Just next door to the popular beer hall Berg’n in Crown Heights, cheese is aging dozens of feet underground inside 1850s-era lagering tunnels under the former Nassau Brewery. Opened in 2014, Crown Finish Caves is a licensed New York State dairy plant aging cheeses from places near and far. There are cheeses from the Hudson Valley, Vermont, Maine, Wisconsin, even Italy. Crown Finish Caves ages the cheeses using the process of affinage, a traditional practice that involves much more than just sitting in place. The New York Times describes the process as “a series of tedious, ritualized procedures (washing, flipping, brushing, patting, spritzing) that are meant to inch each wheel and wedge toward an apex of delectability.” Some of the cheeses at Crown Finish Caves are washed every other day, some are inoculated with ripening cultures, while others are deliberately aged as naturally as possible.
One of the beer tunnels, kept in close to original condition for events
The tunnels, accessible down winding metal staircases, can be visited during special events and by appointment for distributors. They were excavated originally to age lager beer, but the brewery closed around 1916. The tunnels used to stretch all the way to Dean Street, but were cinderblocked off when the properties were subdivided. The tunnels that are part of Crown Finish Caves have a capacity of 100,000 pounds of cheese, but only one tunnel has been retrofitted so far. It can hold a little over 25,000 pounds of cheese, amidst a state-of-the-art renovation that keeps temperatures between 52 and 53 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity at an optimal 92 percent.
The control system was custom designed by Clauger, a family-owned French business that specializes in industrial refrigeration. It is the smallest system Clauger ever built and the Crown Finish Caves team had to tweak the settings to adapt to the underground environment – the system operates at only about ten percent of its full power. Sam Frank, an affineur at Crown Finish Caves says, “Because of the design of this cave, we’re deep under the ground, it’s all arched brick, it’s a very good design so it’s very well insulated. The system does not have to work nearly as hard [compared to] if this were a modern, above ground warehouse.”
Crown Finish Caves purchases the majority of the young cheeses, “known as green cheese,” directly from the producers, ages them and resells them to distributors ranging from small local purveyors to a national retailer like Whole Foods. The cheeses arrive at the facility between one to fourteen days old. Crown Finish Caves pays for the “green weight” of the young cheeses, which will lose 10-15% of its weight in moisture as it ages.
As Frank explains, “We’re the ones who eat the cost of that, so it’s very beneficial relationship for the producers,” who also get paid up front for part of their stock as a result. Another benefit is that the producers can spend less time on marketing the finished products while getting their cheeses closer to a potential market – New York City, “the biggest cheese eating market in the country,” says Frank.
Aging can take from a few weeks to several years. Crown Finish Caves is also helping producers experiment with new types of cheeses in small batches. They test with different alcohol washes, bathing the cheeses in beer, wine, and cider. They are also aging butter over the course of five to seven weeks exclusively for David Chang’s restaurant Momofuku Ko, which goes through twenty pounds a week just for their bread course.
Butter aging for Momofuku Ko
The experimental shelf
Owners Benton Brown and Susan Boyle purchased the former brewery building in 2001 and transformed it into mixed-use commercial and light industrial space. They hope to eventually use almost all of the tunnels they have underground – keeping one for events. The Crown Finish Caves is a labor of love for Benton, who explains, “We’re supported by our real estate, that’s the foundation of everything here.” For preservationists, it’s exciting to see the adaptive reuse of this historical property, particularly amidst rapid real estate development in the area. The best way to be notified of upcoming events in the cheese tunnels is to subscribe to Crown Finish Caves’ mailing list.
For more photographs of cheese heaven, see the slideshow: