Wake Up and Smell the Coffee: Prague’s Bitcoin Café Revolution

There’s change brewing in the City of Spires.  
Paralelni Polis Cafe Prague
There’s no cash register at Bitcoin Coffee: the Prague eatery has abandoned traditional currency to become the world’s first bitcoin-only cafe. The staff goes out of their way to ensure customers learn how to use bitcoins with ease. Photo courtesy Paralelni Polis

Despite turbulences and steward interruptions, I am usually fairly good at catching a nap mid-air. Not this time though. On my flight to Prague, I was wide awake and restless. It was my first time in the city and I was keen to explore its baroque architecture, Gothic churches, and looming castles. And yet, it was the younger, trendier neighbourhoods, lined with edgy cafes and art galleries that I gravitated towards during my trip. One such neighbourhood, called Dělnickái, is home to Paralelni Polis or the “Institute of Cryptoanarchy”: a charcoal black building, with a cafe that accepts payments exclusively in bitcoin. I’d read about the cafe on the in-flight magazine to Prague, and was intrigued enough to note of the name and address.

Bitcoin are a digital currency that allows movement of money between persons without an intermediary, such as a bank. (Here’s a handy video that breaks it down.) Some believe it’s the future, while others that are convinced that it will lead to financial anarchy. My knowledge on the subject was limited. I remember reading about how it was the currency of choice for drug purchases on Silk Road, an online black market, but I knew little more.

Paralelni Polis Prague

Paralelni Polis or “parallel world” was started by guerilla art group Ztohoven for the hacker community, but welcomes all. Photo: Rob Ware/Flickr/ Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

Established by a group of hackers and artists, Paralelni Polis is a library and a co-working space, intended as a meeting place for techies and thinkers interested in modern technology. The aim of the institute is “to make available tools for unlimited dissemination of information on the Internet and encouraging a parallel decentralised economy, crypto currencies and other conditions for the development of a free society in the 21st century.”

The philosophy of Paralelni Polis is embodied in its café, Bitcoin Coffee.

A couple stood outside, reclining against the wall, chatting softly while smoking and sipping espressos. They seemed like regulars at the café. Inside, I found the place was minimally furnished. There was a sense of openness to the decor, and the seating was arbitrarily laid out, adding a touch of disjointedness.

But something was amiss. There was no cash register, no queue to order coffee, just a long wooden table with a coffee dispenser, pastries, bread and cookies, and jugs of cucumber-lemon water. Sensing my disorientation, the girl standing outside the cafe came to my aid. She was the barista.

“You want coffee?” she asked with a certainty of someone who had seen this confusion many times before.

I nodded.

“Do you have bitcoins?” she asked.

I didn’t. I didn’t even know how to buy them.

“No problem. I will help you. Do you have a smartphone?” She asked before helping me download Bitcoin wallet app. “So, there are two ways,” she explains. “You can buy online from this app, or from an ATM here.”

I picked the ATM simply, which landed up looking pretty conventional. Above us, a blue screen flashed the latest Bitcoin exchange rate. “So that you can check how much you are paying in the old currency,” explained

Old currency, that’s what I carried in my pocket.

I ended up buying 8.99 mBTC (1,000 mBTC = 1 bitcoin), tantamount to 100 CZK (₹300).  The coffee cost me 8.81 mBTC and I was left with 0.18 mBTC in my digital wallet. And just like that, I now had a stake in the parallel world of virtual currency.

“What do I do with the leftover bitcoins?” I ask.

“Well, you can top it up and use it at other places in Prague. There are more than 80 places that accept Bitcoin,” the friendly barista says. I later learned that she receives her salary in digital currency.

Makers Lab Food Mould

MakersLab, the 3D printing centre at Paralelni Polis, hosts workshops that encourage people to try things, such as creating quirkily shaped food using the in-house 3D-printer. Photo courtesy MakersLab/Paralelni Polis

The popularity of Bitcoin is rising in the Czech Republic. In Prague, brick-and-mortar businesses too have begun to accept the currency, including a number of restaurants and cafes (see box below). Crypto-currency, I learned, was being used by regular folk too, not just libertarians, and it was gaining momentum around the world. Research revealed that I could go pub-hopping in London paid for solely through Bitcoin. Even Expedia, the online travel site, allowed payments for hotel bookings in this digital currency.

I sipped my strong, frothy cup of coffee, thanked the girl for her help, and sat on a canister of a stool with “paracetamol” stamped over it. Before me, was a table made of recycled honeycombed cardboard. A 3D printer sat in the middle of the room, and guests were encouraged to examine it. A few feet away, the boy from outside sat in a corner, absorbed with his laptop, bulky headphones covering his ears. A few others were having an animated discussion in another corner.

This could be any café in any city, but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was amidst a silent revolution. Unknown to me, a culture was shaping around the world, and I was glad to have been introduced to it. Perhaps one day, the driving forces behind crypto-currency will come out of the shadows, and maybe one day they will alter the way in which our society works. And it will all start with a cup of coffee.

Bitcoin Coffee Dělnická 43, 170 00 Praha 7; +420 725 538 249; www.paralelnipolis.cz/o-nas/kontakt/.

Where to use Bitcoin in Prague

There are over 80 establishments in Prague that accept bitcoins, and the number is only increasing. Use the map tool at coinmap.org to keep track for a complete list. Places that accept bitcoins usually bear this symbol pictured on the right:

Here are some restaurants in Prague that accept Bitcoin: 

In addition to Bitcoin Coffee, some other cafes that accept bitcoin:

The staff at Bitcoin Coffee is extremely friendly, so do speak to them about Bitcoin. If you are lucky, you may even get a tour of the Institute of Cryptoanarchy.

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    Nitin Chaudhary is an adrenaline rush-seeking travel writer who lives in Malmo, Sweden. He hopes to travel the world in a boat.

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