I’m deep inside the Széchenyi Thermal Baths in Budapest, a sprawling 67,000-square-foot menagerie of heated indoor and outdoor pools and baths, encased in Neo-Baroque architecture. Despite the grandeur, I’m feeling slightly naked while wrapped in my bath towel and swim trunks.
Snaking through the private changing cabins, the scent hits me: Is that hops I smell? Perhaps a hint of Czech Saaz floating in the air? Climbing the stairs up to the Thermal Beer Spa, a new offering at Széchenyi, the smell gets stronger. I enter and realize I’ve found my nirvana.
Mixing beer and bathing is not new. Visitors to cities like Prague would note that it is a full-scale trend in the Czech Republic, and similar spas have opened in Austria and Germany. But in Budapest, Hungary—a city and country known more for hearty red and crisp white wines—“taking the waters” usually means soaking in large, warm pools with more traditional “suds.”
Blessed with over 100 natural hot springs, Budapest residents have used thermal baths for treating ailments since Roman times. Thermal spas like Széchenyi dot the city—Király Baths, Rudas Baths, Lukács Baths, Gellért Baths, to name a few—each with its own architectural style. Budapest’s intellectuals and wealthy residents mixed with citizens of all types at the city’s famed spas in the late 1800s, the height of Budapest’s cultural reign.
With a bon viveur love, Hungary ranks near Germany and the Czech Republic for per capita alcohol consumption, and the country is well supplied with large breweries like Dreher and Soproni. And with the rise of craft beers in Budapest these last few years, perhaps the merging of beer and bath is not a surprise.
Yet, one must wonder: Besides the novelty of soaking in beer, what are the benefits?
“The water helps your skin and cleans pores,” said Ágnes Deák, manager of the Thermal Beer Spa. “Also, the malt, hops, and yeast are high in vitamin B and important oils.”
Ádám, Ágnes’ assistant, begins to fill the handmade wood tub with 96 degree water and shows me some of the ingredients he’s preparing for the bath. “We use a light malt, nicely scented hops, and an active yeast to go with some minerals,” he says, stirring some into the water. “The heat will open your skin, helping it absorb the vitamins and minerals. The malt is sweet, so you do not smell like beer when you leave the spa. Most say when they leave the spa that their skin feels much softer.”
After Ádám mixes the ingredients into the water, he adds a full mug of Czech beer from the tap next to the water. I climb over the side of the barrel-shaped tub and ease myself in. Light pop music begins wafting from the speakers, and I can feel my muscles, tight from an eight-hour overseas coach flight, begin to rubberize.
Besides the benefit to skin and muscles, a soak in beer can benefit the hair even more. Europeans have known this for generations, but it was Jackie Kennedy who brought the idea stateside in the early 60s after her hairdresser revealed she rinsed Mrs. Kennedy’s hair with beer to give it more body. The same vitamins and proteins that benefit skin strengthen hair by closing the cuticle (outer layer of the hair) and bonding to the hair shaft. The result is hair that is smoother, shiner, and fuller.
If it’s good for Jackie O, it’s good for me. Sitting in my hoppy malt yeast soup of a bath, I pour a full mug of lager—bathers are able to take advantage of all-you-can-drink beers from a tap in between each tub. With a deep breath I pour the beer over my hair, quickly gasping for air as the cold beer runs through my hair and down my front and back. I’m strangely energized and relaxed at the same time as I lean back, nibbling on some Hungarian snacks and taking some gulps of the beer which, although perfectly cold, spreads some warmth as it makes its way through my body.
Spending about 45 minutes in the tub, I’m soothed by sipping a great lager along with the light bubbles, allowing the hoppy aroma to consume me as I breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth. I am, quite literally, in head-to-toe beer, and enjoying every blessed somniferous moment.
Once the bath was finished, I carefully climb out of the tub (three beers and a hot water soak should elicit caution). Wrapped in the crisp towel, I settle into hypnotic exhaustion, curiously refreshed yet ready for an afternoon nap. Ádám and Ágnes greet me again, smiling slightly at what I can only imagine is a goofy, enervated look on my face.
“The beer and water can make you tired,” Ádám mentions. “The spa is good to do in the evening, because it can make you very relaxed and ready for a good sleep.”
But I must collect my strength. Across the street awaits Főzdefeszt, Budapest’s premiere craft beer festival. I eventually leave, wrapped in a sweet malt aroma and fully aware that a trip to the Széchenyi Thermal Beer Spa can make you very thirsty for more.