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Hop Baths and Hay Beds: Inside Chicago’s New Beer Spa

January 14, 2019

By Sarah Freeman, January 14, 2019

I had a feeling this day would come. One can only edit a beer site for so long before inevitably winding up neck-deep in a tub of warm beer. It wasn’t a horrible accident that landed me here, floating in a pool of fresh hops. I knew what I was signing up for when I reached out to Dino Sarancic, co-owner of the recently opened Piva Beer Spa in Chicago.

Beer spas are relatively common in Europe, especially in the Czech Republic, where guests soak in beer extracts, relax in hop saunas, and lay in beds of hay set in front of a warm fireplace. But they are a very new phenomenon in the States. As far as Sarancic knows, Piva is the second beer spa in the country. Oregon’s Hop in the Spa is the first. The idea to open Piva came after his father, Edin Sarancic, spent a month spa-hopping through Europe. His favorite was a beer spa in Prague. Piva not only takes inspiration, but also imports its line of beer-infused products, from that very spa.

“Chicago needs something like this. Apparently, we’re the brewery capital of the U.S,” Sarancic says, adding that his spa, which he co-owns with his father, tweaks the European model for an American clientele. “In the Czech Republic they have barrels of hay that you lay in. Instead of just making a room with barrel of hay and whatnot, we built out wooden beds and filled them with hay. We took some of the things American people would be skeptical of and repopulated, repurposed it like that. The beer spa in Prague that [my father] went to is obviously a lot larger—it’s bare bones compared to what we’ve got going on. Everybody when they first hear about a beer spa, they are like, ‘What is that?’ But every time people walk by, I can see everyone is intrigued, but I’m not sure they know exactly what it is.”

I can count the number of spas I’ve visited in one hand and, in my experience, they all start with the same awkward song-and-dance of getting the customer into a robe. At Piva, you’re welcomed into a wood-accented lobby (you will soon notice that wood is a recurring theme here) with a leather couch, reception desk, and glass display case filled with beer-infused lotions, soaps, and scrubs. The locker rooms are downstairs. And it’s there where guests are given a white robe and one-size-fits all rubber sandals.

Once I don my spa-ware, Sarancic takes me to the the halotherapy room. Imagine a sitting in a warm igloo, bathed in a blue-green glow, except the walls, floor, and ceiling are not covered in snow—they are covered with salt. The treatment purportedly releases ionized salt particles into the air, and halotherapy enthusiasts claim that it can treat respiratory conditions and boost the immune system. Whether or not that’s true, it’s mostly just relaxing.

After getting fully Zen in the igloo room, I take a few minutes in the sauna (guest can also use the extra steamy steam room) before moving downstairs for the main event. Each soaking room features two wooden tubs that look like French foudre barrels. They are filled with a combination of barley, hops, and brewer’s yeast. According to Sarancic, each ingredient comes with its own set of benefits, from the anti-inflammatory properties of hops to the moisturizing miracles of barley. The protein found in beer may even make your hair shinier, if you’re willing to dunk your head into the murky waters of the beer bath.

Like many of Piva’s guests, I arrived with a fair amount of skepticism. But this is a spa, after all. It’s difficult to not feel at ease in the wood-paneled soaking room, where the dim lighting and the warm water of the bath are soothing enough to make even the most tightly wound beer editor feel perfectly at ease. The soak itself doesn’t smell like beer. Instad, it’s mostly floral with hints of earthiness and circus from the hops and the occasional—and less soothing—waft of damp musk from the beer.

To round out the experience, each soak comes with a plate of cheese and bread as well as a pint of Czech pilsner, appropriately served in a wooden mug. As Piva continues get its bearings, Sarancic is working on finalizing a liquor license that will allow him to partner with a local brewery to provide beer for the baths and for guests to drink. “My initial thought was, ’Let me find a brewery to install the kegs and all that, so we can funnel [beer] straight into the tubs,’” Sarancic says. “We’ve even thrown around the idea of brewing our own beer.” For now, he’s satisfied offering a bit of European luxury in the middle of Chicago.

Before I leave, I'm treated to a beer face mask while I lie in the aforementioned hay bed, which is covered in some very soft blankets so it's only marginally itchy. Sarancic recommends not showering for two hours after the soak in order to let the beer work its magic on my skin. And sure enough, my skin does feel pretty soft as I return to the world of deadlines and doldrums, the scent of hops still clinging to me long after I’ve gone.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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