In the homeland of pilsners, therapy equals—what else?—a bath in beer.
By Evan Rail
Deep in an underground chamber, wrapped in a damp white sheet, I thought I caught a familiar scent in the air just as a jet of hot water was poured over my body. Not Cascade, not Simcoe, not Saaz. Could those be Hallertauer hops?
“They’re a blend of organic Hersbrucker and Spalter Select hops from Germany, mixed with our own St. Thomas house beer,” said the spa director, Dita, as her assistant doused me with another blast of hot water. And then, a mixture of the aromatic Noble hops, sticky dark lager and a hearty scoop of refreshingly abrasive bath salts was rubbed all over my legs and back—a beery full-body scrub that lasted well over an hour, in a modern Turkish bath located inside Prague’s opulent five-star Augustine hotel.
Mixing beers and bathing might sound crazy, but in the Czech Republic beer baths are a full-scale trend. In mid-2006, the Chodovar brewery in Chodová Planá, not far from the German border, opened the country’s first beer bath, employing a certified spa therapist to soak tourists in a blend of the brewery’s beers, Czech Saaz hops and brewer’s yeast. About a dozen more beer baths have cropped up around the country, offering everything from simple dip-in-and-dip-out affairs to luxuriant spa treatments. In the country’s north, close to the Polish border, the Novosad Glassworks and Brewery installed its own beer baths. In the east, the Zámek Zábreh hotel offers an upscale beer bathing experience in a restored 16th-century castle. And in Czech’s Gothic-spire-capped capital, beer-loving travelers can wash off the trail dust in a treatment that must be the pinnacle of Czech beer bathing: the Augustine’s lavish two-hour, beer-based body scrub and massage.
The combination of suds and, well, suds isn’t so surprising after all: Every year, the Czech Republic achieves the world’s highest per capita beer consumption, downing about 160 liters (338 pints) for every Czech citizen, and the country is revered as the home of such immortal brewing names as pilsner and Budweiser. In addition, the Czechs have a long tradition of curative baths dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, when Old World aristocrats, luminaries and their entourages journeyed to historic spa towns like Karlovy Vary (usually known by its German name of Carlsbad) and Mariánské Lázne (a.k.a. Marienbad) to bathe in the waters to treat ailments such as rheumatism, respiratory disease and headaches. Combine beer culture with spa culture, and boom—you’re soaking in it.
But other than its tangible “wow” appeal, what possible benefit could you get from bathing in beer?
“The hops are to detoxify the body and intensify the power of the body scrub,” said Dita, as I relaxed after the treatment with a pint of the hotel’s house brew. “When the steam opens the pores, the skin absorbs the minerals from the beer. And with the aroma of the beer and hops, it’s aromatherapy as well; it works from the outside in and from the inside out.”
At the Augustine, the experience feels almost spiritual, not least because the place was once a beer-producing Augustinian monastery and remains, in part, one today. Several monks still live and pray in a separate building complex on the hotel grounds. The house brew is made from a recipe that dates back to the origins of its monastic brewing tradition: It’s a rich, spicy black lager that spread a healthy warmth throughout my body, though that feeling might have been caused by the scrub and massage.
It’s not just that beer is beneficial for the skin, I learned upon visiting the city’s Pivní Lázne Zoto (Zoto Beer Baths), a year-old arrival located on a quiet cobblestone lane in Prague’s Old Town.
“The hops also do wonders for the hair,” said Olesya, Zoto’s therapist, as she led me to one of the barrellike hot tubs. “The whole body is helped by the treatment. It’s a unified system. The bubbles massage the skin and open the pores, and the hops detoxify and purify the body.”
Zoto is a boutique spa that specializes in beer baths, and every aspect of the treatment’s very carefully considered, from the temperature of the water—warm, but not so hot as to kill the living yeast cells—to the temperature of the beer being served. Not only would I be bathing in what was effectively a hop-and-yeast soup, but Olesya encouraged me to drink several mugs of the hoppy pale lager from Budvar, a.k.a. the Czech Budweiser (and some may say the original Bud), during my soak. The offering was Budvar’s 5%-ABV premium lager, rather than the more common 4%-ABV brew. “The stronger beer provokes the function of the liver,” she explained, noting that it was tapped at exactly 10 Celsius, or about 50 Fahrenheit, a few degrees warmer than the typical pub serving temperature, so as to not appear too cold in the tub.
At Zoto, I spent exactly 25 minutes in the warm, bubbly water, which turned deep green and turbid with the yeast and hops. As time passed, the hoppy aroma grew more concentrated and much stronger, and it became nearly impossible to catch the scent of the lager I was sipping. Absolutely everything smelled like hops, including just about every part of me.
Once the bath was finished, Olesya wrapped me back up in crisp white towels and directed me to a hay-filled, four-poster bed in a quiet room. She spread more clean sheets over the hay and instructed me to lie down, where I was covered with a blanket and left alone to snooze on a mattress of hay while the lights were dimmed. If you do try a beer bath, be prepared to clock out for at least part of your shift. Both times I found myself almost hypnotically exhausted toward the end. At the Augustine, you’re advised to take beer treatments later in the day.
“It’s nice to do it in the evening, because the beer can make you very tired and ready for sleep,” Dita told me.
Perhaps. But in the homeland of pilsner brewing, beer is not just for bathing, and the wonderful aromas of a Czech beer bath can also make you very thirsty and ready for another. Remember: Only part of the therapy is topical, functioning from the outside in. The rest of the modern Czech beer cure? It works from the inside out. •
Need a sudsy sojourn? Consider the beery dips at these five Czech spas.
The Augustine Hotel and Spa
Letenská 12/33, Prague
Beer-based body scrub and massage: $211
Pivní Lázne Zoto Masná
5 Prague 1, Old Town
Beer bath: $66
Pivovarska 107, Chodová Planá
Beer bath: $33
Novosad Glassworks and Brewery
Harrachov 95, Harrachov
Beer bath: $38
Zámek Zábreh hotel and brewery
U Zámku 42/1, Ostrava
Beer bath: $71