[S]tanding in EMA Espresso Bar during its rush hour, I need a minute to find a place to sit in Prague’s newest favorite café. As I look, the three baristas are arrayed behind the bar like a row of soldiers, taking orders and preparing drinks with Spartan efficiency. There’s no end to the queue, but every order is fulfilled with a smile. The two baristas working espresso are like a Formula 1 crew, as a three-group La Marzocco Strada hums its tune amid the hard-working burrs of two espresso grinders, a Mahlkönig K30 and Anfim Caimano. Each has its own coffee. Today the German roaster Johannes Bayer in in the Mahlkönig and Denmark’s Coffee Collective in the Anfim. The third barista cares for the filtered coffee. Aeropress and V60 are offered, with coffee ground on a Mahlkönig Tanzania.
I find a seat and soon Kamil Skrbek, EMA’s owner, joins me. “EMA is not the classic example of a Czech café; we went in the direction of London espresso bars,” he says. “The concept is primarily take-away focused, seating is mainly at a large community table. The idea is that EMA should create a space for meeting others. That’s also why we don’t have a Wi-Fi connection. Be here for the while.”
That dual focus on creating a quick-stop café and one ideal for meeting friends or colleagues is on full display. What’s remarkable about the crowd is that the café is not even two years old. It opened in the summer of 2013. Last year, it won the Best Café award in the prestigious Czech Bar Awards.
“The fact that EMA got successful so soon after its opening is a surprise as well as a reward for our hard work,” says Kamil. “We believed we’d chosen the correct location for the café, close to a center and also based on the plans developers have for this quarter. The busy street in front of the café should in the future transform into a boulevard with parks and benches, but we thought we would have to wait a bit longer for the public to get interested in our café.”
EMA takes its name from a girl’s name that is often used for short rhymes in Czech primer books. The choice is not accidental. The café resides in a Czech Academy of Science building that it shares, among others, with the Institute of the Czech Language. So when Kamil joined forces with the architect Pavel Griz and designer Lucie Trnková, who also operates Prague’s great I Need Coffee! café, they decided to work delicately with the space. The result honors the functionalism of the building and its details recall a classroom, such as the school chairs familiar to customers of several generations.
I ask if the café works as a study hall on the subject of specialty coffee. Kamil laughs. “We hope EMA is considered a place where the customer could always taste something new. We try to import new, interesting coffees from roasters all over the world, but we don’t want to force anybody or be preachy. For us coffee is mostly about joy, and the same should be true for others.”
Kamil enjoys his role as a café owner, and his success is a confirmation of his qualities. EMA Espresso Bar is the younger sibling of a well-established and successful Viennese-style café named Café Lounge. “We opened Lounge basically out of necessity,” says Kamil. “Our family rents houses and apartments, and in one of apartment buildings we wanted to give the tenants a quiet place to eat breakfast and enjoy coffee. So we opened Café Lounge. Because it was successful, we decided to open a bit of a different concept, one fully focused on coffee that will allow the baristas to fully realize their potential and show others their love for coffee.”
Kamil looks to the bar and calls over head barista Adam Neubauer, the Czech Republic’s representative at the 2012 World Barista Championship in Vienna. (Update: A few days after this story was posted, Adam won the 2015 Czech Republic Barista Championship.)
Their conversation sparks with good humor. After watching Adam so focused at the bar, I hesitate to interrupt their loose moment. Then Adam brings me into the conversation, saying, “This is why I like EMA: it’s playful and we have a nice released atmosphere on both sides of the bar. The differences disappear here and students are standing next to managing directors and parents with prams.”
I return the question whether EMA is a school for specialty coffee and ask Adam if he feels like a teacher in a lecture hall: “The coffee quality in Czech Republic as a whole goes steeply up,” he says. “This doesn’t place us into the role of teachers, but instead gives us the task to learn ourselves and bring only the best to the customers who expect high quality here. We can definitely do this thanks to our contact with world roasters. For example, I’m always pleased when coffees from the Munich-based roaster Johannes Bayer return to our grinder.”
I could talk with both of them much longer, and with joy, but another wave of customers comes, so I retreat to my place and watch the elegant fluency of the EMA espresso bar team as they care for another long line of customers.
—Jaroslav Slámecka is a barista and blogger based in Prague.