November 1, 2021

Exploring specialty coffee culture in Prague

Prague may not be the first city people think of when coffee is mentioned, but the Czech Republic’s capital has seen a few developments in recent years.

Coffee first came to Prague in the early 16th century. However, in the five hundred years since, its coffee culture has evolved and changed in a number of ways. Today, while the city is by no means a third wave coffee hotspot, new roasteries and specialty coffee shops are starting to open in significant numbers.

To learn more, I spoke to some of the city’s coffee experts about its history and what Prague’s coffee culture looks like today. Read on to learn more.

You might also like our article exploring Italian coffee culture and the third wave.

prague cityscape

A look to the past – where did it all start?

Today, there are plenty of places to get a cup of coffee all across the different districts of Prague. However, it wasn’t always this way. 

Originally, coffee was a drink for the bourgeois and the wealthy. In the 20th century, many of the city’s art nouveau cafés like Slavia and Louvre would attract high profile clientele such as Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Czechoslovakia’s first president, Thomas Masaryk. 

But centuries before that, almost 500 years ago, we have the story of Prague’s first coffee shop (or kafírna). This was opened not by a Czech, but by a Turkish man named Jiří Deodat. Before that, coffee was only sold in Prague by pharmacies as a remedy for gastric and digestive issues. 

Once Deodat came onto the scene, passers-by could experience new exotic flavours as he roasted and served fresh coffee with his coal fire oven. This is how the Czech version of Turkish coffee (turecká káva) first became popular in the country.

More than 200 years later, in 1843, coffee saw another boom with the invention of the sugar cube in the town of Dačice, just to the south of Prague. However, while coffee’s popularity continued to grow through the late 19th century, it became an inessential luxury during and in the years following the Second World War.

This perception of luxury stuck, but in spite of it, the first official patent for decaf coffee was registered in 1962 by Zdeněk Záček. The city then waited another 34 years for a taste of specialty coffee, when the country’s first micro roaster, Cafe Ebel, opened on Kaprova Street in the city centre. 

man with coffee

The scene today

Zdeněk Hýbl is a barista, a roaster, and the co-owner of Onesip and Candycane. He tells me that Prague’s coffee scene is still developing, and a lack of access to modern equipment is one of the reasons why. 

He says: “I think that here, people are opening coffee shops with less advanced equipment: old second hand espresso machines, grinders, and so on. 

“They have to think more about the coffee and how to prepare the coffee. [In some cases], they are better at making coffee because of this disadvantage.”

As a result, he says Prague’s coffee scene has an almost laissez-faire attitude when compared with established specialty coffee hotspots like London. He believes this means there’s far less pressure to perform or impress, resulting in simple, great coffee in a multitude of styles. 

Zdeněk says this can be quite refreshing, but notes that many say that the service in Prague could be improved. 

roasting coffee in prague

Covid-19 & Prague’s coffee culture

In spite of local restrictions on hospitality businesses, many coffee professionals in Prague have taken the Covid-19 pandemic as something of an opportunity to pivot and adapt.

Jan Malec was an early member of the team at EMA espresso, one of the first specialty coffee shops to open in Prague. He’s now a roaster at Alf & Bet, and says he’s incredibly grateful to have survived this period.

He says: “I have to thank every single person on our team for doing the best job they could, and every single customer that helped us during this period. Not just for us, either – I am glad for every cafe that is still open.”

However, he also said that Prague’s coffee scene is still very much alive as the city starts to emerge on the other side of the pandemic. According to him, the promising signs are that many popular spots have either remained open or reopened in recent times.

Despite this, Jan notes that there is definitely room for improvement.

“Going forward, coffee shops need to become even better at what they do,” Jan says. “They need to provide even better service for the customer, and support the local coffee community.”

Jan says that in the days before specialty, cafés and other coffee businesses in the city developed because of their values, their relationships, and their ability to brew delicious coffee.

However, in order to achieve this, he notes that coffee businesses need something else: staff. In Prague, he notes that there’s been something of a change in barista work over the past few years.

“Working as a barista is now ‘trendy’,” he tells me. “Sometimes, this means there is a lack of basic knowledge or deeper interest in coffee when doing the job.” 

Jan says that in response, coffee shops in Prague need to cultivate an environment that allows employees to grow and develop. He urges coffee shops in the city to take more of a long-term approach when hiring staff, and to understand their career goals.

aeropress squeeze

Looking ahead: How will things change in Prague’s coffee scene?

Prague’s unique demographic and its history as a hub of culture – if not coffee – make it likely that the sector will grow and develop in the years to come.

In particular, in recent years, more and more roasters have emerged in Prague. These smaller roasters are now starting to challenge the more established classic players and brands.

Jan also notes that there has been evolution in terms of specific products and drinks. One such example is nitro cold brew, which he says has become increasingly popular in recent years. 

“People have also started to notice the difference in how lighter roasts taste compared to darker roasts,” he says. “But the biggest increase in popularity is in flat whites.”

Overall, this evolution in consumer preferences will help the sector push forward and develop. But what else needs to change?

Mário Adamčík is a Brewers Cup and National AeroPress Champion from Slovakia who has been based in Prague for years. In his opinion, baristas in the city need to double down on their training if the sector is going to evolve.

“In general, I think that coffee professionals have more work to do than ever before,” he says. “Today, we have to spend a lot of time on education and self development. 

“We understand that coffee is not just about taste and having the best sample on the table. It’s also about customers, service, and work routine. This is true in Prague, just as it is everywhere else.”

Ultimately, Mário says that professionals working in Prague’s specialty coffee scene should strive to have a more thorough approach to their day-to-day tasks, and says they should also focus on training.

He recommends starting with strong customer service skills, equipment maintenance, and leadership skills.

“Today, coffee competitions are mainly about learning the rules and making no mistakes during the presentation,” he concludes. “This does not at all reflect the real work of the barista behind the bar.”

espresso

So, altogether, what does this mean? Well, firstly – Prague’s storied history as a city of culture makes it a wonderful place for specialty coffee to blossom. But as it does so, baristas, according to our interviewees, need to focus on substance over style.

According to them, there’s a need for a more level-headed approach for people working in the coffee sector. Only by honing their technical and customer service skills will they be able to improve the city’s reputation and put it on the map as a specialty coffee hotspot.

If professionals in the city manage to do this, coffee businesses in Prague will be able to improve their profile and lead the charge for the city’s coffee sector. If this can be achieved, the future looks bright for Prague, and it might not be too long before it rivals specialty coffee hotspots around the world.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on Greek coffee culture.

Photo credits: Kryštof Susa, Lukáš Kozel

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