For a Booze-Free Buzz, Americans Are Heading to Kava Bars
Kava bars are an exciting non-alcoholic arrival to cities like Austin, Brooklyn, and more.
More Americans than ever before are embracing non-alcoholic versions of their favorite ready-to-drink beverages (RTDs), beers, wines, and spirits. No longer just a Dry January trend, innovative booze-free tipples are lining store shelves year-round. Many of these non-alcoholic drinks brands are targeting wellness-minded consumers by adding ingredients like nootropics and adaptogens — substances that claim to boost your mood and reduce stress — to their products in an effort to provide a booze-free buzz.
Perhaps no such beverage has exploded in popularity stateside recently as much as kava, a Polynesian plant root historically drunk like tea during religious and ceremonial occasions. The beverage is said to relax the body and calm the mind, just the sort of “legal high” many folks are looking for. It’s commonly sold in smoke shops alongside hemp products and kratom, a medicinal extract native to Thailand that behaves like a stimulant in small doses and a sedative in larger doses.
Most recently, a slew of kava bars have popped up across the country, from Brooklyn to Austin and beyond. “You don’t have many places where people can socialize without alcohol and drunk people,” says Vanuatu Kava Industry Association (VKIA) chairman Michael Louze. Kava bars are beginning to fill that gap. But while they offer non-drinkers and sober-curious folks the opportunity to comfortably commune in third places, they may also inadvertently perpetuate stereotypes and misinformation about kava.
According to Todd Henry, who co-owns online kava shop The Kava Society and New Zealand’s Four Shells Kava Lounge with his wife, Anau, American kava bars that serve the kava root mixed with flavorings like chocolate and fruit juice, or add it to the sedative effects of kratom, misrepresent kava culture entirely.” In Tonga, enjoying kava is a way to commune and wind down at the end of the day; Getting “messed up,” Henry says, is not the point.
In the Pacific Islands, kava is almost always served by itself. Embracing its bitter, earthy flavors serve as an opportunity for communities to reconnect with the ancestral land. Kava bars that attempt to cover up these tastes with juices and syrups, Henry says, are simply missing the point. “I think kava should taste like kava,” he says. “Just like getting a tattoo should hurt, kava should be bitter.”
Though there’s nothing traditional about the concept of kava bars themselves, Henry feels there are ways for these spaces to show respect for the culture surrounding this ancient plant. Four Shells does so by making kava the centerpiece of the menu and hosting talanoa events — Pacific Island-style conversations marked by mutual respect and reciprocity. Here, folks can stay for a shell (the traditional coconut cups used for kava) or take some to go: “It’s an acceptable, non-traditional way of serving and consuming kava,” Henry says.
Others aren’t so sure that kava’s earthy profile can appeal to the Western drinker without added flavorings. According to Brenden Silverman, co-founder of RTD kava brand Leilo, catering to the American drinker’s palate is essential to increasing kava’s popularity and name-recognition worldwide. “The whole concept of Leilo is finding a way to take this amazing, functional experience in a [direction] that the mass market can enjoy.”
Silverman stresses that drinks like Leilo — which are infused with bright, fruity flavors that can mask the polarizing flavor kava is known for — are not meant to replace kava in its natural form. Instead, the drinks act as a gateway into the greater world of kava, a notion supported by many of the nation’s top kava bars who stock the canned concoction. “What kava bars like using us the most for is as a way to get people interested in kava in the first place,” he notes. Once folks experience the calming effects of the drink through an approachable medium like Leilo, they may be more likely to explore the wider world of kava.
Louze, who is based in Vanuatu, says he takes no issue with people adding flavorings to kava. “The farmers here just want to sell kava — this is our economy,” he notes. “Mixing it with any flavor could only help customers to love kava,” he says, which will ultimately benefit the larger kava community.
Still, it’s impossible to ignore the misinformation promoted by some American-focused kava bars and RTDs. Combining or serving kava alongside the more potent kratom could potentially misrepresent kava to the uninitiated. Henry stresses that the two drinks have little to do with one another and believes they are only served together because, “they both begin with the letter 'K' and are from places [many Americans] have never heard of.” Moreover, kratom is known to be potentially addictive, whereas “kava is definitely not addictive,” says Louze.
Others distort kava’s capabilities with buzzy marketing terms like “psychedelic” or even tout the drink as an alcohol alternative. “People think it’s like weed or alcohol, but it’s not,” Henry states. “It’s kava; it’s its own thing. It’s not trying to be something else.”
That’s not to say you need to travel to Polynesia to respectfully consume kava. “There are some really good [American kava bars] who are considered and respectful to kava and the principles behind what kava stands for,” Henry notes. If you’re planning your debut visit to a kava bar, be sure you’re headed to a space that centers kava as its primary tincture, emphasizes collective experiences, and aims to educate first-timers about kava’s roots (pun intended) for an experience that’s authentic, relaxing, and communal.
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