In 2002, a once-in-a-century flood swept over Central Europe and no place was hit worse than the Karlín district of Prague. Up to nine feet, nearly three meters, of water covered the area, collapsing buildings and forcing 40,000 people from their homes. The former factory district seemed like it would never recover. The city had other ideas and invested heavily in the reconstruction of Karlín as an office area. The district didn’t just rebound—it thrived. Karlín became very popular not only for office workers but also for Praguers looking for trendy shops. One blogger recently dubbed the area “the ever-hipper Karlín.”
When Martin Špimr opened Tea Mountain last year, he would have never thought he and his shop would become a highlight of Karlín. “Teahouses in our neighborhood are usually dark and closed basement spaces,” Martin says. “That is why we decided to create an open space full of light, which is good for enjoying the taste of the tea as something that’s great as an everyday drink and—if possible—always of the best quality.”
Almost anytime you go to Tea Mountain you can find Martin behind the bar. But, if he’s away from the bar (probably somewhere in the office and storage space of the shop), the teahouse’s tea masters will gladly prepare any tea you desire. There’s a wide selection on display. Would you like to try three or five teas? They are ready for that with a taster tray. With the help of Tea Mountain’s staff and a bit of whimsy, you can almost travel to far off tea gardens using the cup as your gateway, discovering the differences between varieties of teas. The staff will happily talk with you about the tea for long stretches, and as Martin showed during our interview, he enjoys chatting with occasional drinkers and experienced tea lovers alike.
Tea Mountain’s location adds as much to its allure as its design of raw wood and vaulted arches. Next door is Prague’s best wine shop, Veltlin, and one of the best-known coffee shops, Doubleshot Roaster’s My Cup of Coffee, is just a block away. This was partly lucky coincidence. “During my Sunday bike trip I found a great local wine bar,” Martin says. “While enjoying the wine, the sommelier informed me that there was a possibility to rent a space in the same building.” The pedestrian neighborhood, which lies on the southern end of the Vlata River’s curve through the city, allows a shop like Tea Mountain to be serendipitously discovered. Later, after our interview, I was outside the shop when a middle-aged couple walked by. One said, “Look, it’s the famous teahouse they told us about in the coffee shop, we need to come here.”
Before beginning his tea career, Martin worked as a consultant for wineries in Switzerland and olive farms in Italy. “Working with wine makers and farmers who live with their products every day helped me understand and enjoy really good food and also helped me with my own thinking about food,” Martin says. He had loved tea for years, which eventually compelled him to visit India. He traveled across the country in 2004, and in Darjeeling he developed friendships with many of the region’s tea growers. He decided to import teas to Prague.
At the beginning of this venture, he started with nothing except his passion and connections. “The government unemployment program gave me scales and a packing machine and this was the start,” he says. “I was also very lucky because I had a friend who wanted to buy a great amount of good tea for his colleagues.” The tea took off and soon Martin decided to offer Japanese tea as well. He also earned a good name among tea farmers in origin countries. “I proved to the farmers that I wanted to offer good quality and that I am very enthusiastic,” he says. “People were charmed by my enthusiasm and that is why they usually introduced me to other farmers.”
This connection to origin is a big part of Tea Mountain’s success. Every tea Martin offers is single estate. “At the display you can see traditional and very conservative teas,” he says, “but also very unusual ‘geeky stuff,’ for example oxidized green tea which is something like an oxymoron in the world of teas. We really like this kind of colorful offering.” Most remarkably, you can also buy a Baozhong picked in 1959 and a Li Shan Tie Guan Yin from 1981. Martin offers me a little plate of the Baozhong and says, “Look for interesting smells, earthiness, something like cellars.”
The feel of Tea Mountain and the reputation it has built make it hard to believe the shop is still in its first year. Even with the success, Martin sees much room for growth, especially by educating Prague’s tea drinkers, possibly through a small tea school. “Many people consider expensive and bad tea in nice tea bags good enough, even sometimes better than really good and first-class tea from small farms,” he says. “We would like to change this attitude and opinion.”
—Jaroslav Slámecka is a barista and blogger based in Prague.