The dream of Brooklyn is still very much alive, but you must go deep underground in Crown Heights to find it. Thirty feet below Bergen Street, beyond a discreet exterior, there is a series of actual caves. To get there, you’ll first need to scrub your hands and nails, exchange street shoes for clogs, and don a hairnet and lab coat. Then, sign a waiver. Finally, head down a spiral staircase directly into tunnels that have been in existence since the 1850s, when they were used for making lager for Nassau Brewery. These are literally Brooklyn’s own superhero bat caves, now used for making cheese and making music.
The Crown Finish Caves are an alternate universe, where the landlords are the artisans instead of the developers. Benton Brown and Susan Boyle, a married couple, bought a building in Crown Heights around 2001, at a time when it was possible to find a space that came with the bonus of underground tunnels. They approached the landlord at a time when he was moving his storage business, and they went to work on years of renovations employing green technologies. Over the next decade, they developed and rented out space, never fully concluding what to do with those caves below, which you needed an extension ladder to access. Ideas ranged from growing mushrooms, throwing raves, or making miso. This was during the early to mid-aughts when everyone was making food. At an award ceremony with the borough president, they randomly sat next to Rick Field from Rick’s Picks, and they started thinking seriously about food as their next big project. They spoke with coffee grinders and wine storage experts. Then they thought: Why not cheese?
“I would have to credit the man with the beard, [of her husband, Benton Brown], in that he was just like, “O.K., We’re going to need access down there, so let’s start jackhammering a hole in the floor,” Susan Boyle says. “And that is a huge obstacle, but it started happening. And then once you’ve got that hole—”
Benton Brow interjects: “What happens when you have that hole?”
“You’re halfway to a cheese business!” Susan Boyle says.
By 2014, they were the owners of a cheese affinage company, a place for mastering the art of ripening cheese. Brown spent time learning the trade in Vermont and France, essentially gaining knowledge on washing, brushing, flipping and tasting the cheeses. But also, learning about food safety, controlling the environment, and research and development. “There’s clearly some science stuff,” Brown says. “We’ll check the PH on cheese when they come in with the smaller soft ripened cheeses and be able to see what’s going on in order to help guide us in caring for them.”
Crown Finish Cheese is a licensed dairy plant because they deal with cheese that is so young that it’s unfit for human consumption. “The food safety stuff gets overlooked a lot. People don’t realize how much goes into that,” Brown says. Being detail oriented is so important, as cheese is a high-risk food in the U.S. They work with producers from Vermont, upstate New York and even further afield getting very young cheese without a rind, and caring for it until its maturity. “I think a big part of what we do is understanding what each individual cheese needs,” says Caroline Hesse, Sales Manager at CFC. Through trial and error, skill, research, and passion, and have built up a business turning out some of the most inventive cheeses on the market. “We’re there to take things that are just good, and try to make them even better by giving them extensive care and treatment, exactly the way we feel like they should be treated,” Brown says.
Stop by Sahadi’s, Union Market, Bklyn Larder or Whole Foods counters (or any other cheese specialty store in Brooklyn), and mention CFC to the cheesemongers, and expect to hear enthusiasm about the merits of what their product. There is the Tubby, a smooth Alpine that is slightly sweet and reminds you that it’s been too long since you’ve made a grilled cheese sandwich. The Bufarolo, mild yet earthy, the crown of a cheese plate. The Ash Ripened Cloud Heights is herby and tangy. Their methods are old country, yet modernized to a point where research and development have become a big part of what they do. In the years since opening, CFC started winning awards, and the chefs started coming to visit. “If a certain [cheese] is really really special, we want to let people know that,” Brown says. “We also do open our door to chefs to come in.” They’ve made butter for Momofuko Ko and hosted recent visits from Gramercy Tavern and the Ignacio Mattos restaurant group.
The selection at the retail stores is only a piece of the product line. The wheels that they’ve experimented with or the wheels that are just in small batches are only available at their bi-monthly pop-ups. “When you come to the pop-up, you’re definitely going to get something you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else,” says Brown. The next pop up is Saturday, March 9th, from 2:30- 4:30pm, with 50% of the cheese sale profits donated to a charity of their teams’ choice (Previous charity choices are listed here.) They’ve even started a hashtag #cheeseforcharity to inspire other small businesses to start donating.
For those who prefer a monthly supply of cheese, CFC is in its second season of a monthly cheese share, where for $80 (1lb/ month) or $148 (2lb/ month), customers can pick up wedges of cheese on a set Saturday each month. The deadline to sign up March 6th, and the first pick up will also be Saturday, March 9th, from 11:30am-1pm (before the pop-up begins).
Word has spread and curiosity is contagious. People who hear about the caves want a tour, which CFC doesn’t allow because of food safety. Right now the 28,000 pounds of cheese fills one cave, and they have plans to eventually start expanding into another. But there’s a third cave, decorated with twinkling lights, that sits empty most nights. Instead of cashing in on the space, Boyle and Brown throw a bi-monthly concert series, Cave Music, that they describe as “Folk/ Americana/ American roots.” Tickets are only $27. To their surprise, the first show they produced sold out in an hour. Then the second one sold out in under a minute. [We have photographs from the most recent concert here.] Following them on social media or signing up for the newsletter is the best way to find out about upcoming shows. Cave Music Vol. 8 tickets will be going on sale at noon on Monday, February 25, so set an alarm and mark your calendars. “You have to be so fast [to get tickets]. I really think it’s karmically based,” says Hesse.
The experience of seeing a musician like Hubby Jenkins in an underground cavern, with beer and a superior cheese plate is like an antiquated Brooklyn dream; it’s an experience that we all want and probably moved here for, back when there was a DIY feeling to Brooklyn, and everyone grew beards and started artisanal, small-batch businesses. When there was a backlash against changing technology and a lean into the tactile. That dream faded away slowly at first and then in a rush, as rents skyrocketed and developers and big businesses hijacked the borough. Who has time to make kimchi, when you need to work 80 hours a week to make your rent? The artists moved out, the creatives were commodified, and the beards were shaved. Only those artisans with business savvy have survived the million-dollar condos, Duane Reades, and office parks as far as the eye can see. But deep underground in Crown Heights, a piece of that Brooklyn spirit is still very much alive.