What in the World is Kava & Where You Can Find it
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By Hunter Thomas
Where can you go if you want to meet up with friends after work, but you’re not really up for a drink? What if you want to crack a new book or study, but you don’t want to be wired with caffeine? Or maybe you just need a break from socio-economic debates and the hubbub of the city streets? Increasingly, Bay area residents are turning to Kava retailers for a solution to these problems.
Kava is a drink made from grinding up the lateral roots and stump of the Piper Methysticum plant, or the “Mystical Pepper” as it’s colloquially known in places like Fiji and Samoa. Found indigenously all throughout the South Pacific, Kava has been used for centuries as a medicine, a social aide, and a ceremonial substance. After straining the ground-up plant using hot water and a cheesecloth, the drink is chilled and typically served in an ornate, but utilitarian cup called a “shell”, with pineapple or oranges on the side to cleanse the pallet. Unfortunately, Kava looks like day-old rain extracted from a trench off the side of the road, and it doesn’t taste a whole lot better, but it’s meant to be imbibed in a swift and singular gulp, so your taste buds are largely spared. Whether you love the taste or not, nobody’s drinking Kava for the flavor. Even die-hards who drink four cups a day will admit that it’s for the effect.
First of all, Kava doesn’t get you “high”. In fact, the drink doesn’t impair cognitive functions whatsoever. Rather, it simply produces a very subtle feeling of mental and physical relaxation. After drinking a cupful, stresses can start to melt away and it’s just a little easier to smile. The only noticeable physical effect is a slight, pleasant tingling in your mouth.
Other than that, the effects are more akin to finishing a jog on a day off than hitting a joint. Kava creeps up on you in the best of ways. It’s not the punch to the face of a tequila shot or the electrifying sensation of an espresso. After drinking Kava, you’ll simply find that your shoulders are less tense and the corners of your mouth can’t help but move upwards.
You can almost tell the effects of Kava just by looking around at the customers hanging at Kava bars like MeloMelo Kava Bar in Berkeley (the first Kava establishment that opened in the Bay, back in 2015) or the Kava Lounge on Divisadero (San Francisco’s one and only Kava bar… for now). At these establishments, it becomes clear very quickly that this drink is not getting people particularly intoxicated. The atmosphere of these establishments is more akin to a coffee shop than a bar, complete with soothing music and a diverse clientele. When I went to visit both of these establishments recently, I saw people who had just finished working out, people on their lunch break, elderly couples, students studying, techies working, people drawing and writing, a pair of twenty-somethings on a date, and I even saw one guy in tie die pants doing some pretty impressive interpretive dance at his table.
It seems to be these environments and the subsequent opportunity for community, that is giving rise to Kava’s uptick in popularity among Bay Area denizens. In a city that is undergoing such rapid change, combined with constant talk of class warfare and political struggles, it’s nice to duck into a space that seems, at once, equalizing and tranquil. Plush couches, massive plants, and an array of books populate these spaces, making it way too easy to stay for several hours at a time. What’s more is the people who work at these places don’t have the often-condescending attitudes of bartenders and are actually excited when people don’t know what they want or have never even had Kava. If it’s your first time, a staff member will always talk to you about the history and exclaim “Bula!” (A Fijian catch-all word that translates to a combination of “peace”, “hello”, and “thank you”) before having a cup with you.
It’s an undeniably positive experience, even for a cynic. If you want to go nuts with it, or you just want to mask the bitter taste of this soothing root-water, both Kava Lounge and MeloMelo Kava Bar offer CBD-infused kombucha and some pretty elaborate juice drinks (Turmeric, ginger, lemon, raw honey, and cayenne is just one of these many combinations) which can be mixed and matched with the Kava. No matter what you end up going for, your certain to be served with a smile. I’m not sure if that’s because of the Kava or contagiously good vibes, but either way, it’s extremely refreshing.
In a time and place where just getting by can be challenging, Kava seems to be a sensible way to make things seem a little easier, even for just an hour. Whether the community of these Kava bars is what your after or you’re just interested in having a cup of anti-anxiety after a tumultuous day, spending money on Kava certainly feels a lot more sensible than spending the same amount of money giving yourself a hangover.