When it opened last year, Tea Mountain was a revelation. You see, while Prague may be a hidden kingdom of tea rooms, most of them did have a slightly annoying New Age vibe: people with linens playing the triangle who made you feel guilty because you had a cell phone.
Tea Mountain is different. Nestled right next to the Veltlin wine bar in the Karlin district, it sports a modern design with clear reference points to Japan and the Orient. They do have wifi. They do explain everything without being patronizing. And, on top of that, they have fantastic teas. Even a very basic tasting can really open your eyes to what tea can be.
The founder, and really the face, of Tea Mountain is Martin. A friendly guy who seems to know everything about teas, and everyone in the foodie community in Prague and whose enthusiasm about everything food and tea-related is nearly as addictive as his teas are. We asked him a few questions.
It started in college. We didn’t want to spend all our time in smoky pubs. Back then, there weren’t many tea rooms to choose from: Amana, The U kohouta tea room, which I liked a lot. But my first tea was at the Naprstkovo museum tea room. Japanese Kokeicha, the “spaghetti tea”. It is horrible but I loved it back then. And Ilona, my wife, was buying lots of teas.
And how did the transition from drinking to selling teas come about?
I worked in tea rooms during my community service (instead of the military service). When Ilona graduated in 2003, we decided to visit India. We spent most of the seven months in the Himalayas. On the way home, we wanted to go to Nepal, so we stopped in Darjeeling, visited the tea gardens and met the producers. That’s where I got my first contacts.
After you come back from India, you can’t really just go back straight into an office job. So we stayed a while in a summer house in South Bohemia, trying to be self-sufficient, but Ilona really had higher aspirations than that, so we moved back to Prague. Through a mutual friend, I got the offer to buy Indian tea in bulk for this group of top managers at HP and other companies. They ordered about 10 kilos of tea. I was on the dole back then. I ordered more and offered it to tea rooms here, and they loved it.
I started with Darjeeling teas, visiting the area every year and meeting first the producers, then managers and tea makers and ended up tasting teas with the President of J. Thomas that runs the Calcutta Tea Auction, or with people in the Planters Club. I think I was bringing some really interesting teas. But I thought that Darjeeling was not sustainable alone going forward, so I began to buy teas from Japan, too. So today it’s Darjeeling, Nepal, Japan and Taiwan.
And why did you open Tea Mountain in Karlin?
Easy. Matej, my son, needed his own room, and I could not keep selling teas from the house. I also did not like how teas were presented. It was all New Age and esoteric and so on. People thought tea was strange because it was connected to strange rituals and philosophy and the right worldview. But tea is beautiful, just like wine or whiskey, and it deserves to be up there with great food and wine.
I also needed a space of my own, where I could invite our wholesale customers. We were always running around with tasting sets and got our teas into some great restaurants here, even got into talks with Harrod’s in London, but needed a base. One time I biked through here one summer and stopped by at the Veltlin wine bar next door, and the waiter told me that this space was empty. I though to myself: Karlin? That’s dead :-) But I kept riding my bike around here and decided to give it a go.
Did anything surprise you when you opened?
The hype. Suddenly, everybody was writing about Tea Mountain. People first wrote about the design - A1 architects designed this place - so we got some exposure on architectural websites and in lifestyle magazines. And then the people came, incl. Martin, a.k.a. "Pan Cuketka”, the famous Czech food blogger, who came by and really got what we’re all about, too.
Where do you like to go out to eat?
I love Sansho. Their jungle curry rabbit is the bomb. We really like Krystal Mozaika Bistro, too, being here in Karlin. Their fruit dumplings, or the duck confit, or schnitzels are really great. You can see how much work goes into their food.
Do you make tea at home?
No way. I drink hot water by the liter. That’s the basic tea for you right there. I may get one tester bowl for breakfast, occasionally. I drink tea here. The world of tea is so diverse, I look forward to the next sampler I get to taste when I get here. And I don’t drink coffee either. I do like wine. We have a deal with the Veltlin wine bar next door: they get their upper here in the morning after the night before, and we go to chill down to Veltlin after tasting teas here all day. I probably had all their wines. :-)
Are you proud that they serve your teas in a specific restaurant or cafe?
I am proud that tea has now begun to get the attention it deserves, not just as part of a philosophy. I am proud we have our teas in some of the best cafes in town.
Any guilty pleasures?
What is a guilty pleasure? [What follows are ten minutes of examples of guilty pleasures.] Ok, I really like salamis, hams, charcuteries. Yes, salamis. No bread. Just bit by bit until it’s gone.
Photos by Couple of Prague. Martin's photo by Petr Karlach.