Czech Republic: Káva and Pivo

This is the third in a series of essays by globe-trotter Kevin Nguyen, who is currently studying at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. In search of coffee, Kevin instead encounters the country’s ubiquitous beer culture.

Studying abroad, the thing I miss most about home is coffee. Like all coffee fiends, I value my four-cups-a-day habit more than friends and family. Although it’s hard to find a bad cup of espresso around here, I still find myself longing for drip coffee. Apparently drip–known as filter coffee in Europe–is unpopular with locals. It’s served almost exclusively in restaurants that pander to American patrons.

Still, I think what I miss even more than the drink itself is the place I order my coffee. The ideal American café serves both as a location to grab a quick cup and as a place to read, write, or strike up a conversation.

That’s not to say that Western Europe hasn’t adopted the American concept of coffee-on-the-go. During my three-day stay in London, I found a Starbucks on every street corner. I’m not particularly fond of the mermaid for the usual reasons–unsubstantiated anticorpratism, mostly–but it was comforting to know that I could score some settle my habit anywhere.

Eastern Europe is a different story.

In the Czech Republic, drinking is a crucial piece of the culture. I have yet to find a restaurant that doesn’t have one of the country’s signature brews on tap. Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen, and Budweiser are all better than anything I’ve ever tried in the States. (Czech Budweiser is, thankfully, not the same as the American brand of the same name.) In the Czech Republic, I wonder if you need a license to not serve beer. As they say, není pivo jako pivo (“there’s no beer like beer,” although I’m not sure what that even means).

But while per-capita beer consumption is the highest in the world, coffee consumption is comparatively low. It’s not uncommon for Czech people to have a glass of desítka lager before work every morning. Apparently this is a place where you start your day with a beer in lieu of coffee.

Unfortunately, I just can’t bring myself to drink before noon. So, for the first time in my life, I’ve had to scout out a decent cup of coffee. Compared to U.S. cities, Prague offers slim pickings. I’ve found that the restaurants that label themselves “cafés” would be more appropriately called “bars” or “pubs.”

Coffeeheaven, an imitation Starbucks franchise, shows up every once in a while throughout the city, but it’s not necessarily popular. These cafés miss the allure, or better put, the selling-point of Starbucks. Rather than an arrangement of comfortable couches and charming pseudo-bohemian interior decorations, Coffeeheaven feels more like a Jamba Juice, with its spare furnishings and bright, cheery colors. While you might hear the new Feist album at Starbucks, you’ll instead catch “Gangster’s Paradise” by Coolio at Coffeeheaven (which, I guess, is endearing in a different sort of way). But what it really boils down to is that the coffee is, more or less, rubbish.

There are a few newer establishments scattered throughout Prague that pander to American students like me. Not surprisingly, they’re all owned by expatriates who recognize the niche. The Ebel Coffee House is a particularly fine establishment, and its location reveals a great understanding of American coffee drinkers. It’s situated in picturesque Ungelt Square, next-door to the city’s best English bookseller, the Anagram Bookshop. It’s a bit expensive by city standards, but I have no qualms about paying 50 korunas (roughly $2.50) for a good latte.

I’m also satisfied with my discovery of the Globe, both a well-stocked bookshop and attractive two-story café. It’s more atmospheric than Ebel; the decor is trendy, though restrained enough to be homey. Their coffee is cheaper, but the food is comparably more expensive. They offer wireless internet, but unlike Ebel, it’s not free. You’ll only find American students at the Globe, which, I suppose, goes to show that the sit-down café is still a foreign concept in Prague.

I can’t explain why the Czech Republic isn’t more into the idea of the café. The first president of the Czech Republic was playwright Václav Havel, and Prague is almost gratuitously infatuated with Franz Kafka. Where do all of the country’s writers hang out?

Well, probably bars and pubs. I should stop drinking coffee and just become an alcoholic.

Read more from Czech Republic.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.