Heading east on Hermitage Avenue, slowly scaling a steep hill in my little Corolla, out of Nashville’s downtown area. The Cumberland River, industrial zones, and scrap metal heaps on the left, and run-down buildings on a bluff to my right.
This is Nashville’s historic Rutledge Hill neighborhood—a cluster of businesses, hospitals, industry, and housing that is set up on a bluff just south of Korean Veterans Boulevard—and I am searching for CREMA, a coffee
shop “brewtique” that I’ve heard is kind of a big deal in the Nashville coffee scene. I’m starting to think though, that I may be lost because there’s no way this area—this eye sore, more appropriately—is home to one of the most praised coffee businesses south of the Mason-Dixon.
I turn around, heading back into the downtown area—I must have passed it. The thing about this part of Nashville… There’s nothing here. Everything is run down, dilapidated, dirty. Abandoned, even. It doesn’t like there’s much business here besides a gas station, probably a mechanic, another garage of some sort, a scrap yard…
On the left side of the road—I see it now. No wonder I missed it. This is a completely unassuming storefront—no glitz, nor glamor. Even the sign is barely noticeable—thin, narrow, small, rusty, barely visible under the tin-like canopy hanging over the front door, hiding in the shade from the hot Southern sun.
I pull into the equally small gravel parking lot, slowly idle my way up a narrow path between the two rows of diagonally parked cars—CREMA sits at the base of the Rutledge Hill bluff, and the incline steepens dramatically at the back end of the parking lot. I bet this place would be great for sledding if it ever snows here. As it is now, however, it’s not that great for parking. I squeeze into a spot towards the back, where the gravel turns to dirt patch, park at a 30 degree angle, and finally make my inside the building.
Welcome to my Table, here in the corner of CREMA in Nashville, Tennessee. This is the first stop of the #NashCrawl, and I’m very excited to see what this place is all about. Feel free to pull up a chair.
Just months before CREMA opened its doors for business in 2008, this little nondescript building was abandoned to the homeless and had enjoyed life as a diesel engine repair shop. According to their website, she chose the historic area of Rutledge Hill for its urban-fringe oddities and low-rent costs. Without having to unnecessarily worry about overhead, strict city ordinances, etc., etc., this location proves to be a spot where they can focus more of their attention on serving great coffee.
The shop’s surroundings are undergoing a massive reconstruction and redeveloping period, which explains a lot. This is a very exciting time for the entire community. It’s even more exciting for CREMA because, not only are they located in the midst of this redevelopment, in the past four years, CREMA has taken a lot of interest in investing in their city and its citizens. (You can read more about their commitment to their community on their “About” page.) In addition to being a good neighbor for all of Nashville, they’re a gracious host for their patrons, even going so far as to offer monthly coffee classes so that their customers can brew excellent coffee at home.
The interior of the shop is just unassuming as the exterior: low-lit, rustic, cement block walls, a small bar area. Big windows that run the length of the entire store allow patrons to look out at an area that is just at the threshold of limitless potential. Local artists’ works hang on the walls in every room, every door in the place was obtained from Habitat for Humanity to benefit their cause, and nearly all of the waste that accumulates in the cafe is recycled.
I instantly took a shine to the owner, displaced-Illinoisan-turned-Nashvillager, Rachel Lehman. For one thing, learning that, at one point in our lives, we lived about ten minutes away from each other (she in Plano, and I in Yorkville, Illinois) automatically ignited a kinship. But it’s her cheerful demeanor, hard-work ethic, and all around great personality that I defy anybody to not find especially charming. Inasmuch as CREMA has been a great success in its short history, Rachel (and the rest of the staff, for that matter) are very down to Earth people—warm, hospitable, and utterly humble.
Just walking up to the bar, I’m already impressed with their coffee. As I’m about to order my cup, I notice that they have more than a Fetco drip and a pourover—they have at least another couple options that other cafes don’t have. They brew their coffees using a variety of methods; it’s not enough to have the drip option, espresso, or a Hario V60 pourover bar—they use the Chemex, the Clever, the French press, the Aeropress, you name it! After they cup their coffees—which they roast themselves, in house (more on that later)—they tinker, tamper, and experiment with them to decide which brewing method highlights a particular coffee’s best attributes. To me, this very simple act represents a company that is focused solely on quality.
Their mission isn’t just to sell coffee—it’s to really, truly serve the customer, and, indeed, the coffee itself. As a former barista, believe me when I tell you that even having just a V60 bar in addition to the rest of the operation can be a chore—it slows down the speed of service, it adds several steps to pouring a cup of coffee, and it interrupts the flow of the employee. There’s nothing convenient, then, about offering even more brewing options to the customer!
This focus on quality certainly shows in the cup. We all know, though, that a coffee’s taste isn’t purely defined by the way one brews it—excellent roasting and a keen eye (or taste) for sourcing is even more of a necessity.
While the cafe opened its doors for business in 2008, CREMA didn’t start roasting until last year. Since the arrival of their massive Diedrich, CREMA carefully selects micro-lots from small farms. Their days often begin with cupping new coffees, and they cup every roast that is sold in the cafe, or online, to ensure the quality matches the tasting profile they drafted for that coffee. After roasting they age the coffee as needed and serve it at its peak.
Again—the evidence of the quality is in the cup. I’ve reviewed three of their coffees here at the Table (Colombia, Brazil, and Ethiopia) and I raved about each of them. Of course, I’m no longer a professional barista and I’m certainly not a professional cupper—I’m just a guy with a few brewing toys and moderately discriminating palate. Why should anyone believe me?
Oh, right—because I have the authority of the SCAA to back me up on this one. Dut Goodman, an independent brewer, took third place in the United States Brewer’s Cup using CREMA’s El Salvador Finca Suiza. It takes a good barista to make a good cup of coffee, but it takes a great coffee to take second place in the Roasters Guild Roaster’s Choice Competition.
Wait—did I forget to mention they managed to do that, too? Yeah—they did that, too.
CREMA is a classic success story—the fable of The Small Business that Could. From very humble beginnings in an unassuming storefront, with an unassuming business name, in a conspicuous part of town, CREMA has rocketed into the national coffee consciousness in a very, very short amount of time. They did, and are continuing to do everything just right—commitment to quality, vast knowledge of coffee, endless experimentation, community involvement, and utter humility have made CREMA a personal favorite, and a staple of the Nashville (and national) coffee scene.