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What's Behind The Intoxicating Rise Of Kava Bars In The U.S.

Upon learning about kava, it is easy to assume it is simply a misspelling of Spain’s famous sparkling wine, “Cava.” However, kava is actually a Western Pacific drink with a long history and robust flavor that is experiencing a rise in interest in major U.S. cities. Made from the ground root of the kava plant, fans of the intoxicating beverage say it produces a state of calm relaxation and can reduce anxiety. Research suggests that habitual use doesn’t impair cognitive function.

Also known by its Latin name Piper Methysticum, which roughly translates to “intoxicating pepper,” kava is commonly prepared by grinding the root into a powder, soaking it in water, and subsequently filtering the root out, or by kneading a cloth-wrapped mound of kava in a large bowl of water. The resultant drink has a murky brown color with an earthy aroma and taste, often served domestically with fruit like pineapple to counterbalance the bitter taste.

Kava has historically been served in Polynesian cultures, most notably as a component of welcoming ceremonies honoring special visitors, including the likes of Prince Charles in Fiji in 2005 and French President François Hollande when he visited the Wallisand Futuna Islands earlier this year. The beverage is also a crux of social gatherings in traditional Pacific Ocean communities in places like Hawaii and Vanuatu.

In recent years the beverage has begun to come into vogue in some American cities, with the opening of a number of kava bars. These bars act as a pleasant social meeting ground and could be considered a new sort of coffee house with comfortable seating, relaxing lighting and the abundance of conversation. Kava bartenders are also encouraged to socialize and talk up the history and positive effects of kava to their patrons and the kava community is known to cheer the Fijian catchall phrase “Bula!” when sharing drinks.

Coupled with its positive physical and psychological effects, kava could also be seen as a healthier alternative to alcohol and caffeine for its ability to produce euphoria and relaxation without affecting mental clarity. Studies also suggest that kava has potential to treat generalized anxiety and insomnia, but further research is needed to understand how it compares to more traditional pharmaceutical treatments.

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