PHOTOS: Inside the Cheese Caves Beneath the Streets of Crown Heights

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I’ve walked past the massive Crown Heights address hundreds of times without pausing. The brick building is covered in faded markers of its past lives: on the third floor, a Heinz 57 Varieties logo is barely visible and a slightly brighter “Monti Moving and Storage” sign graces the second. When I visited back in December, the only thing that hinted I was in the right place was a stylized (and freshly painted) number over a dilapidated door. I rang the bell (still not sure I had the right address) and soon found myself donning a hairnet, a lab coat and white rubber shoes. I felt like I was entering an uncommonly sanitary speakeasy, but the reality was a lot more interesting: I was about to descend into Crown Finish Caves, the new cheese aging facility below Bergen Street.

When Benton Brown and Susan Boyle (no, not of “Britain’s Got Talent“) bought the building in 2001, they knew about the old lagering tunnels thirty feet below the ground. The tunnels, built in the mid-nineteenth century by the Nassau brewery to age lager in open barrels, hadn’t been functional since the brewery (which we’ve mentioned before) shuttered in 1914. They considered aging beer or wine underground but ultimately decided that dedicating the facility to finishing cheese — which involves maintaining its temperature, controlling its moisture and determining when cheese is at its peak — would be more interesting.

“Cheese is incredibly active: you’re growing stuff. You’re creating things,” Benton explained. They invested in state-of-the-art equipment and converted one of three tunnels into a licensed New York State dairy plant and soon Crown Finish Caves was open for business. Today Crown Finish provides valuable storage and a unique skill set to local dairies that lack the time, space and knowledge to produce high quality aged cheeses.

The tunnel is humidity and temperature-controlled and features shelf after shelf of cheese wheels in various stages of readiness. Brown and Boyle have a high standard for milk quality and source from a variety of local dairies including Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, Sugar House Creamery and Parish Hill Creamery. Their relationship with these dairies is a true partnership in that they have an ongoing conversation about the cheesemaking process and their transportation strategy. They typically receive the cheese when it is between four and fourteen days old and the aging process can last longer than a year depending on the cheese.

When I visited, they were operating at about half of their 22,000 pound capacity — a tall order for the four people (including Brown and Boyle) who keep the place running. The space is divided between large-scale projects and a corner experimental ventures: Boyle and fellow affineur Sam Frank are playing with washes that incorporate locally produced beer and bourbon, and they showed me a few projects where they were aging rounds side by side in paper and open to the air.

I was mostly there to take a peek at Crown Dutchess, a new cheese aptly named for Crown Heights and Dutchess County. The finished product is the result of a collaboration between Chaseholm Farm Creamery and Crown Finish Caves, and it’s now available at Whole Foods Market in Gowanus (and will be at our Good Spirits event in Boerum Hill on Thursday, January 22). Chris Manca, Senior Specialty Coodinator for Whole Foods Market’s Northeast Region, helped facilitate the partnership. “We’re excited to have a true affinage operation taking hold right in our backyard like this. Not a lot of people in the US are aging cheeses in facilities like Crown Finish has built, so it’s pretty awesome that we’re so close to what they’re doing. What their operation allows us to do is work on these types of collaboration projects with the small farms and cheesemakers from our area that we love so much.”

Unlike other aging and finishing facilities inside city limits like Murray’s, Crown Finish Caves will never be a retail outlet. They sell their product to various specialty groceries including Saxelby, Stinky BKLYN and Whole Foods and hope to eventually have a presence in the Greenmarkets. You may never be able to tour their tunnels, but for now you can enjoy some of the first Brooklyn-aged cheese and take pleasure in the fact that you may have walked over the very spot where it was meticulously washed and cared for.  

Photos from left to right in the above slideshow, starting with the “Crown Heights” mural:

  1. A neighborhood mural on the same block as the Crown Finish Caves facility
  2. Exterior shot of the Crown Finish Caves building
  3. Crown Dutchess, made with milk from Chase Holm Farm in Pine Plains, NY
  4. Crown Dutchess (top right); Quartirolo Lombardo D.O.P. from Lombardy, Italy (middle right); experimental cheeses from Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in Old Chatham, NY (left middle and bottom cheeses)
  5. Quartirolo Lombardo D.O.P.
  6. Suffolk Punch, made with milk from Parish Hill Creamery in Westminster West, VT
  7. Suffolk Punch
  8. West West Blue, made with milk from Parish Hill Creamery in Westminster West, VT
  9. “R&D” goat milk blue cheeses
  10. Three different humidity readers
  11. “R&D” sheep milk blue
  12. Reverie made with milk from Parish Hill Creamery in Westminster West, VT
  13. “R&D” cheeses from Mystic Cheese Company in Lebanon, CT
  14. Humble Herdsman made with milk from Parish Hill Creamery in Westminster West, VT
  15. Cheeses from Chase Holm Farm, Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, Parish Hill Creamery and Italy
  16. Various solutions used for washing certain aging cheeses
  17. Packaging and receiving room
  18. Stairs leading down to “unfinished” caves
  19. One of the “unfinished” caves

Photo credit: Clay Williams

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