Tea houses are for serene spirits and rebels alike
If asked to think of a beverage popular with Czechs, your answer is more likely to be Pilsner or Budvar than Oolong or Earl Grey. However, while beer undoubtedly remains the No. 1 drink of choice, the sheer number of tea houses (or čajovnas, as they’re known locally) in existence is proof that tea has also won a place in the hearts of the Czech nation.
Taking their inspiration from the tea culture of the East rather than the West, most čajovnas display an eclectic mix of influences. Their interiors vary from the grungy to the more refined, but they all have one thing in common: They are peaceful, cigarette-free oases where you can unwind in good company without having to worry about the prospect of nursing a hangover the day after.
While coffee houses can be traced back to the First Republic, the čajovna is a post-Velvet Revolution phenomenon. The new tea rooms offered an alternative to that traditional Czech watering hole, the pub, which, following the social and political upheavals of 1989, began to gradually lose some of its social market share to the more exotic čajovnas.
“There were always too many pubs here during communism, and the new generation didn’t like it. They wanted change,” says tea aficionado Jan Cherubim. “Once one good tea house started, everybody was looking at them and saying, ‘Wow, what a perfect idea.’ ”
That one good tea house was Dobrá čajovna. Established by Aleš Juřina and his friends in 1993, the Czech Republic’s first-ever tea room is still going strong, providing a welcome sanctuary away from the tourist throngs who crowd nearby Wenceslas Square or, as Juřina puts it, “a Starbucks with a human face.” There are now branches of Dobrá čajovna in almost every major city in the country, as well as in Poland, Hungary and even the United States.
“The clearest answer to the question of why tea rooms are so popular in the Czech Republic is that it is a miracle,” Juřina says. “When we opened, people thought we were crazy to do it in a country without any tea tradition or culture.”
While committed to offering the highest-quality blends to his customers, the appeal of a čajovna, Juřina says, is not merely the range of teas on offer but the chance to socialize with others in a laidback, nonthreatening setting. “Czech people like to gather with friends together, usually in pubs of course, but at a certain point in time they are fed up with the smoky atmosphere and drunk people, especially the ladies. They really value a safe place where they can meet friends and enjoy themselves in peace.”
Juřina’s own passion for the beverage stretches back to his teenage years. Around the time his friends began experimenting with alcohol, he happened upon fine loose tea for the first time, and his lifelong love affair with the drink began. “It was a kind of rebellion against rebellion,” he says.
Aleš soon graduated from rebellion to outright sedition by joining a half-secret association of tea-lovers who smuggled high quality blends across the border. “We were dreaming of founding a tea room in Prague,” Aleš says, “but none of us believed that communism would collapse.”
And Aleš’s tea dream today? To open a successful branch of Dobrá čajovna in Darjeeling or London.
Tucked away in the winding, cobbled streets behind St. Cyril and Methodius Church, Čajovna Amana welcomes those in search of a cozy place to while away a cold winter’s evening. Like most čajovnas, it’s a real magnet for creative types. “We have a lot of artists, painters, potters, musicians, people who like traveling and are interested in the East coming here,” says Honza Koukal. Also a musician, he has worked at Amana for almost seven years, having first been a dedicated customer or, as he prefers to call it, a “guest.”
Koukal prepares a range of teas for me to sample. Although I’m a seasoned tea drinker, I’m not really a connoisseur, and it takes me some time to adjust to the more delicate flavors on offer here. The so-called champagne of teas, a Darjeeling first flush, fails to impress, but the Phoenix Oolong, with its slightly sweet, fruity taste, is an instant hit. Koukal gives me a surprising tip: Apparently, tea tasters swish their tea vigorously before swallowing so that it coats the whole palette. Contrary to what your mother may have taught you, it is not considered merely polite to slurp, it is essential for a proper appreciation of the beverage.
The Japanese green tea macha makes the biggest impression on me. Koukal measures it out of a tiny silver tin with a long-handled spoon, then, while adding water little by little, whips it up with a special whisk, known as a chasen, until it’s frothy. Although the final product smells a little seaweedy, I’m charmed by the theatricality of its preparation. Indeed, when it comes to the tea experience, presentation is key. All the different blends I’m offered are served in strikingly beautiful chinaware: the teapots and cups, most of which are sourced from Japan and China, are on sale at Amana, along with all the loose teas they serve, and are popular as wedding presents.
Replete with snug nooks and crannies, Čajovna Ve věži is one of the quirkiest in Prague. Perched at the top of a water tower near Letná Park, it’s the unique setting that makes this tea room really special. Once you’ve climbed the long, winding staircase to the top of the building, you can reward yourself with a slice of halva, medovník (honey cake) or even fresh sushi prepared daily – and of course, some tea.
“The place here can open some inspiration in you. It looks a little like someone’s flat here, so people can feel relaxed, like they’re just visiting a friend,” says Jan Cherubim, who came up with the idea of opening a tea room here back in 1997. While it’s unlikely that any of your friends have apartments full of ladders leading to dark corners strewn with multicolored scatter cushions where you can loll around, the setting is certainly intimate and inviting.
A key part of the čajovna experience is being presented with a thick menu detailing the myriad of teas on offer. How does Cherubim go about advising clientele who feel a little overwhelmed? “If I see a blonde girl, I always offer masala, because they always like it. It’s sweet and spicy.”
A čajovna is a place you come to linger, not just to grab a quick caffeine hit on the run. By taking the time to shift down a gear in the right surroundings, the simple act of sipping a beverage made from boiling water and leaves might just lead to a spiritual experience.
“Some teas can really put you on a different level of consciousness,” Cherubim says. “It really depends how you communicate with tea. If you just drink it in front of the computer, then you won’t feel anything, but if you stop and relax and try to look inside yourself, then you can have a really special sensation.”