30 feet below the streets of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, I recently found a treasure trove of cheese waiting, in brisk 50 degree temperatures, to be released in all its cheesy glory. The home of these cheddars and camemberts is the Crown Finish Caves, a cheese aging and distribution company located in old lagering tunnels below a building that used to house the Nassau Brewery, which ceased its beer operations over a century ago. Owner Benton Brown purchased the building in 2001, but didn’t get fully immersed into the cheese business until 2010 when he took a cheesemaking class in Vermont with Consider Bardwell Farm cheesemaker Peter Dixon. “After this, we understood that the tunnels were ideal for cheese aging,” he said, “The shape, existing climate—this led me to work in a renovated train tunnel in France with [affineur] Herve Mons. There I learned how an affinage [cheese ripening] facility functioned and could understand how to apply that in the U.S.”
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The Brooklyn tunnels were used as a place to ferment beer in the 19th century, in the days before ubiquitous refrigeration. According to Crown Finish head of sales Chelsea Germer, the conditions created in the tunnels are perfect for aging cheese, from temperature to humidity to the presence of ambient microorganisms. “While we do have modern humidification and cooling systems, the structure itself is in fact beneficial,” she said. “The shape and age of these tunnels impacts air and humidity flow, and the existing flora from the beer brewing impacts the natural ripening of our cheeses.”
And it shows. Crown Finish’s beer-washed cheeses—collaborations between celebrated dairies and breweries—are works of art. I sampled one a few months ago at a beer pairing dinner at Mekelburg’s in Brooklyn - a goat cheese button washed in Finback Red for two weeks. Germer says that their most acclaimed beer-washed cheese is Trifecta, a sheep, cow, and cow cream camembert style from Old Chatham Sheepherding Company washed in Wandering Bine Saison from Brooklyn’s Threes Brewing.
Fortunately for all of us, it doesn’t take a trip below the aging brewery building to find a Crown cheese. They’re currently available at stores and restaurants all over the country. But if you’re able to make it out, the urban cheese caves are worth spelunking.