as limited-run offerings.
Collaboration, especially on a local level, is central to the R&D program. “A lot of the craft beers and ciders [being made in Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley] have some very interesting yeasts that are growing in there, which can change the way a cheese tastes,” Brown said. “People who are doing different, weird, sort of farmhouse-style things where there’s a lot of live cultures in the product, those are the people that we want to work with.” Recent and regular collaborators include Transmitter, Suarez Family, Grimm and Threes.
Many of Crown Finish Caves’ most interesting and innovative cheeses stem from interactions with live cultures and yeasts in beers.
Back down in the caves, a triple cream cheese called Gatekeeper, from Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in upstate New York, sits on stainless steel wire racks. It’s a softer cheese and doesn’t need to be aged for more than a few weeks, making it the ideal test subject. “We usually wash [Gatekeeper] in Millstone Cellars’ Farmgate cider, but right now we’re doing a small amount with a different cider because we’ve found that it gives us really good results,” Babb said. The cheese on the lower shelves, washed with the Farmgate cider, is off-white in color, while the R&D cheese on the top two shelves has a noticeably bloomier rind in a sooty shade of gray. The difference is striking — but it stems simply from bacteria found in each of the ciders and the way they interact with any latent cultures in the caves.
There’s a fortuitousness in things that come full circle; many of Crown Finish Caves’ most interesting and innovative cheeses stem from interactions with live cultures and yeasts in beers, possibly fortified by ambient bacteria dating back to the building’s lagering days.
“We’ve found that placing the same cheese in slightly different parts of the cave can produce a different result with really different flavors. There are so many microclimates in here, which is pretty exciting,” Babb said. The complexity of the space is most evident in the vibrant, yellow logs of butter Crown Finish ages for Momofuku Ko. The Vermont-made salted butter acts as a clean palette against which to taste “little background notes of mustiness” — the inherent flavor of the cave. “With artisan cheesemaking, it doesn’t have to taste the same every single time. To have your block of supermarket cheddar that tastes the same every single time you buy it — that’s just not going to happen in an environment like this.”