1) The coffee directly supports a supply chain that equally and fairly distributes value. In other words, the coffee producers are paid fair wages, and all the actors in between us and the producers also get a fair shake for their labor as well. No one is exploited and sustainability is valued.
2) The quality is top notch. To me, there are certain quality-factors that translate across every coffee. I try to find coffees that, across the board, display high levels of each quality-factor.
If a coffee can both taste awesome and provide genuine social impact for coffee producers, then 90% of the time I bring the coffee in and make it a part of the Utopian lineup.
Every year there are a handful of coffee that exceed both of these standards. These coffees taste a whole notch above the hundreds I taste each year, and our partners who source the coffees provide a detailed report on how the lives of coffee producers are improved and impacted. These are the coffees I end up drinking non-stop and can’t stop talking to people about when they ask me what I am enjoying drinking (and you know if the roaster is constantly drinking it then it must be good!).
I feel lucky every year when samples from the Long Miles project arrive at our roastery—their coffees continue to blow my standards out of the water! And not only is the coffee really amazingly delicious, but the story of Long Miles and the impact they are creating in Burundi is truly moving. I’m really stoked to share a little more about why I look forward to sharing these coffees with you.
If you drive a couple hours northwest or northeast from our Fort Wayne roastery you’ll begin to run into the Great Lakes region of the Midwest. Interestingly, same thing happens when you drive a short distance in Burundi; you run into the African Great Lakes. This region is extraordinarily important to the past, present, and future of coffee as we know it. Though Ethiopia may be the homeland of coffea arabica, it would take a couple hundred years and a lot of human interference for coffee to make its way back into Africa via the island of Reunion (formerly called Bourbon). See, coffee plants were traded between Ethiopia and Yemen, and from there some seeds went to India and others that went to the island of Reunion. From Reunion, coffee traveled to Tanzania via missionaries who helped spread coffee throughout the African Great Lakes region, first to Kenya and then Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
Today, most of the coffee trees in Rwanda and Burundi alike are either recently-planted Bourbon plants, or French-Mission Bourbon, a folk variety that exists as a result of missionaries and farmers selecting the superior “mother-plants” that best thrived in their environmental conditions. Alongside the Bourbon trees you will also occasionally find the Typica-related variety Mibirizi. While not a lot is known about this variety, it still survives in Burundi and Rwanda and provides flavors similar to heirloom Typica trees (which, for many reasons, I absolutely love). Because of this, I find the flavors in Burundi and Rwanda (which share some similarities but remain very distinct) extremely unique and provide a special opportunity to taste an ancient flavor of coffee.
Like many of its neighbors, Burundi was colonized by Belgium and remained a colony until 1962 when it gained independence. Since then, the history of Burundi consists of a series of violent engagements between the Tutsi’s and Hutu people groups. Like in Rwanda, conflicts between these two groups continued to escalate and eventually led to genocide. This ongoing violence tore the country apart and has led to decades of political and social instability. To this day, the political climate in Burundi remains tense. The scars of past violence remain vivid in the collective memory of the nation, and government corruption remains a consistent threat to peaceful life. I encourage you to do some simple Google searching and read more about the current state of affairs in Burundi. It is quite shocking and will give you a much better idea than I ever could about what these people are facing everyday. Naturally, formal industry was never able thrive in these conditions, leaving the economy stifled. Without adequate jobs, the vast majority of Burundians still live in rural areas cultivating coffee, tea, or cotton as well as subsistence crops for their family. Today, Burundi remains one of the poorest nations in the world.
It is within this unsettling and complex culture that Ben and Christy Carlson relocated to in 2011.
Long Miles: People + Potential
Ben and Christy recognized a desperate need for change. They saw poverty and injustice everywhere they looked. They also saw the deep wounds created by so many decades of violence and destruction. Moved by what they saw, the Carlson family knew there was no way to provide meaningful structural change from a distance. Instead, they relocated their family to the heart of Burundi and immersed themselves in the people, the culture, and the language of coffee. Instead of just seeing Burundi for its flaws and shortcomings, they saw the people. They saw their lives and listened their stories. And though they saw pain and struggle, they also saw potential. Potential for restoration and healing between neighbors, communities, and throughout the entire countryside.
Starting from scratch, Ben and Cristy began finding ways to bring new value to coffee producers who were being paid around $1 USD a day for their work. While there is a lot more I could write about here, I’d like to instead point you to the Long Miles website. Cristy and Ben have kept an amazing blog detailing the funny, scary, and downright crazy moments of moving to Burundi. In the blog they also go into detail about a lot of the projects and how they have progressed over the last decade. Needless to say, today the Long Miles project is internationally recognized as one of the top producers of coffee in Burundi. Through a series of projects, Christ, Ben, and the Long Miles team have found amazing ways to add value to the lives of producers in Burundi.
I will say this much because I think this is an important point to in order to understand how value is created in the coffee industry. If you read the blog I wrote on the Baroida Estate, you’ll recall that one of the major ways Nichol Colbran manages to bring value and sustainability to the supply chain was by funding the creation of washing stations. In coffee, there are these two forces that often pull in opposite directions. Coffee producers need premium payments for their physically demanding labor, and at the same time coffee roasters need high-quality coffee to present to their customers. Producers are frustrated when they are told their coffees do not reach certain specifications set out by roasters, and roasters are upset when they purchase vibrant and bright coffees only to have them arrive at their roastery tasting flat and faded. The only way to facilitate a meaningful transaction between these two parties is to ensure there are processes and structures facilitating the transaction of value.
Building washing stations have time and time again proven to be a sure-fire way to bring value to coffee producers. Instead of traveling countless miles to deliver cherries, which steals crucial hours that could be used doing other exceptionally important tasks, producers can walk a short distance to deliver cherries. Upon delivery, producers are either paid upfront or compensated immediately following harvest. Washing stations are where the raw cherries are fermented and “washed,” essentially preparing them for final export. The quality of pickings from each producer is translated and manifested at the washing station. A good washing station can bring endless value to a community.
The Long Miles coffee project has directly invested in the lives of coffee producers in several ways, and one of them being the creation of washing stations. The project has now built three stations: Buckeye, Heza, and Ninga. Each one of these washing stations serves several communities in the surrounding hills. When the Long Miles project first began they worked with a couple of hundred farmers, today they help support more than 5000, and this number is growing each year.
In addition, the Long Miles project has found a really awesome way to spread agricultural best practices to all of the producers who work within each hill. Working with the team of Long Miles agronomists, the Coffee Scouts are young members of the surrounding communities who are spreading new and innovative techniques to deal with lingering problems. One of the major issues in Burundi and Rwanda is the “potato defect,” a sensory defect caused by bug damage to coffee seeds. There is almost no way to tell that the seeds contain the defect, and because of this some people avoid purchasing coffee from Rwanda and Burundi entirely. The Coffee Scout teams have developed new organic fertilizers and pesticides to keep away the harmful pests that cause these defects. Where only a few years ago as much as 5% of their coffee was damaged by the defect, today around 1% of less now has the defect, a remarkable feat that adds a ton of value to the producer’s crops!
The Scouts also help producers follow agricultural techniques that improve the yield of each coffee tree. They do this by setting up Farmer Field Schools where coffee producers can come and learn about best agricultural techniques such as pruning and pest control. At these schools, producers can also ask questions and receive hands-on learning opportunities that they bring home to improve their own crop. So far, these schools have helped farmers in the Heza washing station area improve their average tree yield by more than 20%, and near Buckeye yields have improved over 100%. The larger each yield, the more each farmer can receive payment wise at the end of harvest. This also generally means the trees are much healthier than before!
Lastly, the Long Miles project is helping fight both climate change and soil depletion in Burundi by encouraging and enabling the planting of new trees. The soils in Burundi are very naturally nutrient rich. Due to overworking the land, the nutrient rich soils are depleting and beginning to become acidic, which hinders the growth of coffee trees and other subsistence crops. The Kibira forest is Burundi’s only rainforest. This rainforest provides a cool-micro climate that allows for the slow maturation of coffee cherries and provides nutrients for the soils surround the forest. Unfortunately, the deforestation being caused to Kibira is removing these necessary conditions. To fight this, the Long Miles project has distributed more than 300,000 trees to coffee producers. They’ve also begun building nurseries that will not only produce more than 10,000 trees each, but will also provide sustainable work for members of the community.
Time after time, Ben, Christy, and the Long Miles team have generated new and innovative methods to create genuine social change for the communities in Burundi. Again, I can only begin to scratch the surface of these topics, and I can’t recommend enough going directly to the Long Miles blog and reading more for yourself. All this being said, Utopian is happy to do our part by purchasing coffees from the Long Miles project at premium prices.
In the Cup
One of the truly beautiful aspects of drinking coffee produced by Long Miles and their partner producers is how perfectly they execute quality. There are very specific physical bean and cup quality standards that coffees have to reach to be purchased by Utopian. By holding these tight standards, we avoid coffees that taste overly nutty or woody and lack papery flavors that come from premature fade. To meet the minimum requirements is one thing, to find a coffee that is perfect in physical quality and exceeds all standards is entirely another. Every coffee from Long Miles is virtually perfect on every level. To be able to execute quality on this level is nothing short of a heroic feat. Because of their commitment to tight quality standards, each cup of Long Miles coffee is likely the clearest representation of not only the distinct flavor of Burundi coffee, but even moreso the completely one of a kind flavor profile micro-regions.
In Burundi, these micro regions are often referred to as “collines” or “hills.” Each one of these hills is home to coffee producers, each farming approximately two acres of land with two to three hundred coffee trees. Each colline has a distinct climactic feature that generates a particular flavor profile in the final cup. One of the many amazing feats of the Long Miles team is how they have successful separated each colline into individual lots in order to taste the particular profiles, and then build a microlot that encapsulates a specific flavor. The two lots we have purchased this year come from Heza and Gitwe.
The lot from Heza actually includes coffee from several different hills. This particular lot is a peaberry selection. Peaberries are the result of one coffee seed (there are two in each cherry) consuming the other and creating one pea-shaped coffee seed. Peaberries can occur naturally, or they can be produced by specifically stressing coffee trees at various points during the harvest. Regardless, the flavor produced by peaberries is very peculiar. I’ve noticed peaberries tend to result in a more direct and intense cup profile. Now, you pair this with the natural uniqueness and terroir of the farmers contributing to the Heza station and what you have is an electrifying cup. In this particular selection I taste a lot of intense fruity flavors like the acidic snap of a fresh lemon with the dark fruit characteristics of a ripe blueberry.
Our second selection from the Gitwe hill or colline. Over six-hundred farmers from this area deliver their coffee cherries to the Heza washing station accounting for around forty-thousand coffee trees. Long Miles keeps this particular hill separate in order to highlight the particular flavor profile of the area. This year we purchased a micro lot selection from within Gitwe that features the “anaerobic honey” processing method of fermentation. Typically, coffees in Burundi undergo the traditional washed fermentation process. With the anaerobic honey process, the coffee cherries are depulped, meaning the fruit flesh is removed from the seeds, and the seeds are fermented in an oxygen-free environment. Leaving the mucilage, or “honey,” on the seeds while also utilizing anaerobic fermentation creates a very different flavor profile. I found this coffee had an ultra-lush and coating mouthfeel with rich flavors of baked apple and bright grapefruit, lemon oils and delicate floral flavors in the finish. These flavor notes don’t even encompass the experience you find in the cup. You’ll have to try it to believe it.
I truly believe what Long Miles is doing in Burundi is the kind of work that needs to be done in order to create meaningful change for coffee farmers. Their dedication to the people they work with, as well as their dedication to excellence in the final product inspires me. Because of a smaller harvest this year we weren’t able to purchase as much of these coffees as we would like, and delays in shipping have kept these coffees from getting to us sooner. This means they will not be here for long. If you’re interested in trying the best of what Burundi has to offer you should order both of these coffees before they’re gone.
I look forward to growing our relationship with Long Miles and hopefully visiting them sometime in the near future.