Before the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles inhabited New York City’s enigmatic subterranean world with an unparalleled, pizzatastic panache—or more realistically, according to my editorzZz, prior to the advent of refrigeration—brewers in Brooklyn (and beyond) dug tunnels and caves underground to ferment their lagers in a cool, controlled climate.
This demode conditioning process was employed by the now-defunct Nassau Brewing Co. in Crown Heights, named Budweiser Brewing Co. at one point, which operated until 1914. Susan Boyle and Benton Brown purchased the former brewery and adjacent icehouse in 2001, and the couple later spent three years converting one of the barrel-vaulted tunnels 30 feet below the two buildings on Bergen Street into a cheese-aging facility. Their affinage operation, Crown Finish Caves, launched last year.
Joshua M. Bernstein, author of The Complete Beer Course and the foremost local expert on imbibing effectively within the presence of hyperactive toddlers, is also a frequent organizer of dope beer events. Bernstein recently hosted a unique dinner in Flatbush dubbed “Meat Your Match,” which paired grub from Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen with fermented beverages made by Mary Izett and more. The journalist is also widely known for his multi-venue homebrew tours, cramming throngs of thirsty beer loons into the tiny apartments of the city’s best amateur brewers, many of whom have become professional brewers. (Rich Buceta is one, and Jason Sahler will soon be another.)
The setting for Bernstein’s most singular, and most popular events, has been within the warren of the old lagering tunnels, in partnership with Crown Finish. The first, quite appropriately, featured a tasting of modern-day lagers, while the second offered attendees an opportunity to devour six local beer-washed cheeses and drink their respective wash beers. In an article for Culture magazine recounting the latter, Bernstein wrote, “It was a case study in how altering a single variable – the wash – can so drastically alter a control. Some cheeses were funkier, while others had a slight acidic zing or bitter nuances from the hops. Some rinds were dappled with a moldy constellation, and some were firm and reddish. Pinpointing why required no deep spelunk into fermentation science. The reason was simply the beer or cider in your hand.”
The next partnering between the two sides expands on this cheesy case study, though the focus has narrowed to examine the influence of wild yeast. The event is called “Wild Wheels,” and adventurous attendees will descend the cave’s winding staircase on December 05 to taste seven Brettanomyces-fermented beers—all locally made except one—alongside cheeses washed with same septet of funky brews.
“Wild Wheels,” described by Bernstein as a “delicious intersection of the building’s past and its future,” is more than six weeks away. But judging from the previous two subterranean adventures, its 75 tickets will sell extremely fast once they’re available, which is this Friday at noon.
We spoke with Bernstein and Brown to learn more.
Niko Krommydas: Josh, when I interviewed you for a story before the first event you organized with Crown Finish, you explained how you initially met Benton and Susan. Can you tell it again?
Joshua M. Bernstein: Sure. I’ve been living in Crown Heights for about 13 years now, and not too long after I moved into the neighborhood I noticed this pair of old, giant, beautiful buildings on Bergen Street. That was the former headquarters of Nassau Brewing Company. When I ended up meeting Benton and Susan, at that point they were in the process of turning the brewery’s old icehouse into green-focused lofts.
NK: You were writing a story on them, right?
JMB: Right. For an old magazine called Punk Planet. I was writing an article about them and the lofts. So these two buildings that they own, they’re connected underground with tunnels. Over the next decade they turned the brewery into a space for small manufacturing. Furniture makers, caterers, and so on. Now the last piece of the puzzle was the lagering cave. There weren’t stairs or any real way to get down there, but they really made an effort into opening that up. [Benton] told me about the cave when I ran into him on the street in like 2012, and I casually brought up the idea of doing an event down there. Fast forward to some time before that first event and me and my wife, two days before she ended up having our daughter, we were walking with our groceries and we turned down Benton’s street. He happened to be outside, and he offered us a tour. So we put down our groceries and went in.
NK: What intrigued you most during that visit?
JMB: We know that Benton and Susan turned several of the tunnels into Crown Finish Caves, a cheese-aging facility. They take in cheese and age it, playing the role of affineur. With that said, the caves were a piece of Brooklyn’s brewing past repurposed for the borough’s future. Dozens of breweries once dotted Brooklyn, beer fermenting beneath our feet. With the resurgence of beer, I felt like it was a no-brainer to hold an event down there. When the cheese-aging program got up and running, we decided to combine the brewery’s past with the present, tying it all together with the city’s best beer.
NK: When did you buy the buildings, Benton?
Benton Brown: 2001.
NK: Were you originally planning on using the site to age cheese?
BB: Cheese wasn’t in the cards at that point. Susan and I are very driven by site-specific projects and adaptive reuse of existing conditions. We have a great interest in architectural history. The tunnels are what really drove the cheese project and the creative outlets of making artwork became transferred to the endless possibilities of fermented milk.
NK: The first event was held in March of 2014, and the second last November. How did they go?
JMB: The first two events were amazing, both in the response—they sold out almost immediately—and the fact that we were connecting New Yorkers to the city’s past. Attendees were respectful and inquisitive, eager to learn about both brewing and cheesemaking. What was really interesting to me was that there was no cell service 30 feet underground. People were forced to interact with one another, not retreat into their smartphones. That’s always a good thing nowadays.
BB: It’s always exciting to bring folks into the underground because its an unusual experience. The history, the architecture. The tunnels were made by hand. The space has a certain museum quality.
NK: How did the idea to design the third event around wild beers come about?
JMB: Well, the first event was all lager beers and the second event was cheese washed with locally brewed beer. For this we wanted to build upon that idea and also try something different. The best washing beers, we’ve discovered, are ones low in hops—the flowers have antimicrobial properties, inhibiting growth—and high in Brettanomyces, a wild, unruly yeast that can supply notes of tropical fruit, or maybe musty earth and barnyard.
NK: This event is all locally brewed beer, too, right?
JMB: Mostly. Brettanomyces is the linking thread, and we’re focusing primarily on local brewers that heavily dabble in wild fermentation. We ended up with a variety of wild beers, from a saison to a tripel to a sour made with plums. The diversity is deliciously thrilling.
NK: What about the cheese?
JMB: It’s made by Andrew Torrens of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Manhattan.
BB: It’s a simple washed rind recipe that Andrew created. It’s based on another recipe we’ve been working on for a while that’s in a donut shape.
JMB: Two batches were made: one inoculated with cheese-ripening cultures, and one as a blank slate. But they’re all being washed with seven different Brettanomyces-dosed beers.
NK: What breweries?
JMB: Other Half, Finback, Threes, Transmitter, Right Proper, KelSo, and Sixpoint.
NK: Why were only half of the cheeses inoculated with ripening cultures?
BB: Basically to see if the ripening cultures prevented or enhanced certain aspects of the beer. Many times the ripening cultures can overpower what’s happening with the cheese and we were interested to see if the yeasts in the beer would overpower the yeasts in the ripening cultures or possibly join forces to create something different. The blank canvas is just a sponge soaking up the environment and what’s applied to the surface.
NK: Can you walk us through the process of washing a cheese with beer from start to finish?
BB: Definitely. So first we look for beers with low hops to promote growth while also thinking about aesthetic changes that can happen from the darkness or lightness of the beer. Like Josh said earlier, wild yeasts seem to have the more interesting effects on the cheeses. I wouldn’t say we’re pairing beer and cheese in terms of taste because the effects can be incredibly different. For example we recently washed a triple cream cheese with Millstone Farmgate cider and the taste profile was an amazing garlic.
It’s really cool: We can have so many unknowns with different combinations and that’s why we’re constantly doing R&D. We also have so many new local beers and ciders around us that the possibilities are endless.
NK: But how do you wash the cheese?
BB: It’s basically brushing the beer in its full concentration on the cheese every other day. And we flip the cheese in the process.
NK: How long is each wash?
BB: Each [wash] is separate with its own sanitized brush and container. So set up and break down takes some time but the actual brushing is very quick. Then there’s the process of monitoring and photographing our progress. We’ll also be sampling tastes from the inside as things progress so we can see how the taste profile changes during the aging process to judge the best ripe time.
JMB: The best part of the event is that attendees won’t have to take part in any of this work. They just get to reap the delicious rewards.
Sales for the Wild Wheels event begin on Friday.