The History and Significance of Tea Houses in the Czech Republic
Winter can be tough in the Czech Republic. The days are short and cold, and when the festive atmosphere that surrounds the holiday season is over, life in the city of a hundred spires – despite its pretty buildings – can get a little grim.
Good thing that Čajovny (tea houses) exist! With their cosy interior and meditative spirit, they are especially appealing to locals during the harsh winter months.
While Britain is famed for its heavy tea consumption, the birthplace of the globally popular herbal infusion is half a world away in China. The history of the first cuppa ever brewed reaches back to the Shang Dynasty roughly 3,200 years ago. Legend has it that tea was first discovered by the legendary Emperor Shennong, who had heated up water to quench his thirst when a couple of leaves blew into his cup.
Upon tasting the mixture, Shennong concluded that it was both refreshing and comforting. The newly discovered hot drink quickly became a global phenomenon, with China exporting its leaves to Korea, Japan, and later England, Europe, Africa, and America, until virtually the whole planet became hooked on the idea of infusing leaves in hot water.
Ever since, humanity has made use of the comforting brew – especially during the winter months. For the Czech nation, however, visiting one of the hundreds of tea houses in the country is more than just sitting down for a good old cuppa.
The Czech Republic embraced the idea of tea rooms relatively recently, especially compared to some of their European neighbours (the first in England date back to the 18th century). The first Čajovna appeared in the streets of the Golden City in 1907. Joe Hloucha, a traveller, writer, and collector of Japanese art, and his brother, Charles, introduced rare tea leaves in the Yokohama tea room at the Exhibit Jubilee of the Chamber of Commerce. They had so much success that the tea house was permanently moved to Lucerna Hall just off Wenceslas Square. Rare tea varieties served by waitresses in traditional Japanese kimonos in a room filled with treasures from their travels and a vast assortment of sakura and other Japanese teas made the brothers’ enterprise a great success.
Over 150 tea houses sprang up in Prague, but were destroyed during the First World War and did not re-emerge. With the Iron Curtain drawing around Czechoslovakia in 1948, a comeback of the formerly thriving tea culture was but a mere dream. Prices rose, rules were applied, and goods restricted. Any exotic tea was too expensive to be bought by anybody outside of the government or the military elite. The few types of tea that Czechoslovakian people knew were Pigi Čaj and bagged fruit teas. However, a Prague-based group of tea lovers – formed by Aleš Jurina, founder of Dobrá Čajovna, and his friends – would not allow the Iron Curtain to deprive them of their favourite leaves and from 1987 on, they smuggled tea from Hungary, England, and Eastern Germany into the closed-off country, pouring cups in secret and letting people experience flavours from far away.
These secret tastings continued until 1989, the year of the Velvet Revolution, when the first tea rooms as we now know them were officially opened. They not only offered a hub for tea lovers that had been robbed of their passion (and tea rooms) for too long, but also a place to meet like-minded people.
Loose-leaf tea (and how to handle it properly) was only reintroduced to the country after the fall of the Communist regime. It was none other than Václav Havel who – in an attempt to show that Czechoslovakia’s doors were open to faraway goods – asked a Japanese tea master (Sen Sōshitsu XV) to show him and the nation just how a proper tea ceremony should be held. It marked the beginning of the tea boom in the Czech Republic.
From 1991 on, tea houses popped up in Prague like mushrooms in a Czech forest. To this day, locals regularly frequent the many tea rooms in the capital and beyond – even if for different reasons than back in 1989. Tea houses have become a shelter from everyday life; places they can turn to when their days are darker than the coal billowing from the chimneys of Ostrava’s factories.
There is a special energy surrounding these cosy, tucked-away corners. The world seems to become quieter, slower, and less confusing. Many people almost seem deep in meditation while sipping a revitalising green tea or milk oolong. One could almost say it is a temple for many Czechs, with a spirit one can’t deny. Even young people enjoy the quiet and relaxed spaces. With so many different sorts of tea – such as oolong, pu’er, and white and green teas – locals get the chance to try rare leaves and their eclectic flavour profiles, savour their complex tasting notes, and ponder the questions of life.
The Czech Republic’s tea houses have provided visitors with comfort and warmth and let them experience treasures from the East. Today, tea ceremonies – including long black cloaks and bells you ring when you’ve made your choice – are a spectacle that can be experienced every day in numerous tea houses all around the nation. Just like in bygone days, behind closed doors with dimmed lights and comfortable seating, Čajovny are the first step on a magical journeys using the finest leaves the world has to offer – and with it, a moment to catch your breath in the bustle of life.