Rachel Lehman has been working in coffee since she was 16, and is a licensed Q grader in addition to a green coffee buyer, roaster, and barista trainer. Her husband Ben Lehman has a background in marketing and healthcare—his love of coffee really took off after the two got married. The Lehman’s were used to having great coffee experiences across the country, but after moving to Nashville they were disappointed by their visits to local shops. Opening their own cafe that emphasized training and quality slowly became more of a reality.
“We knew it could be better,” Ben Lehman says. “It could be more right.”
After financing the project themselves, the Lehmans opened Crema Coffee Roasters in January, 2008, in the Rutledge Hill area of Nashville. An ode to their bootstrap mentality still exists on their business cards: Ben Lehman is the “Chief Executive Janitor” while Rachel holds the title of “Chief Executive Dishwasher.”
The cafe’s patio offers a view of the historic neighborhood, and looks out on Ascend Amphitheater and the Cumberland River. Inside, a collection of small standing tables makes up the main entryway, dividing the shop in half. To the right of the front door is the coffee bar counter with a La Marzocco Linea PB and Mazzer grinders. Pour-over coffee is done via Kalita Wave and Chemex with the trustworthy Mahlkönig EK 43 handling grinding duties. Pastries are provided by Dozen Bakery. After customers pick up their drinks on the counter, there’s a collection of seats and tables on the other half of the space. Just past the patrons sipping coffee at a two-top table, the coffee roasting room door swings open to reveal a Diedrich IR-12 roaster dropping a newly roasted batch of beans dropping into the cooling tray.
Catching a whiff of a fresh batch wasn’t always the case. Crema began by serving local roaster Drew’s Brews and Texas’ Brown Coffee Company. But the Lehmans didn’t want to have to keep shipping in coffee, even locally. After three years, they decided to re-invest in their business and make the jump to roasting in-house.
“We wanted to have the ability to pick the coffees that we were purchasing, to have relationships with growers eventually,” Rachel Lehman says. “Multiple roasters at the time was not a thing. That was pretty much frowned upon by all roasting companies at that time… We were kind of hitting a wall and we needed to start roasting.”
Crema wasn’t done shaking things up in the Music City. Their retail bags of coffee beans were sold in 12-ounce bags instead of the more recognized one-pound bags, and were priced differently due to the different beans being sourced.
“That was a big shift for customers,” Rachel Lehman says. “Talking about single-origin coffees rather than blends, talking about processing methods… Through some classes and trying to be open with our customers about it and also with education, I think that it’s become easy. It’s obviously now totally not a problem… It was hard being the first one to do it, but it was worth it.”
The Lehmans never had plans for a second store location. They wanted to do one thing and do it well. That is, until two regulars, Ben and Max Goldberg, decided to renovate the old trolley houses visible from Crema’s patio and pitched them on a new project opening in November 2013: Pinewood Social. The Goldberg brothers wanted good espresso available all day, from 7 a.m. until midnight, at their new venture which would also feature a bowling alley, cocktail bar, an all-day kitchen, and a pool on the patio.
“They knew they wanted to do coffee well…but they needed a partner who is as passionate about it as we were,” Ben Lehman says. “It’s this awesome, unique, symbiotic relationship because people come here and they know it’s a place just to get a cup quick, conveniently, to sit and hang out for a little bit. Conversely, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah. I can get the same thing, but across the street. I can hang out all day and I can get food.’ Then, it’s this awesome relationship of experimentation of coffee and alcohol.”
The Crema outpost inside Pinewood Social operates as a coffee shop (people can drop in to take a brew to go) and handles all coffee beverages for the adult playground. In addition to brewed coffee via FETCO and a La Marzocco GB5 handling espresso and steamed milk duties, there are signature drinks such as “The World in All Its Youth”: sarsaparilla and chicory syrup in an iced latte garnished with mint. Unlike most coffee shops, they also handle preparation of coffee cocktails during service. Inspired by the classic Irish Coffee, the “Southern Limerick” contains a Demerara simple syrup, 1776 rye whiskey, drip coffee, Amaro Meletti, and a heavy cream float. Before it reaches the guest’s table, it’s garnished with cinnamon bitters spray over a rabbit stencil.
Crema isn’t in a rush to make its next move. Rachel Lehman credits the company’s organic growth and ongoing relationships with customers and suppliers for their success. For now, they’re committed to contributing quality to Nashville’s burgeoning coffee scene. Ben Lehman says the city has progressed the equivalent of 20 years in the last four, crediting shops such as Barista Parlor, Dose, and Ugly Mugs with raising the bar in town.
“There’s a weird confluence of creative people in music and industry and coffee here and tourism,” Ben Lehman says. “When you mix all that in a ball, I think that we could have the perfect recipe for the perfect coffee storm to be the next Portland if you want to look at Portland, I guess. Maybe someday it’ll be Nashville, coffee city, not Nashville, music city.”
Evan C. Jones is a Sprudge.com contributor based in St. Louis. Read more Evan C. Jones on Sprudge.