The following post features portions of an interview with Annie and Elliott Carter of BlackNerd Coffee. Some quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
During the depth of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people turned to different forms of self-care to get through a difficult time. Some learned to make sourdough starters, others developed an enriching hobby or skill.
Annie and Elliott Carter of BlackNerd Coffee found their form of intentional self-care in a cup of coffee.
A Meeting of the (Nerdy) Minds
The Carters are graduates of Florida A&M University, a HBCU (Historically Black College or University). Annie is a pharmacist by education while Elliott found his calling as a mechanical engineer working in technology. While both are big fans of their daily cup, careers in the coffee industry weren’t originally part of their plan.
However, being nerdy came naturally to them. With a background in STEM, they were well-used to curiosity and discovering the internal workings of their interests. It was easy to apply that curiosity to the coffee they were consuming frequently throughout the pandemic.
“We did what any nerds would do and started researching regions, brew methods, and how to roast coffee,” Annie says. “This hobby quickly turned into roasting at the house and then moving to a shared roasting space on a production roaster.”
BlackNerd Coffee was born.
Coffee as Self-Care
Coffee is ritualistic. It’s been a part of human existence since as early as the 14th or 15th century when people in medieval Arabia and Northeast Africa began roasting and brewing the seeds of coffee cherries in much the same way we do today.
While the running joke of the modern era is that we all need our caffeine kick to survive, the truth of the matter is that the act of making coffee can be enriching and even therapeutic. In the early days, it wasn’t about the caffeine so much as the ritual of roasting beans, preparing them, and brewing the drink. The Coffee Ceremony of Ethiopia remains a core part of the community’s culture.
For Annie and Elliott, brewing coffee functions as an escape.
“Sometimes that five minutes to make coffee from scratch is the only time we have alone and away from the chaos,” Annie says. “Elliott will use coffee as an excuse to break away from work, regroup, regather, and crush the rest of the workday. It’s a welcome break.”
Engaging All the Senses
When they first got into specialty coffee, they thought it meant expensive machines and gadgets, or taking forever to make a cup of coffee at home. Thankfully, they discovered quickly that it doesn’t need to be expensive or time-consuming unless you want it to be.
“That extra two minutes to grind your beans or do a pour over really is an investment in time to yourself. You really engage all the senses and all of that adds to your perfect cup of coffee at home,” Elliott says.
This very topic is one of the things that makes coffee such an experience for people in the specialty coffee industry. Every sense can be engaged – the smell of ground beans, the feel of heat, the sound of first crack, the color of the brew, and the taste of it all coming together. It’s a sensory happy place for many of us.
It’s what makes coffee so personal.
Every Cup is Personal
“Coffee is personal in a sense that it was a welcome distraction, during the crazy times of the pandemic,” Elliott says. “To say that coffee saved our lives and helped us focus on self- care would be an understatement.”
The pandemic impacted so many lives and continues to do so. Finding solace isn’t easy, especially when you have three young children you now have to teach and parent full-time on top of your career. Most people did whatever brought them joy during that time to mediate the stress.
When the Carters ventured into the coffee industry, they found some of that joy in a culture that allowed them to be as nerdy as they liked. As the BlackNerd Coffee website clearly states, “We nerd out about all things coffee and there’s no shame in our game.”
Nerding out was familiar and very personal. “When people think of nerds they may think of glasses and pocket protectors!” Annie says. “And although [I do] wear glasses and Elliott has a great collection of pens, we wanted all types of nerds to join our community. Sometimes we go down the rabbit hole at some of our events with fellow nerds, sometimes our conversations are about pop culture over a good cup of coffee with our neighbors.”
That personal touch extends not only to the way they brew coffee, but also the way they roast it.
From Drinking to Roasting
One of the core tenants of the specialty coffee industry is that coffee should be appreciated black, without additives like cream or sugar. Of course, this perception is slowly changing as the industry expands and different perspectives come on the scene, but it’s generally agreed that a well-roasted coffee can be enjoyed black.
Annie and Elliott agree. They set out on their coffee roasting journey with a plan to make great coffee that could be enjoyed black, and while they encourage everyone to at least try their coffees without sweetener or creamer, they’re not opposed to everyone enjoying their coffee the way they like it. Not everyone likes the same thing and that’s okay by them.
As far as roasting, they learned using production machines available at Shared Roasting in Brooklyn, where many smaller specialty coffee roasters rent time on the machines or take classes. That’s where they had their first exposure to Loring roasters.
It was love at first roast. So much so, in fact, that within a few years they decided to purchase their own – a Loring S7 Nighthawk.
“The decision to purchase our own was all about scale,” Elliott says. “Being able to roast in smaller batches allows us to start developing new roasts and coffee offerings.”
Shared Roasting offered them such a positive experience overall that they want to keep the train going. They’d love to eventually offer the opportunity to learn to other people who are interested in coffee roasting.
“We are grateful to the mentors who taught us, so we wanted to pay it forward.”
Paying It Forward
The couple hope to pay their joy and success forward in more ways than one.
As Florida A&M University graduates, they appreciated the essential community their alma mater offered. They made lifelong friendships during their college years and felt a true sense of belonging while receiving a great education in a diverse environment. That’s why they decided that they’d give back a portion of BlackNerd’s proceeds to HBCUs and other causes that align with their values, like Black Girls Code, Operation Paws for Homes, and BRAWS (Bringing Resources to Aid Women’s Shelters).
“It was a no-brainer that we wanted to give back to our HBCU, other schools and even organizations that want to serve people,” Annie says.
A Family Business
More than anything else about building a new business from scratch during questionable times, the Carters wanted to make sure they were building it for their family.
“This isn’t just mom and dad’s business. This is our family business,” Annie says. “We have business meetings with the kids once a month and set goals. Plus, it’s amazing to see them leave their own imprint on the business. Some of the ideas we have had for marketing and promos come from the kids. Not to mention, the kids now know how to make a great cup of coffee!”
Balancing business and family is difficult even when the stars align perfectly, so it’s easy to imagine how challenging it can be when there are a lot of question marks floating around. That’s why it’s important to the Carter family to make sure everyone feels involved and like they contribute. Annie and Elliott want to show their children that if they work hard to build something, eventually you’ll have something to pass down to the next generation.
It’s also a vital part of helping the kids learn where their family’s livelihood comes from and the work that goes into it.
In Coffee Conclusion
People from all walks of life find comfort in coffee. Whether it’s a familiar friend or an occasional indulgence, coffee offers us a way to connect or enjoy a quiet moment. Using coffee as self-care can help us find a safe place within ourselves.
That’s a big part of what BlackNerd Coffee set out to achieve – not only a resource for great coffee, but a place where coffee drinkers can find kindred spirits. Annie and Elliott are people who understand that loving something can mean talking about all its intricacies nonstop, as well as how it helps you get through the day for any number of reasons.
Sometimes, that’s all you need to make life a little more manageable.