Panama – Coming to a Flat Black near you

Americans consume some 400 million cups of coffee every day, and though we are no Seattle, Bostonians are serious about their joe. If you’re not brewing it at home, you might grab your “coffee regular” from “Dunkies” or maybe your coffee comes from any number of independent coffee houses here in Dorchester. Or maybe it comes from Panama.

Last month, Jennifer and David House, co-owners of Flat Black Coffee Company, traveled to Panama to bring the best brew back to their coffee shops in Lower Mills, Peabody Square, and in the Financial District downtown. Such an excursion in the coffee world is known as a “trip to origin.” That is, a trip to meet the people responsible for growing, picking, cleaning, and shipping the coffee beans that are packaged, ground, and brewed in our coffee houses here.

Trips to origin were a part of the business plan for Flat Black from the very beginning, according to Jennifer. Jennifer said she, David, and co-founder Jeff Chatlos asked themselves, “What is our business goal five years down the road? We knew we wanted to expand with more retail stores.” Such a goal necessitated purchasing their own roaster (which the Houses equate to the price of a luxury car) in order to have more control over quality, she said.

“We offer coffee from twenty different countries. It was our intention to provide the consumer with the highest quality coffee bean produced in that country,” she said.

Jennifer said Flat Black is just as invested in quality control, though, as it is in supporting fair trade – that is, ensuring coffee farmers are paid a fair wage. This trip also testified to Flat Black’s commitment to organic farming and supporting sustainability in third world countries.

“It’s not until you see through your own eyes what’s happening [in the Third World] that you can begin to think about how you can assist. So that was part of the thinking behind the purchase of the roaster. Thus, now we’re at a point in our business that we can begin to make more direct contact with the origins of our coffee,” said Jennifer.

So off they headed to Hacienda Casa Ruiz, a coffee plantation in Boquete, Panama. The Houses chose this particular plantation because of a book shared with them by friend and loyal customer Mary Green. “God in a Cup” by Michaele Weissman covers various trips to origin by other coffee purveyors, one of whom said the Geisha coffee from Panama was so impressive that he could see “the face of God in a cup.”

Their journey spanned a plane ride to Panama and then an eight hour bus ride through the hills and low lands until they arrived at Hacienda Casa Ruiz. Jennifer speaks fluent Spanish and was thus able to communicate with many of the Panamanians. Upon arrival to Casa Ruiz, they were greeted by Maria Ruiz, a third generation owner of the business. Ruiz is highly educated, highly gracious, and highly committed to conserving the quality of her coffee while contributing to the greater good of her community, said Jennifer.

Founded in 1920, Casa Ruiz owns several farms and houses all of its employees and their families during the growing and harvesting season. Because the workers and their families are so tied to the farm for so many months out of the year, Ruiz has launched a literacy program in which a volunteer instructor walks many miles to the plantation to teach the indigenous language of the workers.

This literacy program inspired David and Jennifer. “It’s small-scale right now,” she said. Children participants are provided with a snack, a notebook, and other supplies. “When Flat Black heard of this, we were astonished that there hasn’t been outreach to [Ruiz’s] customers who might have an interest.

“We asked, ‘What are you doing? Do you have a formal plan? Have things been documented?’ ” The Houses plan to reach out to big corporations in the United States that may be able to donate materials, such as books or pens. “Little things that would be enormous over there that seem simple to us here,” said Jennifer.

The other part of the business partnership, of course, the chief reason the Houses chose Casa Ruiz, was the coffee.

They toured the coffee farm, observing every life stage of coffee from the new plantings to the roasting and processing division of the plant.

“Then we sat for a two-hour interview where I learned an enormous amount from Maria about how she does her research, her testing, and so forth, but also about what she does in her local community to promote sustainability,” said Jennifer.

Then came the moment of nirvana. Ruiz invited the Houses into her home for a private tasting to sample some of the farm’s specialty coffees, including some of the oft-desired Geisha.

From an e-mail Dave sent to the company: “Just tasted Geisha. It blew my whole mind away and took my mouth and mind to another level….like nothing you have ever tasted.”

When asked whether she will be making the Geisha available back at Flat Black any time soon, she demurred, “We will do a specialty coffee tasting where we’ll sell tickets. ...We’ll restrict it to our top shelf coffees and Geisha will be one of those offered.”

The Geisha will also make its way to the Flat Black website. Coffee connoisseurs are wise to stay tuned to