Crown Finish Caves

Who knew there was a cheese aging cave in bustling New York City? New York City is known for a lot of things, but aging cheese isn’t one of them. At least I didn’t think so.

Crown Finish Caves is in a former Budweiser brewery, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The building had been dormant since 1914 (the railroad tracks that brought ingredients to the brewery, however, are still adjacent to the building), but it had caves, which were used for low-temperature lagering. But they also happen to be ideal for ripening cheese, too.

I’d been trying to time my New York visits so I could check out the cellars, and on my last trip to New York, the stars (and the cheeses) aligned, and I found myself heading underground, to check out les fromages.

At any given time, these caves might have as much as 25 thousand pounds of cheese ripening at a time. Overall, Crown Finish Caves ripens about whopping 100 thousand pounds of cheese per year. I was down in the caves with Ethan Partyka, the cave manager, who led me through the cellars filled with cheeses from New York and Vermont.

Some, however, came from France and Italy, such Bufarolo, a wonderfully creamy Taleggio-like cheese, which they brush with beer brewed in New York City. And hanging overhead were rounds of Mimolette (above) hanging from the ceiling, which I’m going to show to people who tell me that it can’t be imported into the United States. FYI: I’ve also seen it in Whole Foods stores as well. So there.

I wondered why the cheesemakers didn’t age the cheeses themselves, which Ethan told me was because the cheesemakers they work with don’t have the time, or space, necessary to store and age their cheeses, so they trust them to them. And from what I saw – and tasted – the cheeses are in very good hands.

Because Crown Finish Caves has a cheese-making license, although they don’t make cheeses themselves, it allows them to handle raw-milk cheeses. Still, all the cheeses must be ripened for at least two months before being sold, to conform to U.S laws. Above is Goatlet from Vermont, aged 4 to 6 months with a goaty visage embossed on it, that looks to me, kind of like France?

Below are cheeses, called Tubby, named after an architect in Brooklyn from the 19th century. They reminded me of the Gruyère cheeses I’ve seen aging in the Swiss alps, which I’ve spent a fair amount of time in. Tubby was terrific! Nutty, buttery, richly flavored, the cheeses are aged about one year in the caves, which develops the flavor and causes them to lose around 10% of their weight while ripening.

I like to touch food. I can’t keep my hands off it. I can only buy produce from vendors at the markets in France who let me choose my own. (If they don’t, I’m extra-specific about which fruits to put in my bag.) When I’ve visited cheese caves in France and Switzerland, the cheeses were handled, touched, tasted, and even rolled on the ground. (Which is why I don’t recommend eating the rinds of some of the large mountain cheeses). All the cheeses in these caves are treated as special guests and handled with well-washed, or gloved, hands. It was hard for me not to want to touch them all since I’m such a tactile person. But I didn’t want to be responsible for screwing up a batch of cheese – or worse, ending up on the news as the cause of a bunch of issues – so I kept my hands to myself.

A small, ash-covered goat cheese reminded me of some of the unnamed chèvres we have in France. It was spectacularly creamy, which I learned later when I got to touch, and taste it.

And there’s a 4 week-aged butter that David Chang uses at Momofuku Ko (below). Ethan and the other person working in the cellar told me it was rather funky. I bravely said that I’ve tasted a lot of butter, having visited several farms that make it, and never met a butter I didn’t like.

They were right, and this one was definitely….an acquired taste. But I could see why Chang likes it; it replicates some of the fermented flavors found in Korean food. If I ever get to go to his restaurant, it’ll be interesting to see, and taste (uh…maybe) what he uses it in, or on.

The most fascinating cheeses, to me, were the large blocks called Barnburner.

The unpasteurized soft cheese starts like this, above, after being cold-smoked for a few hours. And end up in big blocks, covered with dewy mold, after some aging, looking like this…

When they cut into one later, the interior revealed a deep orange hue and a hickory smoke-like flavor. Ethan told me, was to some, a nostalgic nod to the smoked cheeses of the past. (We used to get them when I was a kid, at the mall, at Hickory Farms, where they also carried port-flavored cheese in crocks and sausages with suspiciously long shelf lives, which bulged uncomfortably in their wrappers.)

The Barnburner was quite smoky, and I think I’m out of the loop when it comes to smoky cheese, having lived in France for a while. We do get smoked Basque cheeses, which get that way because they used to store them in the chimney, before the advent of refrigeration, to help preserve them. But if you like full-on, all-natural smoked cheese, this is the one to try. I’m pretty sure I would love it mixed with another good cheddar, on a grilled cheese sandwich, and will have to try that next time I’m in town.

The disks below are called Naked Pruner, made with sheeps’ milk.

Each cheese is hand-brushed with stout made by Grimm ales, also in Brooklyn.

Perhaps my favorite, though, was the small square called Cloud Heights, the ashed-rubbed square below on the board below, made from goat and cow’s milk. It was dense, gooey, and rich inside, and they do a special one for Dan Barber at Blue Hill Stone Barns rubbed with bone char instead of ash. He’s been experimenting with bones, especially the difference in the bone density of grass-fed cows versus factory-fed cows, including how it works in bone china.

When we did our final tasting, we tried a square cheese, called Trifecta, a triple-cream cheese aged for three weeks, and brushed with Brooklyn Brewery beer while ripening. It was ultra-buttery and had a marvelous lactic tang. I was thinking it would have been fun to bring some of these cheeses back to France for people to taste. True, there’s no shortage of excellent cheese in France, but good cheese can come from anywhere, including below New York City. But I had to leave them behind. If you’re a cheese-lover in the U.S., I’d recommend checking out some of their cheeses, no matter where you’re traveling to, or from.

Crown Finish Caves

The ripening cellars are not open to the public but there’s a list of U.S. retailers, cheese shops, and online vendors, on their website. Once a month Crown Finish Cellars has an open house where they sell cheese directly to the public, donating 50% of the proceeds to charity. You can get notified of their events by following their Instagram and Facebook pages. They also offer a “cheese share” where you can get a mix of various cheeses monthly. More info is on their website.

A visit to the cheese ripening caves in Brooklyn, New York.

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29 comments

  • Happygoin
    December 15, 2018 4:08pm

    That was one of my fave entries of the year, David. As much as I love French cheese, it’s fun to know the US is doing it’s part.

    Thank you so much for bringing us along on your adventures.

    • December 15, 2018 4:25pm
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks! It’s often sort of a challenge to go to places like this, that are amazing & take pics, remember things…and best of all, experience the cheese. What they’re doing is great and even for us French cheese-lovers, it’s nice to know that great cheese is available in many places. I was at that Fancy Food Show in the States a year or so ago and many of the cheeses were outstanding. Even French cheese shops are carrying more cheeses from other countries, like England. U.S. cheese probably won’t make it over, due to agriculture rules (and that may change for UK cheeses after the Brexit?) – but it’s nice to know I can get them when I’m back in the U.S.

  • Adriana
    December 15, 2018 4:13pm

    There are abandoned caves in my community in the foothills of the Appalachians about an hour north of Atlanta. I would love to see them repurposed from the original marble quarry to ripe ing cheeses.

  • December 15, 2018 4:46pm

    I’ll never eat another grilled cheese without wondering what I am missing.

  • choosie soosie
    December 15, 2018 4:51pm

    My understanding of Mimolette is that the US disapproved of the active parasites that create the rough rind while the cheese ages. (There’s a video someplace showing the mites at work that makes even some of us mimolette lovers cringe.) After a lengthy pause in importation, mimolette was back on shelves (including Costco) with a rind enveloped in wax, guaranteeing that the little mites are dead. I think it has a not-necessarily-better, smoother texture, but the flavor seems just as good to me.

    • December 15, 2018 5:50pm
      David Lebovitz

      Yes, it seemed like there was a pause in importation, but like mirabelle plums, every time I see them get mentioned, people say it’s a shame they’re not available in the U.S., and they are. Mirabelle trees can be purchased at plant nurseries but I think Americans are accustomed to tangy purple plums rather than sweet little yellow ones, so there aren’t many growers since the market isn’t enough to sustain their production.

  • Jane
    December 15, 2018 6:14pm

    Sometimes it seems as though we are going to ‘hell in a hand basket’, but this lovely post proves that there are many folks out there working hard to keep quality of all sorts in our lives. ‘To heaven on a cheese plate’ is my new motto. Thanks, David.

  • December 15, 2018 6:27pm

    This is FASCINATING. Going to their website right now. Thank you, David!

  • Samantha
    December 15, 2018 6:52pm

    Wow! This is excellent in so many ways. I love that they repurposed an old brewery that wasn’t being used, and what a perfectly lovely thing to replace it with! Thanks for sharing this story David. I’ll be visiting their website too!

  • Taffy Holvenstot
    December 15, 2018 7:05pm

    Wow, what a fantastic post and experience for you!! Lovely photos, now living in AZ its a bit far, but that auction sure sounds like fun!!

  • Jill
    December 15, 2018 7:46pm

    I live in NYC and love cheese and had no idea! I did think, though, that Murray’s recently opened a finishing cave in addition to their storage caves, at their warehouse in LIC, Queens. Definitely going to follow Crown in case they decide to do a public tour

  • Mary Porter
    December 15, 2018 8:19pm

    What a treat! Your narrative and photography are, for me, almost like being there. Now in my eighties, I won’t be traveling downstate. I’m glad I can rely on you for the education and entertainment. As an avid cook, until recent years, my best recipes were cheese loaded. It is probably a good thing, I’m learning but not experimenting with so many varieties. Thank you, David. I find you a gifted storyteller and hang on your every word.

  • Birute Skurdenis
    December 15, 2018 9:59pm

    Like many of the other posters, had no idea this was going on at such a scale in the US. Thanks for the information.

  • Carren J Stika
    December 15, 2018 10:08pm

    What a wonderful post! I agree with so many other folks who noted how reading this was almost like being there. I just loved this post! I kept thinking as I drew closer and closer to my computer monitor, looking at each sample that was shown, how much I appreciate your blog David. I see things and learn about places that I never would get the chance to see or know about without your generous sharing of your experiences. Plus the smiles that your posts bring! And, sometimes, even out loud laughs! Yes, as Mary Porter comments and others too, you are SUCH a gifted storyteller. And so generous. The best! Thank you…

  • Kathleen
    December 16, 2018 3:25am

    Fascinating! I grew up in upstate NY at a time when locally made and traded milk and milk products were on the way out. I lived in a 4 mile long valley with 12 family owned dairy farms, none of which are operating today. This type of operation gives me hope that the fertile fields and farms of upstate can return and provide food and a way of living again.

  • Margaret
    December 16, 2018 6:23am

    Excellent post, thank you David. As you were talking about cheeses the US no longer imports, I thought of Saint Marcellin in the little blue crock. It’s apparently available in France but no longer in the US. When I asked the young ladies at the cheese shop about it (where I used to buy it) they’d never heard of it — sad.

  • Linda Whitman
    December 16, 2018 2:46pm

    Beautiful photography.

  • Peter
    December 16, 2018 4:56pm

    a cheese grows in Brooklyn. Who knew?! Absolutely fascinating.

  • elaine lingenfelter
    December 16, 2018 6:03pm

    Wonderful! I want to be among the many to thank you for this great post. Love the photos!
    I am keeping it to reread and I’m forwarding it to friends who will enjoy it.
    Best wishes, Elaine

  • Chris
    December 16, 2018 6:30pm

    Your photographs in this post were just beautiful…not “cheesy” at all! :) Yes, even the Americans can make great cheese…kind of reminds me of the movie Bottle Shock!
    Have you seen it? True story! :)

  • Susan
    December 16, 2018 8:40pm

    There is a cheese shop in Tiverton,R.I. that carries Mimolette, or used to. I purchased it once and I think I didn’t put it to good use as I have no recall of it’s flavor!I do remember the bit about the teeny bugs that inhabit it however.

  • Katia
    December 17, 2018 7:47pm

    We had this butter at Momofuku Ko. I miss the cultured and salted butters of Europe and love fermented things. This butter paired nicely with the sourdough and was right up my alley.

    • Peter Longenecker
      December 17, 2018 8:33pm

      Katie,

      Trader Joe’s has cultured salted butter — direct from Bretagne (Brittany). Blue and light yellow wrapper; 250 g. blocks.

      Bought four this morning; the only butter we’ve used for over a year now.

      • December 18, 2018 10:56am
        David Lebovitz

        Yes, they sell that butter from Brittany. Also Vermont Creamery makes a cultured butter that’s very good, too.

  • Su Su
    December 18, 2018 11:00am

    I live in Sabah, Malaysia and I am privileged to have a local cheese producer called “Kinarut Cheese” to enjoy here in the tropics! It’s true as you said, “Good cheese can come from anywhere.” Lovely post. Enjoyed reading it very much.

  • Susanne Byrne
    December 18, 2018 7:50pm

    I am from Europe originally and spend time in Germany and Southern France every year. I have lived in Vermont for almost 30 years and used to really miss a lot of things like European cheeses and breads. It is truly amazing what has happened here in the last few years. There are so many people, a lot of them young people, who started breweries, cider companies, bakeries and cheese, butter and charcuterie companies. The quality of those products is really good. A great place to live.

  • Gerrie Vanderveen
    December 19, 2018 6:26pm

    I learned something new again today, thanks to your blog! (Well, I learned a lot actually).
    Your visit to the Crown Caves and all of the accompanying photographs made me feel like I was right there experiencing it as well.
    Thank you!

  • stuart itter
    January 10, 2019 10:39pm

    Not that important, but there was a vast French and world cheese aging facility run by Artisanal cheese importer and restaurant operator 15 years ago. Was on the far west side of Manhattan in the 30/40’s. Just amazing cheeses in perfect condition and ripeness. Various of their staff or restaurant people wrote significant works about cheese. Now look; raving a ripe munster.

  • Joyce Adams
    January 12, 2019 10:08pm

    Very interesting article David! Thank you for the information.