When Life Gives You Massive 19th Century Lagering Tunnels in Brooklyn, Make Cheese

Who needs lemonade, anyway?

Though there are plenty of interesting and mysterious artifacts below New York City's surface, it’s also a largely cold, dark space overlooked by city residents. To imagine that 30 feet below there might be a bright, hyper-clean world ensconced between century-old brick walls seems like a plotline straight out of LOST. And yet, this reality exists, not within the confines of a [disappointing] television show or science fiction novel, but in the neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

In this world beneath the world, milk slowly dies and simultaneously takes on new life, cultivated and tenderly handled by cheese caretakers who are equal parts mad scientists and artists. It is a beautiful, ever-changing process that requires constant vigilance and care, a relationship that embodies characteristics of love and romance.

It’s hard to believe now, but this was a world that almost never happened, because Crown Finish Caves was never intended to hold cheese at all.

In the Beginning...

There was a building for sale at the corner of Bergen Street and Franklin Avenue, in an as-yet undeveloped area straddling the border of the Prospect Heights and Crown Heights neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The building in question dates back to the late 19th century, when it functioned as the Nassau brewery until it closed in 1914. By the time partners Susan Boyle and Benton Brown purchased the fixer-upper with the intent to renovate and restore it as an office building in 2001, the brewery was an interesting, but distant memory.

When they discovered the forgotten lagering tunnels below, they saw a vast, open space ripe with possibility...except for the fact that they were essentially inaccessible. Brown says, “We had these tunnels, but we didn’t have any access to get to them, so [we saw it as] a sort of project [we would] do something with later. We’d get some money coming in, start to pay off all the debts [from purchasing and renovating the rest of the building]...we filed it in the back of our minds.”

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The empty tunnels today

Years later, when underground access was still limited to a single ladder descending 30 feet below, the couple began to seriously consider what they could do with the wide-open space. The most obvious solution was wine storage. However, despite the relative low maintenance it would require, Brown says “it just wasn’t that interesting. It was running a storage thing without the creative side of things. We weren’t making anything...it would be like people coming in and paying rent."

So Brown decided to go a different route, and took to the Internet for ideas on a more hands-on opportunity. That’s when he inadvertently stumbled into the world of cheese.

Into the World of Fromage

Prepared to dive into cheesemaking headfirst, Brown signed up for a class at Consider Bardwell taught by cheesemaker Peter Dixon. Once seated in the classroom, Brown quickly realized he was the only urban, non-dairy farmer pupil in attendance, but found himself inspired. “I really enjoyed being surrounded by farmers,” he said. “These are people trying to keep their farms by adding value to the milk by selling cheese.” This newfound inspiration convinced him that cheese was the right choice for the property.

But, despite his enthusiasm, Brown had a problem. As Dixon pointed out, he didn’t have a readily available milk source in Brooklyn that would allow for making cheese in a profitable volume. On the other hand, the space sounded perfect for another aspect of the cheese world: affinage. Dixon was intrigued enough by the space that he went to visit, and even in its then-barebones state, Dixon saw the potential in the old lagering tunnels.

He introduced Brown to the Kehler brothers, the award-winning affineurs responsible for The Cellars at Jasper Hill. In a version of cheese industry telephone, the Kehler brothers connected Brown to French Master Affineur (and international cheese world superstar) Herve Mons, in addition to New York cheese entrepreneur Anne Saxelby. Brown led the group down the ladder and into the abandoned tunnels, where the reaction was one of enthusiasm. “They’re like, this is crazy, this is great. You should make this happen.”  The next step was simple in theory, but daunting in reality.

Brown, an artist with no previous cheese making or aging experience, had to learn the art of affinage.

An Artist Becomes One with the Cheese

It may be hard to believe now, given the growth of cheese aging caves across the United States in recent years, but in 2010, options were much more limited. With the help of Laure Dubouloz, Herve Mons’ United States export manager, it was decided that Brown would fly to France to learn from the master affineur. At the time, Brown says, “they didn’t have a class or anything over there, and they thought they’d use me as a demo run for a class, so I was the guinea pig for the affinage program [now called Academie Opus Caseus]. So they tailored my experience as running an affinage facility...caring for mostly Alpines and tommes, receiving cheese, etc. That’s where I really got my major training.”

While Brown was learning the practical aspects of cheese aging, the tunnels in Brooklyn were undergoing their own transformation. The tunnels were opened up and made accessible through stairs and an elevator. Then, working with French industrial refrigeration company Clauger, the Crown Finish owners had to figure out how to make the tunnels not only safe, but perfect for aging Alpines and tommes. And then of course, there was all the legal paperwork that comes with transporting and handling dairy products.

To compare this description to the Crown Finish Caves in the present state, one begins to understand how serious and costly true affinage must be to be successful. The aforementioned refrigeration system is state-of-the-art, customized specifically for the space, and not only helps maintain temperature levels, but humidity and ammonia levels. Local cheesemongers and those in the cheese industry who have seen the caves are impressed, and perhaps a bit surprised. When complimented on the scale and precision of his operation, Brown laughs and admits it’s a sentiment he’s heard a few times. “Starting a cheese company...it’s another entity and another company. Some people think we’re a goofy little operation...a kind of little side project. Then they come and see the extent of it all.”

The “extent” of Crown Finish Caves is truly impressive. It’s currently a fully operating affinage facility holding around 11,000 pounds of cheese. Founders Susan Boyle and Benton Brown were recently joined by full-time affineur Sam Frank, who cares for their signature Crown Finish cheeses and works with Brown to conduct new experiments. Largely supplied by cheese from Peter Dixon’s creamery Parish Hill, Crown Finish has increased its production to include a variety of cheese styles.

Current staples include a variety of cheeses made in different styles, available at most specialty cheese shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn.. These include pasta-filata cheeses Suffolk Punch and Kashar, semi-soft and nutty cider-washed Humble Herdsman, large format Italian toma-style Reverie, Alpine-style Vermont Herdsman, and fudgy, Gorgonzola-style West-West Blue.

suffolk punch

Suffolk Punch aging inside the caves

There are always lots of experiments taking place, with various washes (notably, local beers and spirits tend to be key parts of the wash and add an additional element of Brooklyn flavor and flare) and cheeses from different small producers like Sugar House Creamery in upstate New York.

A New Player in the American Cheese Aging Game is Here to Stay

Despite the all-encompassing nature of the cheese-aging world, the small team at Crown Finish Caves appears to be all-in. Speaking to Brown this winter, he sounded enthusiastic about future possibilities and the continued growth of the company, which has come a long way in a relatively short span of time. If nothing else, it proves that at the professional level, cheese aging is not a hobby, but a lifestyle.

Lacking the lineage of longstanding European cheesemakers whose skills were handed down through the centuries, the artisanal cheese movement in the United States has largely relied on entrepreneurial ventures like Crown Finish Caves to raise the bar. A significant investment of capital is one obstacle, and the willingness to throw themselves headfirst into an industry with few players and fewer guarantees of success is another.

When Life Gives You Massive 19th Century Lagering Tunnels in Brooklyn, Make Cheese