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NYC’s Newest Cheese Cave Created In 1850s Underground Lagering Tunnels

Brooklyn’s Crown Finish Caves recently received its first batch of raw milk cheese from Parish Hill Creamery of Vermont. The affinage operation is in the heart of “one of the best cheese markets in the country, right in the five boroughs.”    

Crown Finish Caves Partners With Parish Hill Creamery’s Peter Dixon For Aging Venture

New York—The first delivery of raw milk cheese from Vermont’s Parish Hill Creamery arrived here this summer at the new Crown Finish Caves – a re-purposed 1850s lagering tunnel 30 feet underground in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Owners Benton Brown and his wife Susan Boyle bought the old brewery building in 2001.

We knew that it had old “lagering” tunnels below, but we had a tremendous amount of issues above ground that needed dealing with before we could get to the underground space, Brown said.

“It’s somewhat of a vast complex, which had many components that took precedent over the tunnels,” he said.

By 2003, the couple developed and rented out components of the residential portion, and three years later, had developed the commercial components.

By 2009, they started to focus on the tunnels. The following year, Brown reached out to cheese maker and consultant Peter Dixon, owner of Parish Hill Creamery, Westminster West, VT, to learn how to make cheese.

“We had been thinking that the tunnels could be an ideal place to age cheese, and I went to Consider Bardwell Farm to take a class on cheesemaking. This led to another class with Peter Dixon on affinage,” Brown said.

Peter visited us in Brooklyn, and connected us with Mateo Kehler at Jasper Hill Farm, Brown continued. In June of 2010, Mateo visited the tunnels and brought with him international cheese affineur Herve Mons.

“At this point, we were assured that the space would be perfect for cheese aging and we began learning as much as we could about caves – air flow, humidity, et cetera,” Brown said.

“Peter was leaving Consider Bardwell Farm and was planning to start his own creamery with his wife, Rachel. During all this time, we were planning an aging facility to work with Peter when he got his new creamery up and running,” he said.

Crown Finish commissioned its equipment in January and received its New York State dairy plant license in May. The first delivery of 1,000 pounds of young raw milk cheese was on June 11.

“The brewery closed its doors and stopped operation in 1914,” Brown said. “One-hundred years later – cheese!”

Construction & Equipment
Crown Finish is housed in the underground lagering tunnels of an 1850’s brewery. It features all-brick arched construction with new concrete floors and stainless steel floor drains. The bricks are lime-washed and the shelving is stainless steel with wood aging boards.

The space also has a stainless fancoil unit in the aging area, using textile ducts with perforated holes pointing toward the ceiling.

Air pushes toward the arch, providing indirect air movement so as to not dry out the cheese, but to also circulate large quantities of air.

Humidity is pushed into the textile ducts though filtered compressed air so it travels evenly throughout the tunnel. Fresh air intake goes through a series of filters, including a HEPA filter to provide clean intake air.

The extractor is located at the other end of the tunnel, removing ammoniated air from the space. All equipment has variable speed motors that can be adjusted to work with the quantity and conditions of the cheese, Brown said.

Most importantly, all equipment can be cleaned. Textile ducts are removed and washed, and all mechanical equipment is either stainless steel or plastic, he said.

Crown Finish Caves’ capacity is 22,000 pounds. It is currently staffed by Brown and Boyle, along with one intern.

The space “differs from other domestic affinage facilities because of the existing brick arch space, which is cost-prohibitive to construct, and its location in a major urban cheese-eating market,” Brown said.

The biggest challenge of getting started is finding the right producers to work with, Brown said. Peter Dixon’s vast knowledge and experience in cheesemaking and aging made him an ideal producer and advisor.

“One of the biggest challenges operating in New York City is getting the young cheeses delivered directly from the producer,” Brown continued.

“Because the cheese is so young, it’s important that we receive the cheese within 10 hours without it being parked in a walk-in overnight or getting cross-docked along the way.”

“Ideally, we would like to add new cheeses and are looking for additional producers in surrounding states within a five-hour radius,” Brown said. “We also hope to develop the other two tunnels to support other types of environments for different types of cheeses that we are unable to work with at this time.”

Parish Hill Creamery Cheese
Parish Hill Creamery is owned and operated by Peter Dixon, his wife Rachel Fritz-Schaal, and sister-in-law Alex Schaal. Its first cheese was made in August 2013 and after a winter hiatus, the seasonal, pasture-based company started production again last May.

Parish Hill makes seasonal, handmade, raw milk cheeses inspired by traditional DOP Italian varieties. Last year, the company produced about 12,000 pounds of cheese and this year, production is slated to double.

Its product line includes West West Blue, a traditional, two-curd Gorgonzola made with raw milk; Humble Herdsman, a semi-soft Tomme, aged three to five months; and Vermont Herdsman, an Asiago-style cheese aged for at least nine months.

Parish Hill’s Reverie is a traditional Tomma that’s aged five to 10 months, and its Chapman’s Pasture is a part-skim, Grana-style grating cheese aged at least 12 months with a distinctive black rind. Suffolk Punch is a gourd-shaped, whole milk Caciocavallo-style classic Pasta Filata cheese aged at least two months, and Kashar is Balkan-style style Pasta Filata cheese made from the same curd as the Suffolk Punch, but turned out in basket molds to form drums.

“You basically have access to the best cheese market in the country, right in the five boroughs.”
– Rachel Fritz-Schaal, co-owner, Parish Hill Creamery

“We’re very lucky that so many people have eaten Pete’s cheeses over the years, and they’re excited that he’s going to be making his own cheese again,” Fritz Schaal said.

This spring, we developed this distribution angle where Benton would act as a kind of distributor, Fritz Schaal said. They’ve been handling our New York metropolitan market.

“Aside from the fact that we’re doing business with them, it’s super exciting to have these caves underneath the ground with perfect environments,” she said.

“He’s gotten the very best equipment, created the perfect environment for aging cheese, and it’s right there for restaurant owners and cheese mongers,” she said.

“If you like stuff a little younger, or stuff a little funkier, you can actually go right there and pick out exactly what you want,” Fritz Schaal said.

Regarding the cost of hiring an affinage company, there are dairy farmers that can’t make a living on small family farms, so making cheese is a way to add value. However, they don’t see themselves as affineurs, Fritz Schaal said.

They make cheese, but they have no interest in the marketing or the aging, she said. I imagine there will be cheese makers of that ilk that Benton and Sue will be working with.

There are also the people that have been making cheese and when they expand production, rather than trying to find or create more aging space, this is a good alternative, Fritz-Schaal said.

You can make more cheese, but won’t need to figure out how to expand your aging facility or figure out how to sell it.

“You basically have access to the best cheese market in the country, right in the five boroughs,” she said. “Peter has been doing affinage for 30 years – he had no intention of not doing it – but the idea of being able to produce more cheese than we can take care of and having access to the New York market in this way, is exciting.”

“The thing I’m most excited about is that in six months, we’ll be able to do a horizontal tasting of the cheeses we’ve aged up here in Vermont with those from the very same vat aged in New York,” she said.

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