In today’s Spotlight we take a trip to a hidden gem of a museum in a Prague suburb which traces the often surprising history of coffee. The private Coffee Museum Alchymista takes you through coffee’s history, cultivation, production and industry covering the many different strains and its progress from a devilish concoction to everyday drink.
Prague’s coffee museum can be found almost in the shadows of the football club Sparta Prague’s Letná stadium. It has been at the current site for around two years. A similar museum previously existed nearer the centre of the city and provided the basis for the latest collection. The museum’s current manager and owner, Kateřina Ebelová, also brought some of her own family history and collection of coffee paraphernalia to the exhibition. One of her ancestors was the founder of a company that prepared chicory coffee in the central Czech town of Čáslav at the start of the 1870’s before moving on to the production of mustard in the nearby city of Kutná Hora. Gaps in the collection have been filled in by trawls of flea markets and junk shops and a few donations.
The breadth of the museum is one attraction, another is an award winning café as part of the complex. This has helped make it a popular attraction for all ages as the museum’s manger’s daughter and café manager, Patricie, explains.
“Sometimes children from school and kindergarten come in to look at what their parents loved to drink and also the older people go, for example, to look at the coffee mills they know from their childhood.”
Within living memory, people brought their coffee as green beans and roasted it themselves in small home roasters and ground it in hand-held mills. The result was usually stored in decorative jars, sometimes alongside other spices.
Czechs cannot claim to be in the forefront of bringing coffee from Africa via Arabia to Europe in the 17th century. Venice can boast of bringing the Muslim drink to Europe. The first coffee house in Prague is believed to have been set up by a Turk and in its earliest days in Europe the drink was castigated as an unchristian, devilish, drink.
The bitter drink was also regarded as more of a medicinal treatment than refreshment with coffee being originally sold from pharmacies as a drug. The museum reflects some of that history.
“We have three beautiful pharmaceutical coffee jars which date from around 1890. Coffee was sold in small amounts, five to 10 grammes and was sometimes mixed with chicory because it was quite expensive. Czechs did not much like the taste at first because it was bitter and needed to be drunk with a lot of sugar or milk. But coffee houses soon became a centre of culture and a cultural phenomenon.”
Much of the museum highlights the different varieties of coffee on sale with Czech companies appearing to favour the chicory variety that could be grown on the fertile fields around the Elbe river in the centre of the country. Mrs. Ebelová again.
“It’s bitterness was used for coffee production. The chicory was grown, dried, roasted and the milled into a fine powder and then turned into bars which appeared like chocolate. The blocks could be boiled in water and milk and it could then be served. The result had a powerful stimulating effect and the taste was similar to coffee. Also, pricewise, it was quite affordable.”
Another, rarer, brew was fig coffee, which by all accounts made an excellent cup of coffee with a lot of the initial sweetness removed during the production process. This too was sold in bars with one such fig coffee bar on show in the museum. The museum’s manager has resisted the temptation to break the original packaging and test the theory about its taste. She admits to being a bit scared that it might not have survived the test of time and could inflict some unpleasant side effects.
An even rarer coffee and one of the museum’s prize exhibits is what can only be described as animal-flavoured coffee droppings. In fact, it is the undigested coffee bean rich droppings of the catlike Asian Palm Civet, sometimes known as the Sumatran civet with the results known in the local language as Kopi Luwak. Mrs. Ebelová bravely switches to English to recount her encounter with this prized coffee.
“This excrement from the Palm Civet, known as Kopi Luwak, is from Bali where I was last year in the summer. One kilogramme of this selected coffee costs about 1,000 dollars and one cup of coffee in a good hotel is between 500 and 600 crowns.”
One theory is that the enzymes from the mammal’s digestive tract add a certain flavour and aroma to the coffee. Another is that the cat is simply selective in the coffee beans it consumes leading to a nicer blend.
Adverts for coffee, whether as old enamel signs or figurines, also make up a substantial part of the museum. One particular advertising ploy under the First Czechoslovak Republic was to send favourite customers cardboard figures from which to make their own Bethlehem models at Christmas.
“The figures bringing gifts to the manger, not just the three Kings, but all of these bearers of gifts, are carrying substitute coffee. You can see them with small bags of coffee substitute in their arms, in this case from the company, Franck-Perola. Nowadays we have the impression that advertising is being pushed on us from all sides but its not true. Under the First Republic they had also discovered the magic of advertising.”
One coffee producer encouraged customers to copy the wisdom of the Czech philosopher Jan Comenius and select its brand. Advertising cards were produced by companies for all ages: cards with fairy tales for children, and biblical figures for the grown ups. Nothing, it seems, was sacred.
Coffee pots and containers; coffee mills in wood, metal and other materials; strainers, roasters, and large metal coffee containers populate many of the glass cases. The coffee container collection is particularly rich and bears testimony to the changes in artistic styles over the last decades of the 19th century and start of the 20th. Mrs. Ebelová again.
“Usually there were vegetable motifs and very often roses and other sorts of flowers and also the clover leaf motif was very popular. Also in the Art Nouveau or Jugendstil and Art Deco periods, graphical designs were very popular.”
The museum also boasts a few large industrial coffee roasters. While these are not used, a sideline of the museums coffee business is roasting coffee for a specialized chain of cafes in Prague. The amount varies between 60 and 150 kilogrammes a week depending on seasonal demand. The chief roaster, Jaroslav Světlík, was on hand at the museum, beside an almost 80 year old roasting machine.
“Today they don’t use coal or wood like they used to. The power is electrical and the heat is gas. The principle though is the same. It is like this roaster produced by the Probat company. It works in the same way just with different power and heat.”
The museum and café are open daily between 11 am and 6 pm, a garden is open in the summer. The internet address is www.coffeemuseum.cz. There is also room for temporary exhibitions, currently hosting a display about Masopust or carnival masks, as well as an exhibition of historical teddy bear toys going back more than a century. Appropriately enough, some of the toy bears are displayed drinking coffee.
The episode featured today was first broadcast on February 9, 2011.