There's nothing like a cold beer at the end of the day to ease those stresses and strains. The small Chodovar brewery in West Bohemia has taken the healing power of beer to the next level - and opened the world's first medicinal beer spa. But does a "beer bath" really have healing properties - or is it just a publicity stunt for the beer industry?
There are dozens of spas in west Bohemia, but none quite like this one, where the active ingredient of the spa is beer. I'm sitting in a huge metal tub, in a combination of mineral water, beer, hops and yeast, all mixed together. The spa's owners claim that this has medicinal properties, and that sitting in this combination of water and beer is actually good for you. With me is the general manager of the spa, Mojmir Prokes. Whose idea was it to build a beer spa?
"Last year we built a hotel here, with 90 beds, and we wanted to give the guests a good service. So we tried to create a wellness centre here."
Does it really have medicinal properties? Is it really good for you?
"It's really good. We work with a doctor, and I can say it's very good for the skin and for the hair."
"You have a bath of mineral water. The mineral water comes from a very good spring, 6km from here, and then we add 8 to 10 litres of special bath beer."
Bath beer - what exactly is bath beer?
"Bath beer is a special sort of dark beer produced in our family brewery Chodovar.
This is beer that you can drink as well?
"You can drink this beer, it's very good. But here in the baths it's warm, so it's not good to drink."
Of course, Czechs don't like drinking warm beer, they prefer cold beer, unlike the English...I should explain that at the head of the bath there's a huge brass tap, and that's where the beer comes from. Ah - now the beer has arrived. This is a very important part of the cure, not only to lie in a vat full of beer, but also to drink it as well. So this is a glass of Chodovar lager?
So I should sit in this bath for 25 minutes, just enjoy it I suppose, and relax.
"Yes, that's it. We want guests to enjoy it, to take a break, to drink, and to speak with friends."
The beer spa was a highly pleasant experience, but I still wasn't convinced it wasn't all a highly elaborate joke. So I went to see one of the people who came up with the idea in the first place, Chodovar's chief brewer Jiri Plevka.
"No, it's not a joke. The idea to take the beer as a mixture in the bath is very old - it came from ancient Rome - and everybody knows it's really healthy."
How can it be healthy? Beer makes you fat. Alcohol isn't good for you. How can bathing in beer and then drinking it be good for your health?
"Beer is known as a healthy thing because of vitamins. Beer contains a B complex, and that's very good for the skin. In our beer spa the bath doesn't only contain beer, it's 50 percent mineral water too. The mineral water is very good for people with high blood pressure, and the beer mixed with the water is very good for the skin. And finally the hops in the beer are good for relaxing the body."
"It was the dream of many men, this beer bath, to swim in beer, and now it's reality. But it's not a joke, and I think it's a very good thing to also take women along too. I think women will also be very interested in this health procedure, for their skin."
Claims like that have been met with anger and disbelief by those who are trying to get Czechs to consume less, not more beer. Among them is Dr Karel Nespor, one of the country's leading anti-alcohol campaigners.
"This so-called beer spa is heavily financed by the alcohol industry, and we in Czech have a proverb that 'the bread you eat, the song you will sing'. So this information is heavily biased. This humbug is a public relations exercise by the beer industry."
You're saying there are no medical facts behind this.
"Well, I have no problems with warm water. I have no problems with a spa. I even have no problems with beer. But I have problems with the alcohol in beer. So if this beer spa was alcohol-free, it wouldn't be a problem for me. But the alcohol is the problem, and it's a problem not only in the Czech Republic, but all over the world, including Great Britain."
Beer is so much part of Czech culture though. Beer has been so important in building the Czech identity. Surely your voice is very much in the minority.
"You think tradition is an excuse - before the war, Czech alcohol consumption was one third of present alcohol consumption. So it is nothing to do with tradition. Besides, there are no Czech breweries any more, there are South African breweries in the Czech Republic! So I don't think there are many reasons for national pride. More like reasons for national shame."
So you won't be visiting the beer spa then?
"Definitely not. I'm afraid that after some time we might be treating former patients of this beer spa, here at our alcohol clinic. I've met many people with severe skin problems, skin diseases, unsuccessfully treated by top medical specialists. But when they stopped drinking alcohol, their skin conditions improved. So, abstinence is much better for the skin than beer."
For Karel Nespor, beer is the problem. For Jiri Plevka, beer is the solution - for everything from high blood pressure to dry skin. Who knows who's right. But one thing's for certain. The Czechs still lead the world in per capita beer consumption, and they're not going to become teetotallers any time soon.
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