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Prague Stories: Martin of Tea Mountain

During our visit to Prague, we delighted in not only the Prague Tea Fest but also exploring numerous tea rooms, indulging in the local tea culture. Among them stood out "Tea Mountain," where Lorela Lohan, founder of Wanderlustea, had the privilege of interviewing Martin Špimr, the visionary behind Tea Mountain. Their conversation delved into all things tea, from the enchanting flavours of Darjeeling to Martin's experiences staying in monasteries during his tea expeditions, and culminating in the journey of how he established a tea shop in Prague.

Photo: Martin Pinkas for

About 'Tea Mountain'

Tea Mountain epitomizes a modern sanctuary where tea aficionados and novices alike converge to embark on a sensory journey through the world of tea. With a mission to revolutionize the perception and accessibility of tea, Tea Mountain has carved out a niche as a haven for those seeking authentic tea experiences. Nestled in the vibrant neighborhood of Karlín, Prague, Tea Mountain offers a dual ambiance – a serene haven for contemplative sipping and a dynamic space for the exploration and presentation of tea. The meticulously curated selection of teas invites patrons to indulge in tastings, discover new flavours, and gain insights into the rich tapestry of tea culture. Anchored by an ethos of transparency and expertise, Tea Mountain forges connections between tea enthusiasts and the growers, fostering an appreciation for the origins and quality of each brew. With an interior adorned in solid ash wood, illuminated by natural light streaming through expansive windows, Tea Mountain exudes an atmosphere of tranquility. As a beacon of quality and reliability in the bustling gastronomic landscape of Karlín, Tea Mountain stands as a testament to the enduring allure of tea in a rapidly evolving world.

Photo: A1Architects for Tea Mountain.

Lorela: What sparked your journey into the world of tea?

Martin: My story started back in 2001 when I embarked on a volunteer social service in the human rights sector supporting Tibet, and as a side job I was working in a tea room. Around that time I was already very interested in tea, its culture, as well as Tibetan Buddhism, afterwards deciding to travel. India beckoned me with its captivating literature, vibrant culture, and the allure of Darjeeling tea, which I already held dear. Moreover, its affordability made this dream destination possible. The call of spirituality led me to Bön Menri monastery nestled in the serene landscapes of Himachal Pradesh.

Lorela: It's fascinating how a journey can be sparked by a combination of interests and opportunities. So, starting with Darjeeling tea, how did your exploration of tea progress from there?

Martin: After my time in India, I moved to Nepal, where I delved into Himalayan tea further. This led me to start buying and exporting Himalayan tea to the Czech Republic, which ignited the idea of naming my company "Himalayan Tea." Eventually, I returned to experiment and understand tea in a more artisanal setting, such as the Jun Chiyabari tea garden in Nepal.

Photo: Himachal Pradesh in India. iStock.

Lorela: It seems like your journey with tea has taken you through diverse landscapes and cultures. Speaking of preferences, I've also started with Darjeeling, "the champagne of teas," and quickly fell in love with oolongs afterwards. What about you?

Martin: Oolongs hold a special place in my heart as well, but I always start my day with a cup of Darjeeling, much like my wife.

Lorela: Darjeeling indeed has its charm, but it seems like its popularity has waned over time. What are your thoughts on this?
Martin: The decline in Darjeeling's prominence could be attributed to various factors. Primarily, the exquisite teas that once offered exceptional value compared to others in the market now command exorbitant prices, often disproportionate to their quality and sustainable practices. Additionally, the very essence of Darjeeling tea is evolving as the composition of tea bushes in the region undergoes significant changes. The original, unparalleled flavour of Darjeeling was a hallmark of its superiority. However, the gradual demise of the old bushes, initially introduced from China in the 1850s to 1890s, poses a considerable challenge. The replacement of these historic plants with newer varieties results in a homogenized taste and appearance, making it increasingly elusive to recapture the essence of authentic Darjeeling tea that enthusiasts once cherished. Climate change is also big factor nowadays.

Photo: Jun Chiyabari Tea Garden, Nepal.

Lorela: After years of traversing the Himalayan hills, what came next in your tea journey?

Martin: In 2005, I obtained my business license and began exclusively selling Himalayan teas from Darjeeling and Nepal to tea houses of the Czech Republic, sustaining this venture for three years.

Lorela: Sustaining a tea business must have been quite the endeavor, particularly during the 2000s when tea houses were less prevalent compared to today. How did you navigate through those times?

Martin: Interestingly, the 1990s witnessed a remarkable surge in tea culture throughout the Czech Republic, marked by a proliferation of tea houses and boasting the highest concentration and consumption of tea per capita in Europe. However, the landscape has since shifted, with maybe more than 40% of the tea rooms established in that era now closed. During those times, I found sustenance in simplicity, residing in the countryside and methodically traversing from one tea room to another, armed with nothing more than a backpack brimming with tea samples.

Lorela: When did the idea of opening a tea shop begin to take shape for you?

Martin: The idea emerged when I moved to Prague and developed a fascination with Japanese tea culture and Zen Buddhism. Attending the Shizuoka Tea Festival in 2007 sparked our venture into importing Japanese tea, offering something unique to the Prague tea scene since at the time only Dobrá Čajovna and Amana were distributing Japanese teas in the Czech Republic. Hence, we included traditional sencha in our offering as a starting point.

Lorela: Your journey seems to have taken you to various corners of the tea world. When did you begin exploring the abundant tea culture of China?

Martin: Actually, I wasn't allowed to go to China due to my Tibetan activism, obtaining a visa was initially challenging as I was refused at first. However, through mutual connections, I eventually visited China, reconnecting with friends from my time in the monastery in India.

Lorela: Your tea selection is quite diverse. When did Taiwanese teas and Georgian teas enter the picture?

Martin: We introduced Taiwanese teas into our selection following a couple of Japanese teas, with Georgian teas nestled in between. The inclusion of Georgian teas stemmed from a unique connection forged in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse. Through a friend working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was instrumental in aiding the agricultural revitalization of tea cooperatives in Georgia, we were introduced to Georgian tea. For the past 17 years, we've sourced Georgian teas from David Tenieshvili, a trailblazing engineer dedicated to revitalizing abandoned tea plantations and imparting his botanical expertise to current tea producers. These once-forgotten tea fields of old Chinese tea bushes, now thrive amidst a tapestry of vibrant flora, nurturing both new and old tea trees alike.

Photo: Tea Mountain in Taiwan.

Lorela: Georgian tea is truly fascinating, particularly their practice of compressing tea leaves into cakes, reminiscent of puerh tea. This tradition arose from the unique circumstance of tea plantations being abandoned and the tea plants growing into trees. Are you familiar with this technique?

Martin: Indeed, in Georgia, tea leaves sourced from ancient tea trees are traditionally used to create black tea. But there has also been a custom of producing something similar to heicha, a type of dark tea pressed into bricks. These bricks are exported and primarily enjoyed in neighboring Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.

Lorela: Given your extensive experience with Tibet, what has been your experience with yak butter tea?

Martin: I like it, it is a tradition present also in India and Nepal, although with cow butter instead of yak butter, accompanied by a dash of salt and milk. The monks traditionally began their mornings with a cup of milky, salty tea.

Photo: A1Architects for Tea Mountain.

Lorela: Why do you think they need to add milk and salt to tea, something that tea drinkers disdain? Is it because the tea is not of good quality?

Martin: I wouldn't characterize the tea as lacking in quality, but rather, the addition of milk and salt was a means to access the vitamins and minerals found in the lower leaves of the tea bush. It's believed that this combination aids in extracting essential nutrients from these leaves.

Lorela: Moving forward, when did you open Tea Mountain?

Martin: Last December was marked by the 10th anniversary of Tea Mountain. The idea had been brewing for quite some time, and finally, with a nudge from my wife to move out the tea from our home to make space for our child, I decided to bring it to fruition. For a long time, I wanted to open a tea shop, but the idea and the project required extensive research since I wanted to distinguish myself from the tea houses here in Prague, which were quite esoteric and bohemian.

Photo: A1Architects for Tea Mountain.

Lorela: You are right, Prague already has a plethora of tea houses, often associated with spirituality. How did you differentiate Tea Mountain from the rest and what is your take on the connection between tea and spirituality?

Martin: For me, spirituality is a deeply personal journey, one that I chose not to overtly express through my tea shop. Collaborating closely with A1 architects, we meticulously crafted a space that reflects my vision of clean, minimalist design, seamlessly interwoven with the warmth of wood—a nod to the serene designs found in Japanese aesthetics. This distinctive design not only attracted visitors seeking to sample and purchase teas but also drew those in search of a unique ambiance, distinct from the typical tea shops found in Prague. Coupled with our established presence through our webshop, our tea shop enjoyed immediate success, offering patrons the opportunity to savour our teas while also serving as an educational hub for newcomers eager to explore the diverse and vibrant world of tea.

Lorela: It's been enlightening hearing about your journey, Martin. Thank you for sharing your insights and experiences with us.

Martin: Thank you, Lorela, for the opportunity to reflect on my tea journey. It's been a pleasure discussing it with you.

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