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Kavasutra's kava bowl.
Kavasutra's kava bowl.
Nick Solares

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For centuries, Pacific Islanders have been drinking kava, a physioactive "tea" of sorts made from the root of a plant in the pepper family. A variety of kava species grow across the islands, some more potent than others. But their basic effect, when ground and mixed with water, is the same: to relax you.

Kava roots contain a mix of stress-fighting compounds called kavalactones, which act on the nervous system to various sedative and numbing affects. Drink a cup of kava and your lips and tongue will go numb and your muscles will relax. Depending on how much you drink, and how potent the brew, that feeling will last anywhere from a few hours to most of the night. And unless you really overdo it, kava shouldn't affect your brain. While the body goes loose, the mind stays clear.

On islands like Fiji, Tonga, Hawaii, and the Samoas, where kava grows, the drink has long been used both ceremonially and socially. In the continental United States, kava extract is sold in pill form, but the drink itself is just starting to pick up steam as a legal, physioactive alternative to alcohol.

Most believe that kava has no ill effects. It's almost certainly not addictive, nor does it usually impair a person in the way that alcohol or other drugs do. There are, however, some existing concerns about its affects on the body. In 2002, German scientists reported evidence that kava could cause severe liver damage, sometimes leading to death. As a result, the EU banned any pharmaceutical products that contained kava from being imported, and most European countries imposed further bans on selling and importing the plant, while the CDC and the FDA both launched their own investigations into the root. However, American organizations did not find enough damning evidence to ban kava in any form, and most now believe that the initial maladies linked to kava were related to pre-existing liver conditions, or to contaminated kava sources. Just last year, Germany overturned its own ban in the wake of that study.

Still, most kava drinkers avoid mixing the drink with alcohol, both out of concern for liver damage, and because the combination can amp up the root's sedative effects. But, even drinking kava alone should be done in moderation, if only because a large dose at once can impact motor skills, or just knock you outnot a good idea if you're driving home (kava consumption, though not in any way illegal, has lead to at least one DUI).

Kavasutra in New York's East Village. All photos by Nick Solares.

Presently, about 20 kava bars exist in the United States, the large majority of them in South Florida. But as health concerns have eased, that number is growing. The country’s first kava bar opened in 2002, in Boca Raton, but most others have launched in the past five years. Last week New York City scored its first kava bar, and before that the only place to unwind on kava in the entire Northeast was in Ithaca, New York. Other bars exist in California, North Carolina and, of course, Hawaii, with a handful scattered elsewhere.

New York City's new kava bar, Kavasutra, is an outpost of a chain with four other locations in Florida and one in Denver, Colorado. It occupies a dark, narrow East Village storefront that's almost entirely filled with a gleaming black bar. In the early evening on its first Saturday in business, most of the seats are filled, and two bartenders work at a leisurely rate in front of a counter cluttered with plastic buckets, fine mesh bags, and stacks of plastic bowls meant to look like molcajetes (although traditionally, kava is served in coconut shells). While Lana Del Rey plays over the speakers, a big screen TV behind the bar shows HD nature videos on loopbear cubs wandering on grassy slopes, pink river dolphins twisting through the water, a crocodile dragging a baby wildebeest into the water in slow motion. One bartender introduces himself as "Chopper." He's the manager, a longtime Kavasutra employee who moved to New York from Florida to open this outpost.

Sure enough, the kavalactones soon kicked in ... It feels a little like taking a powerful dose of NyQuil, except that, as promised, my brain is unaffected.

Chopper (his real name is Chris Ludwigh) suggests starting with a single kava, though double and triple doses are listed on the menu as well, in addition to an extra-potent option called the "Ed Shell." He ladles muddy grey liquid out of a bucket into one of the plastic bowls, then pegs a wedge of pineapple onto the rim. It's made, he explains, by blending chips of kava root in water, letting the mixture soak for half an hour or so, then straining it through a fine mesh bag. "Drink it all at once," he says, "but first you're supposed to toast and say 'bula!' Then eat the pineapple as a chaser."

Kava does not taste good. It's bitter in a way that makes your throat clench, and otherwise it's like watery clay: dirty-tasting, chalky, heavy on minerals. It's not the sort of bad that could become an acquired taste, it's the sort of bad that requires you to down it all at once.

However, a bowl of kava is usually too big to swallow in one go, like a shot, so you just have to grit your teeth and do it in as few gulps as possible. For a minute or so, it will feel like you've sprayed your mouth with Chloraseptic. After that, it shouldn't take long to feel the effects of the kavalactones, around 10 to 15 minutes according to Chopper. But one bowl may also not be enough to produce any noticeable sensations, and 20 minutes or so after my first bowl, I wasn't feeling anything, at least not without overthinking it.

Chopper says that most kava drinkers will have one or two shells. If you want to "experiment," you might up it to three or four. Drink more than that and you'll become "rooted," which is the kava-aficionado's term for losing all desire to get up out of your chair. With this in mind I warily ordered the Ed Shell, to split with a friend. With the Ed Shell, Kavasutra dials up the potency of its regular brew by mixing in an extra shot of pure, powdered kava. This booster doesn't dissolve in the liquid kava, but instead settles into the bottom of the bowl like sediment in a bucket of muddy water, so Chopper hands over a wooden coffee stirrer, and instructs me to give the drink a swirl before chugging the gritty liquid.

Sure enough, the kavalactones soon kicked in. There's no question about it this time. My muscles feel rubbery and my upper body feels light. It feels a little like taking a powerful dose of NyQuil, except that, as promised, my brain is unaffected. I don't feel fuzzy and I don't feel sleepy, just ... loose. Half an hour later, waiting on the subway platform, I learn something else important about kava: it's not a good idea to drink (especially for the first time) on an empty stomach. I throw up a little in a garbage can. But the rubbery feeling follows me all the way back to Brooklyn.

In the U.S., except perhaps Hawaii, kava's identity is still in flux, hovering between the worlds of health fanatics and drug culture. Some kava bars push the cafe angle, staying open all day, selling acai bowls and offering yoga classes. Others sell themselves as an alcohol-free nightlife option, and stay open into the wee hours of the morning. South Florida has become the epicenter of a mini kava bar boom because, it seems, it's a haven for both sides. Chopper explains that the "tiki attitude" down there is part of it, but also points out that the population includes a lot of recovering alcoholics and addicts, for whom kava is a legal and non-addictive way to feel good. On the other hand, another Kavasutra customer, a new age entrepreneur-type who is back visiting New York after moving to Miami, has been regaling me on the health benefits of kava. Florida, he explains, "is a place where you go to work on yourself."

Kava fits in there because, as he explains, "it's a natural way to bring out my natural self." For him, kava eliminated work-related stress problems (back pain, etc.) that built up while running a business. And despite concerns about kava's effect on the liver, many proponents believe kava is less toxic and better for you than alcohol, or certainly any other drug.

Kavasutra's single serving and orange-flavored lix shot.

... kava is a legal and non-addictive way to feel good.

In New York, as at all its locations, Kavasutra aims more for the nightclub crowd. A sandwich board outside reads "ALCOHOL IS SO 2014. TRY KAVA" The bar stays open until 2 a.m., and Chopper says it's busiest at night. It recently added "lix shots" (pure kavalactone isolate, in flavors like orange and maple-cinnamon) to the menu, and still to come are acai bowls, frozen kava piña coladas (virgin), and a concoction made from two lix shots and a Red Bull. Meanwhile, Kavasutra's owner, Dylan Harrison, has dabbled in selling other, less benign drugsdo a little Googling, and you'll learn that he spent a year in prison back in 2013 for manufacturing synthetic marijuana and selling it at convenience stores as an "herbal incense." That was and is separate from his kava ventures, and seems to be behind him now, but it's hard not to read into his interest in kava with that in mind.

On the very opposite end of the kava bar spectrum are places like Sacred Root in Ithaca, which also serves raw, vegan desserts, and regularly hosts open mic poetry nights, yoga accompanied by gong music, and performances by Spirit Speaks, "a musical collective committed to creating music that tends a Sacred Fire, each song and jam alive and aware of the greater whole." And somewhere in between is Nick Haycocks, who runs Brooklyn Kava (fka King Kava), one of the very few bottled kava businesses in the country (currently bottles are only available at NYC-area Whole Foods and Fairways). He has been bottling kava since 2012 and thinks the playing field is still wide open. "We're really in the early stages," he says, "and people are really interested in figuring out the best ways to market it." For his part, he's selling liquid kava as a beverage that simply "makes you feel more positive," and "ready to take on the world." He describes it as something that one might drink before a stressful meeting because of the root's relaxing affects. His target audience, in other words, is the affluent New York go-getter. And he has realized that labeling his bottles with the word "relaxation" doesn't work. In New York, he says, "people want to have more energy, do more stuff," so marketing kava as the opposite of an energy drink is a "really bad idea." New Yorkers are not interested in a product that will make them fall asleep.

So, the future of kava is unclear. Kava bars seem to be catching on—Haycocks is even planning his own in Boston. Meanwhile, anyone keen to try kava has these bars ready to serve:

  • Bula Kava House, Portland, OR: A bar that leans on the tiki aesthetic and offers many different varieties of kava, each with a slightly different flavor and effect. Bula also has acai bowls, fresh juices, smoothies and kombucha. 3115 SE Division St, Portland, OR 97202
  • Mytic Water Kava Bar, Hollywood, FL: With a bar that looks like it's enveloped in a giant jungle tree, this is one of the most scenic (or theme-y) bars there is. It has live music and is attached to a yoga center. There are also outposts in San Diego, CA and Ithaca, NY. 2037 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, FL 33020
  • Nakava Kava Bar, Boca Raton, FL: This bar, which claims to be the first in North America, has strong tiki overtones and offers several varieties of kava. 140 NW 20th St, Boca Raton, FL 33431
  • Krave, Carrboro, NC: A stark lounge with a "chill vibe" that only serves pure kava (no additives). It has free wifi for daytime drinkers, but only serves people 18 or older. Besides kava, it also specializes in yerba mate tea. 105 W. Main St, Carrboro, NC 27510
  • Noble Kava, Asheville, NC: A cozy, cafe-style kava bar that hosts regular live music and open mic nights. 15 Eagle St., Asheville, NC 28801
  • SquareRut, Austin, TX: A low-key bar with two locations in Austin. It offers several varieties of kava, and occasionally some flavored options. 5000 N Lamar Blvd. #106, Austin, TX 78751and 6000 S Congress Ave. #106, Austin, TX 78745
  • Rooted Kava Bar, San Diego, CA: An earthy cafe with a tree in the middle of it. This bar has regular live music and yoga sessions, and offers plain and flavored kava, plus party-sized bowls, and a full range of other drinks like coffee, tea, kombucha, juice, and sandwiches and salads. 1731 University Ave., San Diego, CA 92103
  • MeloMelo, Berkeley, CA: A stylish, modern-looking new cafe. MeloMelo serves a rotating variety of kavas, plus yerba mate and kombucha, and a weekly "kava koncoction" drink special. 1701 University Ave, Berkeley, CA 94703
  • Root of Happiness, Davis and Rancho Cordova, CA: A well-designed, tiki-style lounge with two locations just outside of Sacramento. The menu is broad, including basic kava, daily mixed specials, kava smoothies and shots. There's also a small food menu, tea, coffee, kombucha, and other kava-free health drinks. 211 F St, Davis, CA 95616 and 1949 Zinfandel Dr, Rancho Cordova, CA 95670
  • Sacred Root Kava Lounge, Ithaca, NY: A bar with an emphasis on spirituality. It serves traditional kava, raw/vegan desserts, coffee and tea, and frequently hosts live music that ranges from traditional Irish jam sessions to "ambient drone improv." 139 West State Street, Ithaca, NY14850
  • Kavasutra, New York, NY: New York City's brand new, very first kava bar. It's small, with a low-key nightclub feel, and serves a menu of basic kava that will eventually expand to mixed drinks and concentrated shots. Kavasutra also has locations in Denver, CO, and in Lake Worth, Delray Beach, North Palm Beach, and Ft. Lauderdale, FL. 261 E 10th St., New York, NY 10009

Kava Sutra

261 E 10th St, New York, NY 10009 (646) 649-4214

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