What Is Kava, And Where Can You Drink It?

Why all-natural, sedating kava might just be better than alcohol

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Overheard at a kava bar in Lower Manhattan: "People don't come here for its taste."

The 50-something maker of this claim has just come from the Russian baths across the street, long hair still slicked to his face as he sits chatting with two first-timer friends. If this is true, then why is every one of the bar's 13 seats—plus the spare real estate along the back wall—occupied?

Judd Rench owns Bula Kava House, a five-year-old spot in Portland, Oregon, and even he likens the taste of the ancient South Pacific root to a "bitter mud puddle." But when you combine a powdered version of that root with liquid, it makes a muscle-relaxing, antidepressant drink. It won't get you drunk, and perhaps more enticingly, there's no nasty hangover. "You won't drunk-dial an ex after too much kava. Instead, you'd probably just sink into a comfortable chair or sofa. It relaxes the mind and body," Rench says.

It's as if alcohol, marijuana and coffee had one wild night and created the sedating, antidepressant drink. The relaxation mimics the disinhibition brought about by alcohol, and anxiety is relieved à la a few hits of weed. The biggest difference is that it doesn't alter your mental clarity. You could go back to work and be just as productive as before—if not more—which is why it's sort of like coffee, too.

Serving kava and kava in powder form

Perhaps that's why it's on the rise: Kavasutra in New York's East Village is one of only three kava bars in a city with hundreds of Duane Reades and a coffee shop on every corner. The sign placed outside for its summer 2015 opening reads "alcohol is so 2014," and it's still proudly there in 2016. "I wouldn't be surprised if 20 [kava bars] have popped up since I opened five years ago," Rench says. He attributes this partially to the rich culture and traditions behind kava, and also to its novelty. "People want something new," he says. "Kava provides a safe alternative to alcohol and drugs."

San Francisco just welcomed Kava Lounge SF, and branches of Kavasutra can be found from Palm Springs to Denver. Brooklyn got its first kava bar in Bushwick, from two guys who used to sell a bottled version of the drink at Whole Foods under the name King Kava, and now House of Kava is joining them as well. The New Yorker addresses kava's place as a socializing alternative in our health-obsessed world, and Kava Lounge SF calls it the "chill pill of the new wave of global communications." And demand only seems to be rising: "On a Friday or Saturday, if you're not here by 7 p.m., you're not going to get in," the Kavasutra bartender tells me.

Not that they're all new. South Florida's Purple Lotus Kava Bar has been around for 11 years. Many of the earlier kava bars revolve around words like spirituality and ambiance, and some offer yoga practices. One of these is Mystic Water Wellness Center, which has locations in Ithaca and San Diego and, this month, is opening a revamped edition of the Hollywood, Florida, spot. It embraces the ever-present "be your best self" health trend that's a national obsession, as well as embodying the cultural aspect of the Hawaiian kava scene. "The kava bar is the center of the community," the bartender explains. It's the watering hole-meets-rec center: You'd go there to see friends, drink a few rounds and even get your mail.

Kava bowls at Kavasutra

The East Village Kavasutra, for one, is both thoroughly a standard bar and the farthest thing from it. The bartender shakes concoctions like he's making a mojito, but there's no alcohol in sight. (You're advised against mixing the two, since both are processed in the liver.) Instead of nuts, a snack bowl is filled with jelly beans. You can thank Aloha John, a regular customer who brings goodies whenever he comes by, for those. And, yes, he grows his own kava out in Hawaii.

Aloha John is one of many regulars—the bartender approximates 65 percent of clientele to be return customers. This is partly due to the combination of losing inhibition while retaining mental lucidity, a good recipe for spurring conversation between strangers (when I went on a recent Wednesday night, people were greeted by name; someone brought the bartender a pizza). It's a bar where it's not only acceptable to go to by yourself, it might be the preferred method. It's easy to make friends with your neighbors, something that people in South Pacific villages have been doing for more than 3,000 years.

"At the risk of sounding all 'woo-woo,' kava is a special and sacred plant," Rench explains. "You can take the plant out of the culture, but you can't take the culture out of the plant." Some spots have extravagant happy hours that are proof of a focus on community over profit. At 1 p.m. and a.m., single bowls at Kavasutra are just one dollar for one minute. Everyone gathers, gravitating to the culture, then goes back to their workday.

The vibe at Kavasutra, as expected, is decidedly chill. Despite the soft reggae and non-jarring rap, I feel like I'm waiting for the Alt-J who never played. The bartender gives two collared-shirt-wearing first-timers a spiel, explaining kava's reverse tolerance. It's almost more of a formality, the disclaimer you read before you strap on new rollerblades, and every first-timer gets it. But then the bartender loosens up, so much so that he confesses he thinks kava tastes like dirty potato.

Menu at Kavasutra

At all times, a large TV screen streams a Netflix nature documentary, and being told to "sit back and watch the seals" is part of the first-timers' introductory speech. "I've seen Planet Earth at least 27 times," the bartender says. Hidden Kingdoms is another favorite. "There's a point where there's going to be a walrus fight. We have a cue, and we skip it, because it kills the vibe fast."

The only time the good vibes vanished is when he mentions that my mouth will go numb from drinking the room-temperature kava. It doesn't happen though, or if it does, the numbness goes unnoticed. He pours my cup and teaches me the traditional toast, bula, which means "to life." Then I let the whole thing slide down my throat and chase it with a pineapple wedge. They go through five pineapples a night—they have a guy—and even more on the weekends.

Despite any temporary worry caused by the bartender's warning, kava appears to be safe. It's only outwardly banned in Poland and is cited to have some medicinal uses as well. Without getting too scientific (let MeloMelo, the Bay Area's first kava bar, do the chemistry), kava works due to an active ingredient called kavalactones. There are different strains, based off the permutation of the six kavalactones, just as there are different strains of marijuana. And as to whether or not you're harming your liver: We're not doctors, but the Pacific people seem to be doing just fine. "Kava has been proven safe by thousands of years of traditional use," Rench says. And as long as bar owners do their part in maintaining a clean product, he doesn't foresee much trouble.

There is some worry, however, that this deeply rooted cultural tradition is being appropriated by the new wave of kava bars, but owners are doing their part to prove their good intentions and respect of the culture. Kavasutra serves the drink in traditional bowls that nod to the use of a half coconut shell, or bilo, rather than standard glasses. The bartender notes, "This is gonna sound hippie, but kava is traditional for a lot of people. As much as we want to sell something good, we don't want to dirty that."

Despite the drink's sudden growth, most large cities are yet to play host to a kava bar. You can buy kava to make it at home and feel the effects, though nothing can truly replace the experience and community of the kava bar itself. "It's still kind of an untapped and underserved market," Rench says, but he's hopeful for kava's future. "There's room for growth. New kava bars are just filling in the blanks."

On the TV screen, a seal suddenly emerges from the water, victorious. The long-haired man starts chanting with elation. "That's why we're here!" he shouts, egging on the two-dimensional sea creature, as everyone cheers enthusiastically. And he might just be right.