a Warsaw tea cafe (credit and reference info here)
Rafał Przybylok making tea (photo credit Jadwiga Janowska)
Kate Bidzińska, a then-new member of the International Tea Talk group I'm an admin for, mentioned tea culture in Poland around a year ago. Part of that context was a bit odd, passing on a video link about the latest fad of "cheese tea" that had reached there. It never seemed to get far here in Bangkok; I saw that mentioned in an ad once and that was it.
Based in part on the popularity of that Youtube channel she mentioned, created by the Polish vendor Czajnikowy.pl, it seemed like there must be a thriving tea culture there. Not related to the cheese tea part so much, instead about that channel posting a lot of developed content. They also have more than 71,000 Youtube subscribers, more than any Western tea oriented channel I'm aware of.
After a couple of posts by her I didn't hear much more about it. Months later in checking on traffic stats something odd kept coming up: Poland became a main source of blog viewers. I was considering regional tea interest more related to India recently, an odd starting point on developing this subject of tea in Eastern Europe. In spite of posting a lot about Indian sourced teas, and small producer development, and India being an English speaking nation (making access to my writing easier), blog viewer traffic from India was always limited. Online discussion of tea beyond vendor promotion based out of India always seemed nearly non-existent, even though I'm in multiple Facebook groups where that's the main theme. I followed up discussing that context online, but eventually I wondered about that other special case of Polish tea interest, of why somewhere I didn't expect to find tea interest exhibited it, versus the opposite.
mid-August blog audience stats, with Poland in the top 5
I had been to Russia in the interim, and explored tea culture there a little, and had looked into early tea culture in East Germany, so some related background was familiar. But the interest in tea seemed out of proportion in Poland, at least related to that example of people there reading my own blog (or Polish bots?), and a vendor being that far along in terms of developing media content. This post is looks into that.
I'll let the people from there passing on input tell the story themselves. Kate agreed to help, and a shop I'd spoken to there did as well. Even better, those national tea celebrities at Czajnikowy.pl agreed to answer some questions, to fill in background. What follows is a limited look into tea history and current culture in Poland from that input. It's biased towards that one vendor source, a point I'll address at the end.
I'll bold my own framing and input to separate those two content types.
only indirectly related, this is what Warsaw looks like (photo credit)
What is the history of tea culture in Poland (a short version and general impression)?
Czajnikowy.pl: In Poland, tea is the third most popular drink and in terms of consumption we are even ahead of the Chinese [per-capita that could make sense, but I didn't check this].
Nonetheless, the beginning of tea was not that easy. It appeared in our country during the reign of King Jan Kazimierz, thanks to his wife Maria Ludwika. She began the habit of drinking tea in the royal court. At first, tea was introduced to pharmacies (as a medicament) just to become an everyday drink before long. At present, the Czechs and their tea rooms have influenced the culture of drinking tea in Poland. What does typical Polish tea look like? Some prefer ‘high voltage’ tea (tea with an alcohol), others choose tea served in old-fashioned glasses put in metal - or sometimes even crocheted- baskets, which are to act as handles. The latter option has its origins in a time of scarcity in Poland. However, this is the past now.
Just great; I won't need to be editing input presented like that. Kate and that one other shop I'd been in contact with passed on less developed answers to some of the questions, so I'll mix them in as they apply to this answer format.
Herbaty Czas shop (a small Warsaw tea shop): The tea culture in Poland was influenced a lot by our location in Europe. We first got tea from two directions: from Western Europe and from Russia. Therefore is it reflected in our language and the names of tea-related accessories. Sometimes we use the "chai" based words, sometimes we use the "tea" based words. For example a teapot or a tea kettle is called "czajnik" (chai-neeck) while tea itself is called "herbata" which comes from the combination of "herba+tea".
Herbaty Czas Warsaw shop tea selection (credit their FB page)
How many people seem to be interested in better quality orthodox tea versus tea bag or CTC / ground up tea?
Czajnikowy.pl: An average Pole nowadays drinks mostly black tea served in a mug, with addition of sugar and lemon. However, we, the Poles, are more and more interested in not only quality tea from around the world, but also in methods of its preparation according to exotic recipes. The function of tea is what we are getting more curious about. We wonder what role it plays in our lives. Is it a philosophy for us, like in Japan, an art, like in China, or maybe we associate tea with its social role, as it is in the Arabic countries? We drink tea more and more consciously, that is for sure.
Herbaty Czas shop: So people in Poland, historically, were familiar with both drinking tea made in teapots, using teacups etc, as well as using the Russian style "samovar." Nowadays, however, most people just use teabags as they are much more convenient, and they drink tea from mugs. Nowadays tea is not a beverage people think much about. They drink it cheap, always with meals or immediately after meals, not thinking much about where it came from or what meaning tea culture has to some people. Younger generations usually find drinking tea as out of fashion behaviour which is good for the elderly, but that might probably be the influence of mass media and advertising. The market for high quality orthodox tea is still so small that only a handful of businesses offer such tea. Many tea enthusiasts simply buy their tea overseas, directly from Asian manufacturers, or simply bring back their tea when they travel to Asia.
There's actually not as much contradiction in those two accounts as there might first seem. I'm familiar with a disconnect between popular culture / perception and a minority who embrace new forms of tea traditions from other places. Kate's input should help clarify that.
Kate Bidzińska: It’s always seemed to me that people in Poland prefer instant tea (tea bag versions) rather than loose leaf ones. Drinking instant tea after almost each meal is a very common habit in Polish homes. Among people I know there are still many who don't seem to care about the quality of tea. They like to drink ordinary tea from tea bags after dinner, treating it just as a warm drink. On the other hand there’s an increasing number of people who drink both loose leaf and instant green tea after they learned about its health benefits. I think the reason people choose instant tea is because they haven't tried the real tea brew, made from pure loose leaves. Another factor might be the price.
Personally I feel a bit sorry for people who haven't really experienced good quality tea. I still drink tea from tea bags but can't imagine life without loose teas, like Sencha and Gyokuro, black teas, pu'er, and white teas, especially Anji Bai Cha. It's a really pleasant and healthy addiction.
What origin of teas is most popular there (Sri Lankan, Chinese, Japanese, etc.)?
Czajnikowy.pl: It seems to me that the most popular is still Chinese and Indian black tea. However, more and more often we choose high quality Japanese green tea, as well as fresh teas from the province of Darjeeling.
Kate Bidzińska: In Poland you can find a large variety of teas, especially in specialty tea shops. Japanese, Chinese, Sri Lankan (Ceylon), Assam and many others. There are not only various blends but also pure organic loose leaf teas of many different strains and countries of origins. I think beginners usually choose aromatized / flavored or blended teas while those who get deeper into the subject usually tend to drink others. These include black teas, such as Earl Grey, English Breakfast Tea or Ceylon, and green teas such as Japanese Sencha or Chinese Gunpowder. Shou or ripe Pu-erh tea is also popular, especially among those who value its fat burning and weight-loss properties. Darjeeling teas seem to be valued by more advanced tea drinkers, usually tea enthusiasts rather than ordinary tea drinkers.
Herbaty Czas shop; a warm and cozy vibe (credit their FB page)
Which online channels or media sources seem to be spreading awareness and interest most (Facebook groups, YouTube channel, blogs, other)?
Czajnikowy.pl: In Poland there are numerous blogs about tea, but unfortunately they are pretty much like an impulse - they are not run regularly, but rather show up and often soon disappear. It is sad, but it’s not only a concern of the tea-themed blogs, but blogs in general. Presently, it is difficult for me to mention a regularly updated Polish YouTube channel, apart from this one we run ourselves (czajnikowy.pl). It is worth taking a look at our own text based blog, and some others: herbatniczek.wordpress.com, herbataiobiektyw.pl, piewcyteiny.pl, and herbacianynotes.wordpress.com.
Impressive, to me. I've seen only a couple of other tea blogs based out of Thailand (and I'm probably missing some due to not searching in Thai), a country that produces tea with a lot of Chinese cultural influence. Kate's answer is more a testimonial about that vendor's Youtube content:
Kate Bidzińska: In our country the most reliable video reference on tea is definitely Czajnikowy.pl, which is also available for international viewers because of English subtitles. The creators of Czajnikowy.pl - Patryk Płuciennik (the producer & editor) and Rafał Przybylok (the presenter & creator) are real professionals and huge tea enthusiasts. Plenty of knowledge is conveyed in every single video, great quality materials, based on an ability to convey the information in a coherent and attractive way. You can easily tell tea is their real passion. I have no doubt that their Youtube channel and website are the most reliable source of information on tea in Poland, or even beyond. I’d even dare to say their channel should be spread all over the world.
Rafał Przybylok (credit the Czajnikowy.pl site)
That guy in the videos (Rafal) does seem charismatic. It's hard for me to watch a lot of relatively intermediate level content, or video that's subtitled, so I never did get far with their videos, but that enthusiasm comes across at a glance.
Is there any corresponding "tea scene" there, or what form do cafes and other tea themed gatherings take? In some countries tea cafes seem to become popular, some of which might even resemble night clubs.
Czajnikowy.pl: In Poland, tea is often associated with the Orient, in the broad sense, thus also with smoking a water pipe. Therefore, to places like this, which somehow fulfill the requirements of such an ‘oriental’ venue, fans of leaf tea drop into most often. If you like such an atmosphere and oriental vibes, we recommend visiting places like “Czajnik” teahouse in Zabrze and Gliwice, “Czajownia” located in Kraków and Wrocław and many more. Just enter the word "herbaciarnia" (teahouse) into Google Maps and check the reviews. As Czajnikowy.pl, we constantly do our best to pass our passion to tea on other people, as well as introduce high quality tea to cafes and restaurants throughout Poland. You can find the list of premises in the menu czajnikowy.com.pl/o-nas/, which I recommend with a clear conscience.
Herbaciarnia Czajnik Zabrze (photo credit Wojciech Fesenko)
Kate Bidzińska: One of such places is a teahouse run by Rafał Przybylok, Herbaciarnia Czajnik Zabrze (by the creator and presenter of the Youtube channel Czajnikowy.pl). The teahouse is located in Zabrze, a town of Silesian province in Poland. It has a very interesting atmosphere, really cozy, with a variety of rooms with low tables and seats. Each room has interior design characteristic for a particular country such as Tibet, Japan, Arabia and many others.
Czajownia, a Krakow tea cafe that turned up online (photo credit and details)
Conclusions, and about the commercial side of tea culture
All of this turned out a bit biased towards that one vendor, but then it did use input from one of their fans as a starting point, and also from them. I'm sure other businesses are selling tea there, and providing related services, just maybe not on the same level for media content, or matching their online tea selection and cafe offerings. But glancing through those blog pages mentioned seems to indicate this is only a part of the story to be told. Even for being only a start it's interesting that Polish tea culture has progressed as far as it did. Broad demand for different types of tea may not have developed far but the rest is more than I would have expected.
If readers have more to share about tea culture in Poland (or elsewhere) I'd be happy to write a follow-up post filling in some of what I missed too. Looking me up here might work. Google search of the cafes there turned up interesting images, many of which aren't available in a downloadable format, so it might work just to do a later post about what I've missed in terms of visual references, or background.
I don't necessarily see the commercial side of tea as taking away from the rest about cultures varying and developing in different ways. Of course tea vendors are in it to earn income, beyond their own personal interest in tea. As long as that occurs in a way that's fair to the customer, that emphasizes value to them along with profit, there seems to be no conflict. I don't even mind paying a little more in local tea shops when helping with covering their overhead means that I could get equivalent teas for less online. Tea shops are good options to have, and need local support to stay in business.
Vendors inflating the quality level of teas they sell using descriptions that are essentially inaccurate, or selling teas as something they're not is a completely different thing. In some cases sellers might not really know what they have, or don't have, but in general that's not the main problem, at the medium to higher quality product level. In any case vendors are responsible for knowing the products they sell.
I've made no attempt to assess value versus online range of options for the Czajnikowy.pl vendor business that was at the center of this post. In a sense that's impossible to do without trying the teas; you can't match quality level to description and relative pricing without that step of experiencing the tea. This certainly isn't intended as a warning, just clarifying where this post stands related to being an endorsement, and how that range of issues works out in general. As I see it a vendor pricing on the low or high side of typical retail is still fair, and only in some extreme cases businesses go beyond that, moving on to misrepresentation.
Kate's assessment of that vendor is probably right; they probably are genuine enthusiasts who deal fairly with customers in promoting products and an interest they share. In general I recommend people explore options and a broad range of tea types and experiences on their own (just at a reasonable pace), to move beyond the guidance and sourcing from just one vendor to see what else is out there. Under the best circumstances this helps in appreciating just how valuable a resource that one source has been and will continue to be.
special thanks to Patryk Płuciennik for input (photo credit)