A Visit to Crown Finish Caves
A few evenings ago I had the chance to visit Crown Finish Caves, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, as they were receiving their bi-weekly shipment from their cheesemaking partners up north, Parish Hill Creamery. This was especially interesting for me as the last time I visited the facilities, with Jos Vulto of Vulto Creamery, was right after they’d completed construction, but before there was actually any cheese on the shelves! (you can see that post, and the gleaming, empty tunnels, here).
By now, of course, the story has developed considerably: Crown Finish is receiving regular shipments of both aged cheese — affinaged in Peter Dixon’s own facilities up in Westminster West, VT — and “green” cheese, which Crown Finish is then affinaging themselves in consultation with Peter and his team. Their state of the art caves are outfitted with the best temperature, airflow and humidity control systems on the market, from french company Clauger, and that system is now being put to full use. A key goal of this process is to identify the differences in aroma, flavor, texture, rind development, microbial activity and other key variables which may exhibit differences from one location to the other — in a word, the “terroir” of Brooklyn’s underground tunnels, vs those of an aging facility dug into a hillside in vermont.
Driving the shipment down was Sam Frank (@samfrankcisco on Instagram), a cheesemaker at Parish Hill; at the caves, two assistants, August and Michelle Villasenor, helped in the unpacking as Benton and Susan directed traffic and stacked the wheels on the scales. As the wheels of cheese were unpacked from their crates, Sam and Benton inspected the wheels, noting features and variations both positive and negative; some wheels of blue exhibited curds that had knit exceptionally well, while a few Suffolk Punches had slight pockets of air under the rind on which Sam and Benton debated how best to deal with. After being inspected and weighed,the shipments were moved in to the caves to find their new homes on the wooden shelves. This shipment included West-West Blue, Parish Hill’s two-day blue cheese; Suffolk Punch and Kashar, their pasta filata cheeses, the Suffolk Punch having the distinctive, gourd-like Caciocavallo shape; Humble Herdsman, a semi-soft tomme-style cheese; and Reverie, a larger-format Tomma-style cheese.
Once in the caves, we also got to see some exciting developments under way; Crown Finish has a few experiments going, including a couple of cheeses being aged for Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. (although I can’t say more than that). Particularly interesting for any beer and cheese lovers out there, Crown Finish has partnered with Josh Bernstein, renowned NYC beer expert, on a beer-washed experiment involving wheels of Humble Herdsman and a selection from brewers such as Finback, Transmitter, Other Half, Single Cut, Three’s Brewing and more. The differences in the rind development among the cheeses was immediately apparent, with both color and aroma varying considerably, some turning dark brown from the ales being applied, while others were barely changed in color.
The big news, though, is that Crown Finish will be hosting an event in November at which these cheeses will be available in an evening of tastings and pairings! Tickets not available yet; stay tuned as I’ll be posting details as soon as I have them.
The Suffolk punches are particularly dramatic in appearance in the caves; when you get them at the cheese counter they’ll be polished smooth and a gleaming golden-yellow color, but during aging they become covered with a thick, fuzzy layer of greenish-gray mold, almost like layers of spider webs built up over the months. This is perfectly normal, and aids in both the development of flavor and the protection of the interior paste.
Seeing the caves actually running at full steam, with wheels aging on the shelves from one end to the other, is a beautiful sight. Benton cored one of the wheels of Herdsman (the “#3”), and we gave it a taste; a very milky cheese (“like drinking a glass of milk” as Benton described it), tangy with a subtle grassy-herby finish.Brooklyn’s first full-scale cheese aging facilities are off to a promising start, and the cheeses which have actually been aged on-site will be hitting the city’s cheese counters soon.
Note: the caves aren’t open to the public, but if you visit Berg’n, Crown Heights’ newest beer and food hall, you can enjoy your brews and ramen burgers knowing that directly next door to the east, deep under the street, affineurs are hard at work, and wheels of cheese, destined for your favorite cheese shop, are maturing to their full glory.