In the early aughts, Susan Boyle and Benton Brown were riding their bikes around undeveloped areas of Brooklyn looking for abandoned buildings with investment possibilities—mixed-use property, with commercial and residential potential. They wanted something decrepit (i.e., affordable).
One building on Bergen Street in Crown Heights caught their eye. Unbeknownst to them, the building was a former brewery with centuries-old brick-arch tunnels beneath it, historically used for beer fermentation. They bought the building plus its surrounding complex—essentially half of a city block—and sold a few chunks of the property to afford the necessary renovations, using much of the materials already existing on the premises. Then, they began renting space in the commercial building to a mix of creative types, such as architects, food producers, and artists.
As for the accompanying caves, they decided to forgo beer fermentation and use them for cheese aging, or affinage (ah-fin-azh). And therein lies their vision of the future of urban agriculture: utilizing existing spaces in new and innovative ways. It takes tenacity, a plan, and a healthy dose of imagination.
"These caves are perfect for aging cheese," says Sam Frank, the affineur (or cheese ager) at Crown Finish Caves. "There's 150 years worth of yeast floating around in the air," he tells me during my tour through the caves of CFC, Boyle and Brown's cheese-aging and distribution facilities.
The air circulation and temperature is carefully controlled by an air system designed by French refrigeration and ventilation experts Clauger. The air system plus the natural conditions of the cave make for a cool, dank environment—a constant of 52 degrees Fahrenheit and 95 percent humidity—ideal for affinage of Tomme- and Alpine-style cheeses.
Because CFC concentrates its efforts on the aging process, they look to local cheese producers to provide them with fresh cheese. Cheesemakers such as Parish Hill Creamery, a Vermont-based operation that uses milk from grass-fed cows, ship their product to the aging facility. Sam describes the fresh cheese as chewy or springy. "Kind of like queso fresco?" I ask. Yeah, kind of like queso fresco.
The cheeses are transported to the facility with serious care to protect against contact with any foreign substances that may harm their freshness or flavor. I literally have to wear a train conductor hat, a white lab coat, and white Crocs (yikes!)—as well as sanitize any and all of my exposed skin—just to descend into the caves. That's where the cheese-aging, or ripening, takes place.
Lest you think cheese aging is simply a matter of leaving cheese in a dark cave for a few months, know that there's quite a bit of work involved. The cheese is molded into different shapes depending on the cheese-making tradition and time-tested methods for producing the best taste: short and wide, tall and narrow, hanging gourds.
As the cheese are aged, they have to be cleaned and flipped often, and the blue cheeses are injected with water to trigger mold formation throughout the cheese body. But there's a fun part to the process, too: the affineurs experiment with different cheese baths such as cider or beer, and wash the cheeses with brines made up of different salt concentrations to see which produces the most interesting, desirable flavor.
Currently, CFC has one fully functioning cave where it ages cheeses including Tommes, Alpines, blues, and Provolone styles—for example, their Suffolk Punch, a caciocavallo-style gourd-shaped cheese. In the future, they plan to expand into other realms of cheeses, bloomy rind varieties such as Camembert and Brie. Eventually, CFC would like to use all of its five caves for affinage. To give you an idea of how much cheesy potential that amounts to: Currently, they are aging 10,000 pounds of cheese, but they have the space for up to 100,000 pounds.
I do a quick-fire round of serious cheese questions with Sam and Benton.
What's their smelliest cheese? The Humble Herdsman: a cider-washed, French-style Tomme made with raw cow's milk that's aged 4 to 6 months.
Their best "grilled-cheese cheese?" The Reverie, a natural-rinded Italian-style cow's milk toma aged 6 to 12 months. Sam says it's similar in taste and texture to a Swiss or Emmenthal, perfect for melting between two buttery pieces of bread.
The perfect cheese to impress your food snob friends? The West West Blue Cheese, made in the style of a traditional two-curd Gorgonzola. This one's always a crowd pleaser, even for those who typically don't like blue cheese.
Benton tells me about the many requests he gets from aspiring young cheese-makers who want to apprentice in the caves. Hopefully, as CFC grows and expands their operations, more and more curious wannabe affineurs will be able to come work in the caves and learn about cheese-aging, a tradition that has been practiced throughout Europe for millennia. CFC's collection of purveyors has also bloomed, now including stores and restaurants such as Whole Foods, Eataly, Campbell's Grocery, Marlow and Daughters, The Pines, and Roberta's.
A story that began with an old, abandoned industrial building ends with a place for learning, creation and inspiration. With thoughtful repurposing and creativity, urban agriculture is taking root—quite literally, underground—inthe most densely metropolitan area in the country.