We Tried It: Drinking Kava at the Kavasutra Kava Bar

Will this earthy drink become the newest trend in relaxation?
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I’m pretty much your typical stressed out New Yorker. My calendar is chock full of work and social events; my job spills beyond the mythical 40-hours per week, and if I don’t do three things at once, I’m not doing enough. Family obligations and home renovations top off the reasons why my muscles often feel like concrete, and I never leave home without the bags under my eyes. Stress is my mid-line, my normal and managing it is my holy grail. Who has time for countless yoga classes or the discipline to meditate? An evening glass of vino is nice, but its negative effects hurt more than help, especially when it comes to stress and sleep.

I’d heard about kava, a root derived from the pepper family, and how folks native to the South Pacific chewed on or drank the root both ceremoniously and medicinally for its sedative and euphoric effects. In the early 2000s, it took the U.S. and the world by storm, but no sooner, bad press emerged about its negative effects on the liver. In an instant, kava teas, capsules, and tinctures pretty much disappeared from the shelves of local health food shops. Fast forward to now and many European countries have reversed their bans on the plant, citing poor quality mixtures for the data obtained in old reports. The non-addictive herb has been used to treat things like anxiety and insomnia, leading some to call it “Herbal Xanax.” And now with the rise in popularity of “dry January” and the “sober curious” lifestyles, it seems kava’s popularity might be on the rise.

New York City’s first bar devoted to the root, Kavasutra, opened in 2015 (they also have six locations in Florida and one in Denver). I popped in on a Friday night to see what it was all about. A typical tiny, NYC dive-ish bar, it follows the model of a regular watering hole: small space, large bar, a TV, and a friendly vibe. I was actually surprised at how pub-like it was at first. But then I started to realize the differences: no alcohol, the TV has images of waterfalls and the people aren’t nursing glasses. As a matter of fact, most people didn’t even have a drink in front of them.

As I took in the scene more, I noticed an almost a Cheers-like atmosphere as regulars were greeted upon arrival, rounds were bought and toasts came regularly, but there’s not a drop of alcohol to be found here. The only drink is kava, served in the traditional style of the South Pacific islands. Though my first impression was that it was livelier than I thought it would be, I soon realized that with the absence of alcohol, it was also quieter. People aren't raising their voices in relation to the amount they had to drink. The music never started to pound; there was no hostility or drunken confrontations or arguments going on in the small, tight space. Actually, people were quite chill!

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Rich Haskins, the general manager, walked me through my first experience with the concoction. The drinks consist of a base prepared daily on premises with an ancient method that produces a stronger result than a simple tea infusion. The menu consists of both traditional and house blends, some created for milder taste, while others focus on  potency. Though most kavas are imported from Fiji, Kavasutra sources the herb from Vanuatu, where according to the company's website, the highest quality kava hails from. You'll often even see the Ambassador of Vanuatu, Oto Tevi, hanging around the bar.    

We started with the Ed Shell, a specialty blend that's a milder, easier-to-drink version of the mixture. The kava is served in metal bowls that resemble coconut shells, paying homage to the traditional way Pacific Islanders drink the brew. There’s a pineapple slice sitting jauntily on the side of the glass, not only giving a happy tiki vibe, but serving as a palate cleanser after you drink the liquid. Rich and I lifted our shells, made eye contact and said a “Malo!” (the traditional “Cheers” of Vanuatu, those who source from Fiji will shout a “Bula!” in honor of their root’s origins). One must chug the drink, first off so you’ll feel the effects faster but mainly so you get the drinking part over with – the stuff tastes like what I imagine bitter dirt would taste like. It won't be that big of a deal if you’re a friend to herbal remedies, but if your preferred drink with a pineapple is a pina colada, it might be rough. Eat the fruit that comes with it – it’ll help.

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As Rich gave me some history of the herb, I noticed my tongue and throat going numb. A mild panic set in; was I having an allergic reaction? Was my tongue about to swell and asphyxiate me? But right on time, Rich said, “Your mouth might be going numb right about now, that’s normal.” He said that first-timers sometimes get an upset stomach or even sick, and told me not to play it cool and keep going if I felt that way; the smart thing to do is just stop. He also mentioned there's a reverse tolerance to the herb – for newbies, it can take more kava to feel the effects than for a more frequent imbiber. I was thankful for the info up front, which helped ease my own internal nervous energy about what might happen to me.

Luckily, I had no ill effects as I slowly made my way through the menu, moving from the Ed Shell to the more traditional (and intensely flavored) preparations of Van, Funk Nasty (appropriately named, yet oddly my favorite) and NewShyt, the bar's latest blend created to be easier on the stomach and impart a milder taste (an info card reads, "Tastes Like Water (Well, Almost)"). All are made with a combination liquid and powdered kava and can be ordered in singles, double and triple servings. For those who can't handle the taste, there’s a separate menu of kava made with more palatable fruit juices, served shot style. I tried the key lime pie flavor, which I actually found too sweet after enjoying the traditional bitter mixtures.

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The bar also serves the more controversial kratom, an herbal remedy from the tea family that originated in Thailand. Whereas kava has an effect on the body only, kratom effects the brain; in low doses it has a stimulant effect, higher dosages can produce euphoria and pain suppression, mimicking an opioid. Though legal, the FDA has it’s concerns about kratom including it’s addictive properties. Folks at Kavasutra maintain that quality and moderation are key. Like anything new you might try, do your homework before you go, especially if you’re already on medication or have any medical conditions.

As I drank more and more kava shells, I didn’t notice any sudden changes, but as the night went on I realized I was quite relaxed and comfortable. The environment was friendly, I was chatting with strangers who told me why they came and how they enjoyed it. “Sometimes I just don’t want to drink and it’s nice to be able to come here and still socialize instead of hiding away,” said one young woman. There’s a camaraderie at Kavasutra; the clientele was more diverse than I expected, with solo drinkers, couples and small groups of friends. There's also a bit of a clubhouse vibe among the regulars, though a friendly and welcoming one. I was having a good time and hung out for more than three and a half hours, chatting and chugging a total of eight shells.

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When it came time to head home, I had that moment of worry – will my legs work? Will I be able to walk home? As I said my goodbyes and headed out the door, I was surprised to see that I was okay – I was chill and my motor functions were fine. When I arrived home I wasn’t feeling tired or sluggish. After staying up for a bit, I went to sleep easily and this non-morning person woke at 6am after having an incredible night’s sleep – the best I’ve had in a while – and was up and ready to start my day. Normally a weekend bed-lounger, I actually got dressed and headed to my favorite diner for an early breakfast! I was amazed. The only thing that seemed different about me was that I didn’t have much of an appetite.

My first experience with kava was a positive one. It was nice to abstain from alcohol without having to abstain from socializing; to relax without feeling sluggish the next day. Like anything else, quality and moderation are key. I think in this enlightened, informed and stressful time, Kavasutra might just be onto something.