Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of mentions of “long miles coffees” making it to roasters to much fanfare and excitement on social media. Before I started researching for this review, I knew nothing about these coffees. I thought “Long Miles Coffee” was a coffee roaster/shop somewhere, probably in Australia. The depths of my ignorance were corrected, and quickly, when I started looking into the story behind this coffee, thanks to Lucas Roasting Co. who sent me my first taste of coffee from the Long Miles Coffee Project.
Because this review is going to get lengthy in terms of backstory, let’s look at the coffee first and not bury the lead too far, although the story of this coffee is every bit as important as what’s in the cup, which is really, really good. Today, we’re looking at the Bukeye Hill Micro Lot, a coffee from Burundi that has come to via Lucas Roasting Co. and the Long Miles Coffee Project. Lucas Roasting Co. is tucked away in Broadway, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains. The Long Miles Coffee Project is the effort of Ben Carlson and his wife, Kristy, who moved their family to Burundi some five years ago to start exporting coffee.
This is a washed coffee from the mill Ben set up in the hills of Bukeye, with a growth altitude around 1800masl. The coffee comes from multiple small share farmers in the area and is likely primarily Bourbon varietals, which is mostly what’s grown in Burundi. Lucas suggests flavors of “apricot and milk chocolate” on the sample bag they sent me and “raspberry jam, dark cherry and hints of lime” on the website. You can buy this coffee for an extremely reasonable $16.49/lb directly from Lucas Roasting Co.
This is a really nice coffee. The fact that it’s $16/pound and it is changing lives for people in one of the most downtrodden parts of Africa is simply the icing on the cake. There’s a beautifully sweet aroma with hints of some sort of fruit to come. In the cup (oh, I used my usual 1:15 ratio in a notNeutral Gino pourover with Kalita 185 filters. Around a 3:45 total time on this coffee using 30g to 450g of water) that sweetness dominates, but balance, cleanliness and some nutty flavors permeate this coffee, too.
This coffee offers a full mouthfeel with a slightly dry finish. In the early part of the sip there is a lot of pectin sweetness… a type of sweetness associated with peaches and apricots, mostly. I think Lucas’ apricot descriptor is right on the money because right along with this sweetness there is a hint of tartness, too, like what you’d get from apricot skin or from the dried version of the fruit. Toward the back half of the sip there is a big lime presence, having brightness as well as that hint of bitterness you get from lime. This really plays off the sweetness of the cup well and adds multiple layers of complexity and interest to this cup, not to mention balance. The aftertaste is kind of chocolatey and nutty.
This is just a stellar coffee. Lucas did a great job with it! East African coffee is dominated by our pals in Kenya and Ethiopia, but this Burundi offering is unique compared to those two. I would draw more similarities with some of the honey process coffees coming out of Costa Rica or a bright Colombian than I would with either Kenya or Ethiopia for this coffee. It’s bright, but not too bright… fruity, but not the berries or citrus we think of from East Africa… it’s balanced and clean and super-drinkable and just a delightful complex, yet inviting cup. Super!
It’s hard to understand the importance of this coffee over and above the fact that it’s a great cup with stellar roasting from the hands of Troy Lucas. Researching Burundi reads like a classic African horror story… decades of political upheaval, meddling from countless NGO’s and UN organizations, ethnic cleansing, assassinations, coups, civil war, abject poverty and very little infrastructure to help change any of this. Agriculture makes up 90% of foreign exchange earnings, employing 90% of the population of Burundi, too. There is almost no manufacturing in Burundi and they seem to have little of the types of natural resources foreigners like to get their hands on. 80% of the population lives in total poverty and the country is dependent on foreign aid. 60% of the children there suffer from malnutrition, HIV and AIDS are rampant and some organization rated Burundi as the unhappiest nation on Earth, to add a bit more insult to injury.
Most of the agriculture in Burundi is coffee and tea, though, and with lots of sun, lots of rain, and lots of altitude, not to mention being equatorial, the country has all the conditions that make great coffee possible. And, people have known this for a long time. Burundi has great coffee, but with no infrastructure and constant political upheaval, getting it out of the country has been next to impossible. This very crop of Bukeye Hills was picked and processed amid RPG explosions and the rattle of AK-47’s during the nations latest coup. Most of us in the West can’t even imagine what life must be like there.
And that brings us to the Long Miles Coffee Project. After 10 years of living in South Africa, US-midwesterners, Ben and Kristy (who has been living in Africa long enough to pick up a little bit of an accent, if you watch any of their videos!) moved their family to Burundi in 2011 to try to make coffee exportation viable. They’ve set up a processing mill and educated farmers about picking and sorting practices, they’ve greased the wheels of commerce to make exportation an easier possibility and, ultimately in the end, they’re getting more money for these farmers than they have ever seen from the local commodities exchanges. Imbibe Magazine gave the Carlson’s their “Coffee People of the Year” award this year and it’s well-deserved. It’s easy to think that the Carlson’s sat around on the veranda of their coffee estate surrounded by servants and the trappings of colonial expat life, but by all my research, they didn’t have it easy there. I mean, Burundi is a country where no one has it easy, regardless of race, nationality or socioeconomic status.
The family had to leave Burundi in April 2015, when the latest big coup started, but it sounds like Ben continues to travel there frequently and is keeping things going the best he can. Which is important because these people are growing beautiful coffee there and if a consistent system of export can be set up, the potential to really change lives there is really within grasp. It’s not just a nice idea, it’s a potential reality. In a country where 90% of the people are in the business of coffee and tea, making this a better living will literally change things for everyone. And people who have some money, a better quality of life that it affords, and some hope tend to spend less time blasting other people with AK-47’s or taking down the current government.