It’s always a nice little anecdote when people talk about getting in touch with their heritage through food: feeling grandma’s influence in a tamale recipe or having a sourdough starter passed down through generations. I can’t say I’ve ever been propelled through ancestral space and time by food or drink—maybe because my own grandma’s signature dish was celery suspended in lime Jell-O. But that all changed when I went to a beer spa.
To be clear, my people have been in the US for a very, very long time (again, we are gelatin enthusiasts). But sitting in a sauna and drinking from a stein roughly the circumference of my thigh, I felt the approval of my Finnish ancestors flood my very open pores. From everything I’ve read, those Nords are big believers in knocking back a few cold ones while sitting in cedar-lined toaster ovens.
The sauna was the first of the three-part spa experience I had at Piva Beer Spa in Chicago. I have a running list of spa treatments I like to suggest to a friend of mine for a podcast we’ll never actually record. He hates being touched and spending money on himself; the podcast is called Self Scare. In the name of field research, I went to Piva.
What is a beer spa?
The first thing I want to emphasize is that this is not some sort of scammy, beer-themed bro bathhouse where you’re putting cold bottle caps over your eyes instead of cucumber slices or having beer cans rolled over your back as a massage. (Although these are both good ideas and I will sell them to the right entrepreneur.)
A beer soak is actually an ancient practice from Eastern Europe, especially in the Czech Republic. For centuries, people have soaked in oak hot tubs full of beer in the name of stress release, better skin, and detoxing. There’s even medical evidence to back up the claims: Extracts from barley, hops, and yeasts “have been shown to possess various anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative, anti-angiogenic, anti-melanogenic, anti-osteoporotic and anti-carcinogenic effects.”
When I arrived at the spa mid-afternoon, I was led by the owner to the locker room and given a purple waffle-weave robe (classy!). I was offered either a beer or water (lol) and led to the sauna.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with my beer at this point: Was I supposed to risk it getting warm while I schvitzed? My limited knowledge of Finland told me this should be fine. They are known enthusiasts of: beers both in and out of the sauna, training some of the finest goaltenders in hockey, and having prime ministers who look cool as hell at music festivals (I would date this entire country!).
More importantly, the wooden beer stein was built for the sauna; it remained easy to grip while my palm got sweatier by the second. That’s just practical self-care. [Ancestral approval intensifies.]
Next step was the steam room—where I did forgo bringing my beer in with me—and then on to the main event: the half-hour beer soak.
What it feels like to soak your whole body in beer
Before I got in (and got a refill on the Urquell) the owner ran down the list of benefits of a beer soak again, along with the bath’s ingredients, which in addition to being 15-20% Czech beer included B vitamins, saccharides, yeast, herbs, and hops. He told me not to shower for at least two hours after the soak to fully let the beer work its magic, then plopped a complimentary CBD bath bomb into the 98-degree liquid. [Ancestral confusion deepens.]
The wooden tub mimicked my stein, like I was coddled within a boozy Russian nesting doll. On a little table to my right was a summery cheese tray that included strawberries, grape tomatoes, watermelon cubes, and cucumbers. The photos I’d seen online showed a fat soft pretzel, and frankly I was glad that was missing. That could take it too far into the tacky, overly themed beer territory. (Okay, last idea for that sort of spa, though: a head-massaging beer helmet).
Let me address a few questions my friends had for me, which I assume readers also have:
- The bath did not really have a strong beer smell, maybe just a hint of hops.
- It didn’t feel carbonated or bubbly, either, just really smooth. More like a flat, medium-bodied beer.
- No, it did not bother my extremely sensitive skin. In fact, my skin absolutely felt even a little better afterward, and slightly softer.
- It did not give me a yeast infection. (This was the most common question.)
On my way out I thanked the owner profusely and strolled down the street in a bit of a haze. Maybe it was the two giant pilsners with little more than a light cheese tray in me, but I did legitimately feel deeply relaxed for several hours after leaving. Keep your milk baths, Cleopatra—we’ll take a seat in the suds.