This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
I’ve had quite a few pints in my life. Be it light or dark, bitter or sweet, a fizzy 5 percent or a starker 9 percent, beer has always been my favourite drink. So when I heard that there are places in the world where you can not only drink beer but bathe in it, my interest was piqued. One of them, Belgium’s first beer spa, just opened in the heart of the capital, and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to try it.
Founders Bart De Brabanter and Louis Raes decided to devote themselves to this new passion project after returning from a trip to the Czech Republic, where this spa concept has been going strong for years. The duo previously worked in finance and in holiday rentals and knew virtually nothing about beer making or the wellness industry, but they didn’t let that stop them. Combining drinking and relaxation, their brainchild Bath & Barley opened its doors in May 2021.
“Czech beer culture is different, it’s more about producing pilsner in large quantities,” Raes said. “In Belgium, we have a whole universe of beers and more attention is paid to taste and textures.” While Czech beer spas are meant to be a bit of a “cheap and funny concept”, as Raes described it, he and his business partner wanted to “pull out all the stops with the spa experience” and offer guests high quality, locally sourced beer products.
Inside the spa, guests are invited to a hop-based scrub before hopping into the large tanks of brewing liquids butt naked. You can pick your favourite hop variety among three different options – a citrusy one called Cascade hops, perfect if you like IPA; a subtle and slightly spicier one, Hallertau hops, for those who are into straightforward tap beer; and the 7784, a local wild hop variety. The hops are then placed in a small bag, which you can use to exfoliate your skin all over your body.
“We buy the hops from a local farmer in Warneton, on the border between Hainaut and West Flanders [between the French and the Dutch part of Belgium],” Raes said. “The effects produced by the different types of hops are similar; the main difference is their scent.”
I asked Raes whether it was actually possible to drink the beer I was about to bathe in. Unfortunately, the answer was no. In fact, the tank – heated at 38°C – is not exactly a huge pint, but rather a mix of water and the ingredients used to make beer (yeast, hops and a bit of barely), a sort of beer prototype rather than the finished product. Disappointing, yes, but at least everything smelled really good – and was fizzy, like real beer.
The main component of the bath that is good for your skin is the yeast, composed of microscopic organisms. Hops, the preservative in beer, are also full of antioxidants. Hops are also part of the hemp and cannabis family, so they had a fairly relaxing effect on me; even a bit euphoric.
In addition to the tubs in the main room, you can also enjoy a mini-sauna that opens your pores up before taking the plunge. The spa is complete with a large hay sofa where you can come and rest in between your sessions of bathing and sweating.
But unlike other wellness establishments, this spa isn’t just about bodily purification. It also features personal beer dispensers for every guest, conveniently placed next to the tubs. Guests can freely refill their drinks whenever they want. On the tap is the Belgian lager Estaminet, rated nine out of ten by famous Flemish beerologist Sofie Vanrafelghem, as Raes explained. In order to fully appreciate the experience, I decided to go all out and have some fun, naked as a robin, pouring myself beers non-stop.
Half an hour into it, I already felt quite tipsy and a bit lonely. Out of curiosity, I asked if it was possible to consume a Cara Pils [a cheap local pilsner] to personalise my experience and was met with an outright refusal. "The only pilsner we have is the Estaminet on tap," Raes said. “It’s honestly the best pilsner in Belgium. We don’t really have any commercial deals or goals, that's what we like to drink.” Fair enough.
Although the concept might seem a bit blasphemous, beer has long been used in Belgian wellness routines. Belgian cloistered nuns swear by the golden liquid’s restorative properties for the scalp and have been shampooing their hair with malty, dark Dubbel-style beer – like Westmalle, for instance – for over 50 years. Indeed, they claim the beer helps to hydrate split ends and untangle your hair. The spa also offers a range of beer-based soaps, shampoos and other beauty products, some made in Belgium, others from the Czech Republic and the US.
Overall, I’d say the experience turned out to be a bit less relaxing than a traditional spa, but it was still very enjoyable, whether you come to rest, get drunk or learn a little more about the wellness benefits of beer. Note to myself: Don’t come during your lunch break unless you’re ready to go back to the office tipsy and smelling like lager.