Happy Cheese Makers Since 1978
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Setting up your own cheese cave
[Part 2]

Last Newsletter we talked about setting up a small home cave in an old refrigerator and I promised to expand upon this and go into more detail on setting up a separate room for aging your cheese in this issue ... So here goes !

In France a typical small Farmstead cheese cave

How I set up my 'Cave'
In 1999 when my wife Robin and I set about re-doing our kitchen (remodeling with bulldozer !), we decided to take this opportunity to dig down 9 ft. to build a cave under the new kitchen. Since this is a 150+ yr. old house, the entrance to it required cutting through the old granite foundation. The new cave would be isolated from the heating system of the house by about 30" of granite (note the thickness of the granite wall in photo to the right) and another 10" of cement and the ceiling with about 10" of insulation and a vapor barrier. The new cave would be primarily cooled by the ground temp but in mid winter a small heater is needed to keep it above 50F and during mid-summer an air conditioner is needed to keep it below 60F. This means a bit of seasonal fluctuation and this would have been normal in a traditional cave. In the future if I do want to keep the upper temperature more in the 52-56F range, I will use a small compressor and an evaporative loop to do this.

The finished cellar measures 15'x25' and I have isolated a 6'x15' foot room with a heavily insulated wall w/ vapor barrier and an insulated door on the North side of this space to eliminate as much solar gain as possible. This smaller room is the 'Cave' and where my cheeses age quite well. I have left the north wall of this room as bare unfinished concrete. The humidity in this room can be kept at a fairly stable 85-90% and the temp will hold at 52-54 during most of the year with no help to cool or heat. During July and August I need to use an air conditioner in the larger room to keep it down in the upper 50s and during late January a small heater in the cave to keep it at 52F. The larger room his usually much drier at about 65% and makes a good drying room for my soft ripened cheeses before they are placed in the cave.

The 'Cave', holding at a perfect 'cellar temperature' of 52-54 is ideal for my serving kegs of beer which get forced by CO2 directly up to taps on the kitchen wall. The larger room is also a great place to store my beer and wines and during the winter it holds stable at a constant 48F from November to April and is the perfect fermentation temperature for my lagers. In addition to all of this it is a great root cellar for vegetables and home canned goods.

All in all it is a pretty good traditional system ... Those that have been here for workshops can attest to that!

As you enter the cave notice the insulated door in which I have used a large sheet of urethane, sandwiched between 2 plywood panels.

The cave itself is actually quite small but offers plenty of space along 3 walls for shelves and just enough room between them to work

The temperature and humidity are very important to the successful aging of the cheese. I find it essential to have at least one or 2 of these hygrometers around to monitor this
... Note the cave is holding here at 87% and 55F ... Very good ripening conditions.

The shelves I use here are a mix of pine and ash. These 2 materials I find to work quite well and are easy to keep clean. Other woods such as oak and maple are somewhat problematic in that they stain the cheeses.

Also note the spacing between and behind cheese for proper air movement. I also keep a good distance between shelves to accommodate moving and handling the cheeses. Several times a year I remove, scrub, and air dry the shelves in the sun ... This is quite effective in keeping unwanted mold under control and is very traditional . I then reverse them when brought back into the cave.

For the cheeses that require higher moisture of 95% and above I still use these plastic trays shown on the left to keep high RH% .. The hygrometer can show a stable 95-97% in these covered trays. I do watch for excessive condensation inside and remove it when needed.

I use this humidifier to control my moisture. This actually performs a dual purpose since it contains a fan that does a great job at moving the air gently through the 'Cave' ... Just a gentle breeze is all that you really want. Without this I would need a couple of small computer or muffin fans to circulate the air through the 'Cave'. If you do not have enough air movement you will find a tendency for mold to build up on the sides of the cheeses with no air movement.

During Spring and Fall I always find a week or so when the balance of moisture changes and I have to compensate. In the spring when the outside ground gains more water I need to turn the humidifier way down or off and in the fall I find the dry ground absorbs the moisture through the walls and at times I need to splash water on the floor as well as operate the humidifier on high for a week or so. During the winter the cave demands much more water than at other times.

Air exchange (different from air movement) is another consideration since fresh air is needed and the products of aging such as CO2 and Ammonia (NH4) need to be removed on a regular basis and fresh air brought in. If this is not done, problems will result such as slower growth of candidum on the soft ripened cheeses. In a small space such as mine, opening and closing the door one or twice a day is sufficient. In a larger cave with more cheese ripening, I suggest providing filtered outside air to be brought into the cave daily or as needed.

If you do not have a cellar ready made, then much of what I have written above can apply to building your own purpose built room ... Just remember that different cheeses have different requirements and each 'Cave' will have it's own special plan depending on what you are aging in it.

For another great resource: Jean-Claude Le Jaouen' book 'Fabrication of Farmstead Goat Cheese' contains a very good section on what is needed and tips on construction.

More Considerations for Building a Cheese Cave
Optimal range of temperature is between 45º and 55º F. and should remain as constant as possible.
To obtain this consider:
• Location of cave ... On the North side will exclude solar gain problems
• Frost line ... Building below grade will use cooler earth temps for cooling
• Insulation of walls and ceiling ... To isolate from other heated space
• Opening of doors ... How much traffic in and out of the cave
• Heat generated from motors, lights, etc.
• Heat is released from cheese as it ages ... The more cheese you are ripening the greater this consideration becomes
• Use of artificial heating and cooling units
• Artificial heating and cooling back-ups

Relative Humidity (RH%):
Optimal range of humidity is between 85% and 95%.
To obtain the above consider:
• Permeability of walls
• Humidifiers that do not produce steam as well as a proper hygrometer to monitor this
• Availability of clean cold water ... A source for increasing humidity

Air exchange should help make temperature and humidity even throughout the cave and eliminate the gasses that cheese releases as it ages.
To obtain the above consider:

• Volume of airflow
• Velocity of airflow
• Quantity of cheese vs. volume of cave
• Method of intake and exhaust
• Temperature and humidity of intake air

Proper and consistent standards of sanitation are essential.
To obtain the above consider:
• Types of cleaning agents
• Availability of water
• Cleaning methods and equipment
• Location of washing area
• Location of drains
• Design of Shelving Units
• Local Regulations