Manage Services

The Buzz Behind Kava, a Sacred Root

Written by Marie Albiges

The first time I came across the ancient south Pacific root called kava, I was in Austin, Texas, in search of post-happy hour entertainment. 

Inside the kava bar, my friend and I were greeted by a chirpy blonde barista named Megan who—realizing we were out of our element—described the muddy brown, watery substance called kava.

She told us kava is a drink resulting from the strains of a root that gives you the feelings of relaxation, alertness, calmness and concentration.

“You can drink different strains separately, and feel the effects of each, or combine them to create your own special concoction of mental, emotional and physical effects,” says Megan. 

I bombarded the barista with questions: How quickly does it take effect? When does it wear off? How do you know when it’s working? Can you operate a motor vehicle once you’ve ingested it? Is it addictive? Can you combine it with alcohol? Can you drink it if you had a margarita and a half an hour ago during happy hour? 

Megan says kava has a reverse tolerance affect, meaning the more you drink, the less time it takes you to reap the benefits. It’s not addictive and doesn’t have any of the negative impacts of alcohol or marijuana, although it’s not recommended to combine kava with those substances. 

After taking our order, Megan turned her back to us, turned on the keg, stuck a measuring cup underneath the tap and poured for exactly two seconds before transferring the muddy-looking water into a dark brown coconut shell. 

“You don’t drink it for the taste,” a nearby kava drinker warned us as I politely sniffed the shell that had been handed to me, smelling something smoky and earthy. 

My friend and I eyed each other cautiously and took our first sips together.  And it was like drinking chalky, muddy water. My tongue immediately became numb, a side effect Megan warned us about. I cringed at the taste of dirt and asked for water. “It’s an acquired taste,” says Megan. 

Unable to tolerate the taste and feeling funky, I can’t finish the contents of my shell. My friend powered through her drink, also skeptically analyzing how she felt. 

After I decided not to finish drinking, I immediately felt better. The cloud disappeared, and I went back to watching Megan ask a new group of customers if they’ve had kava before.  

That’s a mandatory question when visiting any kava bar, as Tracy Pingel, the owner of this Austin location, knows full well. 

Pingel, who first discovered kava in Florida, says the kava bar scene in the U.S. is different than what one might find on the island of Fiji, where Tracy has been getting her kava for four-and-a-half years.  

She tells us that on any given night in Fiji, a family sits in a communal area and drinks kava. It’s a ceremonial process, with a
lot of chanting, singing and clapping. There’s no television to
center around. There’s no MacBook on the countertop. There’s
just conversation and kava.

“We were just so intrigued by it,” Tracy says. 

The challenge with any kava bar in the U.S., Pingel explains, is educating newcomers on the drink. Each new customer hears the introductory kava speech and usually gets a recommendation on the best way to try kava for the first time. And usually, people come back, drawn by the restful sleep, the additional energy and the feelings of community the kava scene gives off.

She tells us that on any given night in Fiji, a family sits in a communal area and drinks kava. It’s a ceremonial process, with a lot of chanting, singing and clapping. There’s no television to center around. There’s no MacBook on the countertop. There’s just conversation and kava.

“We were just so intrigued by it,” Tracy says. 

The challenge with any kava bar in the U.S., Pingel explains, is educating newcomers on the drink. Each new customer hears the introductory kava speech and usually gets a recommendation on the best way to try kava for the first time. And usually, people come back, drawn by the restful sleep, the additional energy and the feelings of community the kava scene gives off.

About the author

Marie Albiges

Marie Albiges is a recent Christopher Newport University graduate and a freelance journalist in the Newport News area.