A beer lover gets scrubbed down with IPA-infused gels and creams in the middle of Costa Rican rainforest. 

beer spa treatment
Credit: Courtesy Tabacon

When I first received the invite to check out the new beer-infused body treatment at Costa Rica’s Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa, all I could imagine was a hot tub full of sticky, amber-hued IPA, bubbling away in all its resinous, fermented glory deep inside the rainforest. Don’t get me wrong, I love craft beer. I’m just used to enjoying my pint at the bar, not the bath house. So while in the name of journalism I accepted, I was a bit hesitant. Little did I know I’d be in for a very different—and markedly less messy—therapeutic experience.

Listed under the heading “For Men” but available to all genders, the 80-minute Kapi Kapi treatment promised a craft beer body wrap, an exfoliating and hydrating facial, and a private outdoor shower fueled by the sprawling 900-acre resort’s mineral rich hot springs. The brochure explains that Kapi Kapi translates to “pura vida,” Costa Rica’s carefree national motto, in Maleku, a local indigenous dialect. It’s also the name of the Double IPA that acts as the body wrap’s base material, produced in partnership with nearby brewery 5inco Amigos Cervecería and served at Tabacon’s many onsite bars alongside its less boozy predecessor, Tabacon IPAva. The potent 8.2%-ABV sipper is a tribute the classic ultra-hoppy West Coast style, balancing rounded notes of pine, citrus, and stone fruit with a full-bodied caramel malt backbone and a crisp, refreshing finish. But how did this bitter brew make its way out of the bottle and into a luxury skin rub?

“The spa is always looking to create new experiences that utilize tropical ingredients, local products, and align with industry trends,” says Tabacon spa manager Monica Sanabria. “We decided to explore the idea of bringing beverage innovation to the spa to extend the experience of the guests, who already love both of our signature brews.”

It’s true that craft beer is on the uptick throughout Costa Rica. According to the Association of Craft Brewers of Costa Rica, more than 100 independent breweries operate nationwide and the majority opened their doors in just the last five years. The country checks all the boxes when it comes to laying the foundation for a modern day craft boom: A laid-back, outdoorsy lifestyle; a proliferation of quality water sources; an investment in local gastronomy; and a reliable and rapidly growing tourism market. So it only makes sense that businesses would begin searching for other ways to capitalize on this red hot trend. What's more, hotels around the world have started harnessing the therapeutic powers of IPA (here are just a few resorts where you can take a bath in beer.)

beer spa treatment
Credit: Courtesy Tabacon

My treatment began not with a beer, as I’d secretly hoped, but with a fresh juice and a dip in the thermal hot tub to relax the muscles. I was then walked to a private cabana lined with palm fronds and facing an open jungle. It was late afternoon, and the dusky light seeping in through the lush green thicket was immediately calming. I was instructed to disrobe and lie face up on a massage table atop a thin layer of plastic wrap. With a chime of a bell the therapist reappeared and began readying her arsenal of beer-spiked products—gels, scrubs, and lotions of varying textures and aromas. She then carefully applied a reddish-orange jelly-like substance all over my body, fully coating my arms, legs, stomach, back and neck. It smelled strange yet pleasant, an earthy-sweetness laced with stewed plums, prunes, spiced orange, and pears poached in red wine. It felt slick but not sticky, with a cool, velvety consistency like dipping your finger in a can of fresh paint.

The beer was present but subtle, welcoming and not at all aggressive. She then brought up the plastic wrap I’d been lying on and folded it over each of my limbs methodically until it encased my entire body. For the next 30 minutes or so, I lay swaddled, feeling not unlike a warm PB&J stuffed into a forgotten sandwich baggy (in the most relaxing way possible), while she massaged my head to a lulling backdrop of croaking frogs, rushing water, and bird calls.

By the time she started to peel back the plastic, I was completely relaxed, my body melted into what can only be described as a booze-tinged fruit roll up on a hot summer day. It was as if I was levitating over the table, stiff-as-a-board-light-as-a-feather-style, faintly tingling from head to toe. After a quick rinse-off in my private hot springs shower, I was indulgently rubbed down with a bright-smelling lotion then given a soothing facial with several exfoliating and moisturizing components.

“Different products are used in the treatment, and all of them have different percentages of beer,” Sanabria explains.What we use is a replacement of the amount of water that is normally used in the preparation of the products. Instead of water, they use beer previously treated to balance the formula and maintain the properties of the active ingredients. The facial scrub, the tonic lotion, mask, and the facial cream are made with Kapi Kapi. The body lotion utilized to seal skin after the thermal shower has beer, too.”

And it’s not all for show. While boozy spa treatments can be found all over the world, from the “One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila… PORES!” facial at the W Punta de Mita hotel in Mexico to the The Spa at Four Seasons Vail’s bourbon foot scrub and the red wine baths at New York’s Aire Ancient Baths, Tabacon’s use of beer—particularly hoppy beer—sets it apart, scientifically.

Credit: Courtesy Tabacon

“Hops are incredibly complex and diverse, particularly in terms of essential oils and aroma potential,” says Ryan Dunnavant, a trained chemical engineer and the current General Manager of Brewery Operations at Oskar Blues Brewery in North Carolina. “The most relevant chemical compounds are bitter acids and flavonoids. Bitter acids exhibit antimicrobial properties even at relatively low concentrations. Flavonoids such as xanthohumol, which is found exclusively in hops, exhibit strong antioxidant properties. A friend of mine makes soap from heavily hopped double IPAs, and I know that rubbing hops during harvest season exfoliates the hell out of my hands.”

Opting for a Double IPA for this particular treatment was no mistake, it seems. At 106 IBU, or International Bittering Units, Kapi Kapi has a very high concentration of hops. (For comparison, Budweiser has about 10 IBU, Oskar Blues’ flagship Dale’s Pale Ale weighs in at around 65, and Dogfish Head’s notoriously hearty 90 Minute Imperial IPA brings 90 IBU to the table). Aside from providing a heaping dose of antioxidants, which limit the production of skin cell-damaging free radicals and are therefore said to have anti-aging effects, hops possess a host of additional therapeutic properties.

“Hops also have a sedative effect—some people put lavender on their pillow, I dive face first into fresh hops,” continues Dunnavant. “I’ve read that hop teas were used to help alleviate stomach issues and they’ve been used as anti-inflammatories. There’s actually momentum today in the hop industry to validate some of these claims and produce health supplements directly from hops.”

I left the spa relaxed and refreshed, the sunburn I had acquired the day before subdued and faded to a soft tan. That night at dinner I ordered a Kapi Kapi and while it sure paired nicely with the cheffy canapes and cevices on my plate, the slight buzz it brought could never hold a candle to the total body transcendence I now knew lurked beneath its bubbles.