What’s Behind The Intoxicating Rise Of Kava Bars In The U.S.

Upon learning about kava, it is easy to assume it is simply a misspelling of Spain’s famous sparkling wine, “Cava.” However, kava is actually a Western Pacific drink with a long history and robust flavor that is experiencing a rise in interest in major U.S. cities. Made from the ground root of the kava plant, fans of the intoxicating beverage say it produces a state of calm relaxation and can reduce anxiety. Research suggests that habitual use doesn’t impair cognitive function.

Also known by its latin name Piper Methysticum, which roughly translates to “intoxicating pepper,” kava is commonly prepared by grinding the root into a powder, soaking it in water, and subsequently filtering the root out, or by kneading a cloth-wrapped mound of kava in a large bowl of water. The resultant drink has a murky brown color with an earthy aroma and taste, often served domestically with fruit like pineapple to counterbalance the bitter taste.

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Kava has historically been served in Polynesian cultures, most notably as a component of welcoming ceremonies honoring special visitors, including the likes of Prince Charles in Fiji in 2005 and French President François Hollande when he visited  the Wallis and Futuna islands earlier this year. The beverage is also a crux of social gatherings in traditional Pacific Ocean communities in places like Hawaii and Vanuatu.

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In recent years the beverage has begun to come into vogue in some American cities, with the opening of a number of kava bars.  These bars act as a pleasant social meeting ground and could be considered a new sort of coffee house with comfortable seating, relaxing lighting and the abundance of conversation. Kava bartenders are also encouraged to socialize and talk up the history and positive effects of kava to their patrons and the kava community is known to cheer the Fijian catchall phrase “Bula!” when sharing drinks.

House of Kava in Brooklyn's Bushwick Neighborhood

One of these kava bars is the recently opened House of Kava in Brooklyn’s rising Bushwick neighborhood. When asked how locals have received the bar, which is one of the first to open in New York, co-owner Joyci Borovsky stated, “Our first timers have all had very positive experiences. People are very open to the idea of kava and once they try it they end up loving it. Kava itself mixed in with the environment at the bar makes for a relaxing, peaceful, and stress relieving experience.” Co-owners Alec Sepelyak and Michael Vandemark also noted that their patrons include professionals heading to work in the morning, developers and creative professionals. To adapt to local tastes, they serve a number of kava cocktails including a chocolate flavor that is sweet with a hint of spice. Kava bars have also been appearing in cities like Austin (SquareRüt Kava Bar) and San Francisco (Kava Lounge SF).

House of Kava in Brooklyn's Bushwick Neighborhood

Coupled with its positive physical and psychological effects, kava could also be seen as a healthier alternative to alcohol and caffeine for its ability to produce euphoria and relaxation without affecting mental clarity . Studies also suggest that kava has potential to treat generalized anxiety and insomnia , but further research is needed to understand how it compares to more traditional pharmaceutical treatments.

While kava is legal in most countries, doctors advise those with liver conditions or who have been consuming alcohol to not drink it as there has been concern for its interactions with liver functions following reports of liver damage in Europe. The FDA has issued an advisory on the risk of liver injury from the use of dietary supplements containing kava.

This advisory comes alongside news that kratom (Latin name: Mitragyna speciosa Korth), a plant-based beverage often also served at kava bars and used by some for medicinal purposes, will be classified as a Schedule 1 substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration beginning September 30. Many in the kava community have disagreed with the classification and have responded by petitioning the White House. ”Kratom is also a big contributor to our business. We have a lot of customers who have immune deficiency disorders and intake Kratom as a way to relieve their pain,” added House of Kava co-owner Joyci Borovsky. “A lot of people will suffer if this ban takes place, including people who work at kava bars. Many may even lose their jobs.”

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