The čajovna: a Czech interpretation of tea culture 

Tea bowl hand-made by a Czech ceramic artist. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

In the Czech Republic, tea is consumed in public places called “čajovna” (pronounced tchayovna) — a term that literally means “tea-place.” But čajovna is much more than a word: It is a way of reinterpreting tea-culture and turning it into a mainstream space for socializing and enjoying all kinds of teas and other drinks, warm and cold. 

According to literary history, the term “čaj” (tea in Czech) appears in the early 18th century, at the same time as “káva” (the Czech word for coffee), when the Czech lands were part of the Habsburg monarchy. One of the earliest known čajovnas is probably the Jokohama čajovna (Yokohama teahouse) established by 19th century traveler and Japan expert Josef Hloucha, who opened the place in central Prague in the basement of the iconic Lucerna Palace. During the 1918–1939 First Czechoslovak Republic, tea became widely available to large parts of the population. Many black-and-white films of that period as well as print media advertising testify to the popularity of tea, mostly black, as a fashionable and affordable drink, given the long cold winters in this part of the world. 

Tea culture also developed thanks to the massive emigration from the collapsed Russian empire after 1917 when Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians but also Tatars and other nations from the Tsarist Empire found refuge in then Czechoslovakia, and made tea drinking in public places even more popular in urban centers such as Prague and Brno. 

After the 1948 Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, and the alignment with Moscow, new types of tea were introduced, including green tea from Soviet Georgia. Tea was mostly consumed in public in cafés, but a few čajovnas were also in existence, such as the famous Modrá čajovna (the Blue Teahouse) that opened in Prague in 1985, for example. As political relations with India warmed up during the Cold War, Indian black tea also appeared on the market. Later, the arrival of Vietnamese students and workers in the 1960s introduced Vietnamese tea but it was mostly consumed by Vietnamese people. 

A čajovna's courtyard on Prague's main Wenceslas Square. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Things changed dramatically in 1989 after the Velvet Revolution that saw the end of Communism, and thus of travel bans as well as of the state monopoly on import of goods. Czech people started to travel across Asia and established personal connections with tea producers in South and East Asia. Many of them eventually opened čajovnas, either importing directly from Asia, or buying different teas from retailers in the country and in Europe. This economic shift changed the landscape for consumers who were suddenly able to choose among dozens of high quality teas of all colors, sorts, preparation processes.

Today, the country is believed to have one of the highest number of teahouses per capita in Europe, as this Wikipedia entry claims:

K únoru 2020 bylo v České republice nejméně 199 čajoven, což odpovídá koncentraci 1,89 čajovny na 100 tisíc obyvatel.Podle Aleše Juřiny jde o největší koncentraci čajoven na světě. 

As of February 2020, there were at least 199 teahouses in the Czech Republic, which corresponds to a concentration of 1.89 teahouses per 100,000 inhabitants. According to Aleš Juřina, this is the largest concentration of teahouses in the world.

Tellingly, even though no tea grows in the Czech Republic, one Czech teahouse became a global brand of tea and teahouses, with a presence across Europe and the US. The Czech Republic also hosts a regular Tea Festival, Čajomír, in Prague and other cities where tea sellers and connoisseurs gather to sample tea over a weekend. 

Hand-made ceramic for tea made in the Czech republic. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

So what is a čajovna?

Some čajovna even have fireplaces particularly appealing in the long winter season. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Typically, a čajovna is a relatively small space dedicated to drinking tea and other associated drinks. Very often, but not always, it is located in a basement if present in a dense urban area, but can also be built around an inner garden in small cities. A large variety of teas is offered, including black, green, pu’er, scented teas, herbal teas from across Asia but also Africa (rooibos), Latin America (mate) or Europe (herbal teas). Prices remain generally affordable, many teas are offered with two to three refills of hot water. The philosophy is that tea-drinking is an opportunity to slow down, talk with friends, or read a book, and a client might stay a couple of hours, if not more. Many clients are also regulars, and favor one place for decades, hence the place turns into a center of social interaction, where people share news and personal life events. Some tea places allow the playing of card or board games, and have a relaxed atmosphere. Clients with computers are generally not welcome as the čajovna embodies the notion of slow time. 

For more on mate, read: Yerba Mate: South America's indigenous tea from Paraguay to Syria

The U Zlatého kohouta čajovna in central Prague, unchanged since it opened in the mid 1990s. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Most čajovna also have their own interpretation of Asia, often rooted in 19th century Orientalist tales of travelers and ethnologists who initially brought tea to Czech culture, but also created a certain representation of various Asian cultures and traditions. This is often reflected in the names given to teas in menus, but also in the interior decoration. To this day, the topic of conversations of tea lovers circles around the return from yet another trip to Japan or Nepal, Yunnan or Sri Lanka. Another feature of the čajovna is that it often sells tea-related ceramic, Czech and Asian, both handmade and mass produced, such as bowls and teapots.  

Perhaps two emblematic drinks that are quite specific to Czech tea culture are tea beer and what is called šípkový čaj. Tea beer is a cold infusion of usually a Darjeeling type of tea topped with foam that looks like a pint of beer but is indeed tea. The other is in fact rose hip tea that is blood red, and can be hot or cold.

Most recently bubble tea bars have appeared in Prague, but they are a far cry from the čajovna, as they are targeting more tourists, or young hipsters. They represent another form of tea culture and habits, more centered around take-away and fast-food notions of consumption.

For more, read Global Voices’ Special Coverage: The comforts and controversies of tea

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