A calming beverage with roots in Polynesian culture gains fans in North Carolina.
From the sandy shores of the South Pacific comes an earthy beverage that has recently made a resurgence in the U.S. Kava, which hails from islands including Hawaii, Fiji and Vanuatu, is made from the bitter root of the piper methysticum tree and contains compounds called kavalactones that have euphoric and sedating properties. Traditionally, the drink is prepared by chewing or pounding the root to produce a cloudy liquid that is soaked in water and filtered. It has a long history of use in traditional Pacific Island ceremonies and rituals. Today, its recreational and anti-anxiety uses are proving popular in colorful flavored mocktails or teas served at bars or sold in bottles.
Kava bars gained popularity among U.S. cities over the past decade as a nonalcoholic beverage option with Sovereign Kava in Asheville believed to be North Carolina’s trendsetter in 2010. Since then, more than 10 kava bars have emerged across the state, according to the Kalm with Kava website, creating a devout community centered around the exotic substance. “I don’t think I have seen so many people of various age groups all in one place,” says Evan Amezcua, general manager of Rooted Kava Lounge in Wilmington, which opened in January 2016.
Amezcua started in the kava industry as a customer visiting the Wilmington lounge, which emphasizes chilled teas. It offers an eclectic atmosphere and is decorated with artwork by local artist Rob Fogle.
Amezcua enjoyed visiting Rooted Kava during a period in which he cared for his mother. “I found solace in my free time by going to the kava lounge,” he says. As he immersed himself in the community, he was offered a job as a server, then was promoted to general manager.
Kava is not a new product, says Zoey Best, co-owner of Da Kine’s Kava in Durham. Her husband and business partner, Brent Waffle, was introduced to kava while living in Hawaii, using the beverage as a muscle relaxant after strenuous martial arts workouts and as a sleep aid. He later shared his love for the beverage with Best on one of their first dates at a kava bar in Wilmington. After moving to Durham in 2018, the couple started their own kava business and added a storefront kava bar in July 2020.
“We wanted to jump on it and start the first kava bar in Durham — one that reflected the Polynesian culture similar to kava bars in Hawaii,” Best says.
Da Kine’s offers kava drinks in a variety of forms from fruity cocktails — Blue Oahu, Watermelon Kava Margarita Special, and Haleakala Sunrise, to name a few — and bottled with flavors such as hibiscus lemonade, cucumber mojito and ginger beet. Its menu also includes traditional kava, CBD items, herbal teas and coffee.
While kava doesn’t contain any alcohol, the earthy-tasting beverage gives off feelings of relaxation, sleepiness, mild loss of sensation in the throat and mouth, appetite loss and reduced anxiety.
“It is a great alternative to alcohol because there is no hangover or dancing on tables. It can, however, affect your central nervous system if you drink enough of it, which means it could make your tongue or mouth tingle,” Best says. “This sometimes makes people nervous, but it is totally normal.”
Still, there is some controversy surrounding potential side effects including higher liver toxicity related to consuming kava. As more bars began popping up and increasing in popularity, many farmers had trouble keeping up with demand, causing them to cut corners in processing. Under pressure, many used the leaves and the stem instead of the root to save money. Using those plant parts may be contributing to potential liver damage, some researchers say.
“Note that kava has been banned [or heavily regulated] in [some European countries] due to liver toxicity,” said Robert Ashley, an internal medicine physician at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center, in a 2018 report. “More than 100 cases of liver toxicity related to the use of kava have been identified, some leading to liver transplant and some leading to death.” Ashley added that liver damage occurs for many reasons and the cited cases involved many people who had prior liver disease or used alcohol in addition to kava.
While kava is legal in the U.S. and there are no age restrictions, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies it as a dietary supplement and suggests consumers consult with a health care professional before consuming. It’s not wise to consume the drink with alcohol, most experts say.
“Third-party lab testing is one of the go-to methods to ensure we’re ordering a safe product,” Amezcua says. “Also, we discourage any customers with certain medical conditions — pregnant, liver problems, taking anti-depressant medication, etc. — from partaking in kava and tell them to ask their doctor first before doing so.”
Da Kine’s Kava also makes sure its purchased kava is processed through an FDA-regulated facility, according to Best.
While some concerns remain, Best and other kava bar owners are working on breaking the stigma as the beverage’s popularity increases. “If used properly, kava is a fantastic tool,” Best says. ■