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Notes from the (lagering) underground

Craft brewers are once again embracing caves, tunnels and mines for aging beer.
CATEGORIES: Beer   Feature  

LAGER CAVEWhile walking through Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a couple years ago, I paused to admire the Nassau Brewery. Founded in the 1850s, the red brick factory specialized in lagers, cold-conditioned in subterranean passageways. I’ve dreamed of visiting the tunnels (shuttered in 1914), but owners Benton Brown and Susan Boyle had no safe access.

“We have stairs,” Benton said, spotting me as he was exiting the brewery. “Care to see the tunnels?” We descended a winding staircase and emerged in damp, vaulted brick rooms. Outside, the temperature was 15 degrees. Thirty feet underground, it’s a steady 50—perfect for lager fermentation and, as it turns out, aging cheese. Since then, I’ve hosted tastings in what’s now called Crown Finish Caves, bringing together New York City breweries like KelSo, Threes and Brooklyn Brewery to celebrate the great tradition of lagered beer, snacking on beer-washed cheese aged in the very same tunnels.

To create its signature crisp flavor, lager yeast requires a cool, steady climate. Before refrigeration, German brewers dug tunnels and caves, a technique that lager-brewing immigrants toted to America, where it endured until Prohibition and, equally importantly, modernization. Most tunnels have been abandoned. However, you can still glimpse the lagering facilities at Milwaukee’s MillerCoors, where the lamp-lit, barrel-vaulted caves sit 60 feet beneath the surface. Hand-dug into a mountainside in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, Yuengling’s craggy caves are filled with old wooden tanks. The beer-curious can visit Cincinnati’s once-bustling Over-the-Rhine brewery district, where the brick-lined tunnels at several pre-Prohibition breweries are open to public tours.

But not all underground spaces are dusty relics. At Wisconsin’s New Glarus, sour ales slumber within a hillside “fruit beer cave.” You can sample those funky brews, plus the stouts and Scotch ales that fellow Wisconsinites Potosi Brewing barrel-age in their 1852 lagering caves. Other stouts also get the underground treatment: New Jersey’s Krogh’s Brew Pub matured an imperial stout in zinc mines, while Grand Rapids, Michigan’s Founders conditions its cultish KBS imperial stout in bourbon casks snuggled inside gypsum caves.

That’s a cave mentality we can support.


Joshua M. Bernstein is the author of “The Complete Beer Course” and runs homebrew tours in New York City.


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