In this week's installment of First-Person Shooter, we gave two cameras to Sam Frank, a cheese affineur or cheese ager, who works in the Crown Finish Caves in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. As a cheese professional who's been working with dairy since attending college in Vermont, Sam helps age and ripen over 25,000 pounds of cheese that resides in a dank, dark cave built in the 19th century, located below the streets of Brooklyn.
On top of shooting photos of him and his coworkers flipping, washing, and brining cheeses, Sam also snapped a few #cheeseporn-worthy shots and hung out on the business's roof where the cheese team harvests organic honey. Sam ended his day serving fancy cheese plates at a gala in Prospect Park. Below, he answered a couple questions about the history of the cheese cave, the benefits of cheese mites, and how he got into this unique, stinky craft.
VICE: What was your day like?
Sam Frank: First, I had some coffee in the office with my coworkers and we discussed the day. Then I headed down to the caves to tend to the aging cheeses. In the afternoon, we all took a break together to go on the roof to have some coffee, a ton of cheese, and do some beekeeping.
Later, I went back down to the caves to finish up all the cheese care, and after that spent a long time cleaning. We do a lot of cleaning. That night there was a benefit gala at the Prospect Park Boathouse where we were dishing out cheese plates with Whole Foods. There were a lot of good cocktails.
How did you get into cheese professionally?
I got into cheese when I dropped out of the University of Vermont, funnily enough. My former RA was working at a nearby farm making farmhouse cheddar and got me an assistant cheesemaker position.
What is it about cheese that interests you, exactly?
Why cheese? On page one of his seminal book, American Farmstead Cheese, Dr. Paul Kindstedt from the University of Vermont answers that: "The extraordinary diversity of cheese flavors, textures, aromas, and visual characteristics almost defies the imagination, especially in light of the fact that the starting point for all cheeses is mere milk, a bland, nondescript liquid."
What is the purpose of a cheese cave? How much cheese does it hold?
The cave can hold up to around 25,000 pounds of cheese at any given time. Unless it's meant to be eaten fresh, most cheeses need to ripen for a period of time that can last anywhere from a couple of days up to a couple of years, depending on the style. The ideal environment for ripening cheese is cool and damp—literally dank, hence the cheese cave. We happen to be in an old "lagering" tunnel about 30 feet below a long-defunct brewery that operated from the mid-1800s up until the Prohibition. Over 100 years ago, there was beer aging there. Now there's cheese. Caring for aging cheese is known as affinage and the person doing it is the affineur.
What are your normal duties in the cheese cave?
My normal duties are flipping cheeses, brushing cheeses, washing cheeses, and lots and lots of cleaning. Flipping to maintain even moisture content throughout the cheese during aging. Brushing or washing in order to control the growth of certain microbes on the rind while promoting the growth of certain others (and that all depends on the style of cheese you're working with). Lots of cleaning because food safety is a pretty major priority in the dairy processing industry.
How many people work in the cave?
Right now, there are six people working at Crown Finish Caves, including the husband/wife team bosses. There's two of us that primarily do affinage work in the cave, but everyone is regularly chipping in.
What are the cheese mites in the photos? Are they real bugs?
Yep. There are certain species of mites that proliferate on aging cheeses. A lot of the work is brushing mites off of cheese. They actually do contribute a nice, sort of earthy or woodsy flavor profile to some cheeses, though.
What's with the pics of the bees and the hazmat suits?
My bosses have kept honey bees on the roof for years. They were putting more frames into an active beehive, so a suit like that prevents one from getting stung, as does "smoking them out."
How can the public try some cheese?
Every third Thursday, CFC hosts Third Curdsday. We bring a crap load of cheese to a bar, and people just hang out and drink beers and eat cheese. We pick a different bar every time, but usually try to keep it local to our Crown Heights area of Brooklyn. Sign up for our newsletter here, or like us on Facebook to find out where the next one will be.