Czech baristas compete in the art of coffee-making

Tereza Balá

When Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and her husband Prince Claus visited the Czech Republic in 1993 the head of protocol at Prague Castle went into overdrive. It was the first visit by a foreign royal since the fall of communism and everything had to be perfect. There was just one tiny hitch that made headlines – when the queen visited the North Bohemian brown coal mining region and accepted an invitation for a cup of coffee she was presented with a murky brown mixture - a Turkish-style cup of coffee that has nothing to do with real Turkish coffee. Czech style Turkish coffee –a remnant from the communist days - was made by pouring boiling water over ground coffee and waiting for it to settle before drinking it and using your teeth to filter the dregs. The queen was charm itself – but much to the locals’ surprise she left her coffee untouched.

Since then coffee culture in the Czech Republic has come a long way –indeed last weekend Prague hosted a national Barista competition where 19 of the best baristas from around the country competed for the honour of representing the Czech Republic at the World Barista Championship in Bogota, Colombia. The categories included Barista of the Year, Latte Art and Coffee in Good Spirits – the latter showcasing coffee, spirits and unique ingredients in a competition format.

One of the judges in this year’s contest was John Stubberud a Norwegian, who currently runs ‘Kaffee-Alchemie’, a coffee house in Salzburg, Austria. I asked him if he thought Czechs had progressed from the days of the notorious “Turkish coffee” known as turek.

“I think so, when I see all the passion behind this competition, so many people who are involved and so many people who are thinking forward and all the engagement that is here – definitely yes. All the big Czech and Slovak cities once used to have coffee houses with a culture of making coffee similarly as in Vienna and the new trend in coffee world-wide, especially the focus on separating the commodity coffee from the excellent beans, that has reached the Czech Republic and it will result in excellent coffee also in coffee houses – I am dead sure of that.”

Michal Strudl, head of the Czech Coffee Chamber, an NGO that promotes quality coffee in the Czech Republic was far more critical:

Tereza Balá
“You know when Czechs say let’s go for a coffee they mean let’s have a big mug of something warm, chat over it for half an hour and ideally smoke ten cigarettes in the meantime. We are 15 years behind the Germans in coffee culture. Over 80 percent of restaurant goers will ask for a big espresso with milk. There are very few gourmets who want high-quality coffee and are willing to pay for it.”

One of the young generation of Czechs who know quality coffee when they see it –and go out of their way to buy the best is Terezka Balá – winner of the Czech Barista 2010 contest. I asked her for the secret behind her success.

“Well it is hours of training, learning how to make an espresso, a cappuccino, how to steam milk properly and learn all the barista skills. It is not just about making a cup of good coffee but about the personality of the competitor, to what extent he is in touch with the judges, his behavior, communication skills – I would say it was about communication, showing you have a passion for coffee, the taste of it, obviously, and a little bit about my personality. “

What is the most common mistake that Czechs make when they make coffee?

“Well, typically people in this country do not know how to prepare a proper espresso. They think it has to be a big cup of black coffee with milk rather than making the proper size and also not many people know how to steam milk properly so they make awful cappuccinos or lattes. There are now plenty of people who want to do it right and drink quality coffee, but there are still an awful lot of people who do not care. They just want to have this big cup of black coffee to keep them awake, but they care little about the quality or processing. But things are getting better every year.”

Do you plan your holidays depending on where they make good coffee or have coffee plantations you want to see?

“I would really love to, but right now I do not have much spare time because I have to finish school. But it is my dream to travel to see coffee plantations and find out more about growing coffee. My biggest dream. ”

Did you travel somewhere when you won last year? Did you not attend a world competition?

“Yes, it was in London so I visited London for the second time in my life and I love the city. It is also a city of great coffee so I was really glad to be able to go. I spent a week in London, visited coffee houses and saw all these perfect baristas – better than us.”

So is it possible to make really good coffee at home if you do not have an expensive machine?

“For sure you can. For example I use aero-press, a small thing made of glass, you need a filter, coffee, brew it and that’s all. It’s a quick, nice and clean cup of coffee.”

So it is knowing what coffee beans to choose?

“For sure it is about what coffee you use.”

And is it now possible to buy very good quality coffee in Prague – is it widely available?

“Yes, in Prague I know of three or four specialized shops which roast very good coffee. You can find them on the internet and enjoy really nice coffee.”

You would never buy coffee at a supermarket then?

“No, I do not think that you can get quality coffee there. I am not just talking about the quality of beans, but also storage and packaging. Coffee needs to be stored in vacuum bags and from the time of roasting to the time you enjoy your coffee it should not be more than 3 or 4 weeks. In a store you can buy coffee that is a year old – and it is not going to taste good.”

Most Czechs not only buy their coffee at the supermarket, they often go for the cheaper brands. Michal Strudl of the Czech Coffee Chamber says people in this country should learn how to enjoy life.

John Stubberud
“The government must stop telling people to save money – it should say leave aside at least 30 percent of your earnings for enjoyment. People here do not savor the good things in life –rather than buying a small portion of exclusive quality ham they will buy a big package of common sausages because it costs the same and they think why waste good money on food. They need to know what good food and quality coffee tastes like and send it back in a restaurant if it is not up to standard – send it back, refuse to pay for it and say I will never come here again.”

Coffee expert John Stubberud says that while exclusive coffee is expensive – you do not need an expensive machine to prepare a good cup of coffee.

“I like to be surprised by the character in coffee, because if you are lucky to get coffee from –they use the term “single-origin” - whether it is a region, a valley or from a farm, or maybe from a farmer who has micro-lots -like in Nicaragua we recently visited farmers who grow different kinds of coffee trees and harvest at different times picking only the ripe cherries and selling them on their own – if you are lucky to get that, then it is like a good wine from a vineyard. That kind of coffee is extremely exclusive. It needs to be taken care of - in the processing, but also in the importing and roasting and finally how you and me make the coffee at home. If we buy the freshly roasted beans, grind them properly and extract them in water –whether you use an espresso machine or an ibrik – as long as you extract it well in water –you will get good coffee - it is easy-peasy to do –just do it correctly.”

Zdeněk Smrčka
Barista Zdeněk Smrčka does – so much so that he was voted winner of Barista 2011. I asked him what sparked his passion for coffee.

“Coffee is in many ways very similar to wine –only few people in this country realize that. The smell and taste of different brands is fascinating – it is like a voyage of discovery. I look forward to trying new tastes and blends and learning more about the art of coffee-making. It’s fantastic.”