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What is Kava?
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What is Kava?

KAVA,

the Basics.

A drawing of a fully-grown kava plant, showing the exposed root and stalks. Art by Courtney Hopkins.

The Plant

Kava refers both to the plant (Piper methysticum) and to the traditional, relaxing drink made with its rootstock. Kava the plant is a tall shrub that’s part of the pepper plant family. Originating from the Pacific Islands, the kava plant thrives in tropical conditions and in volcanic soil, and is often recognized for its large heart-shaped leaves; however, it is its roots that are used to make the kava drink.

The kava plant is a true human artifact. Pacific Islanders bred kava we know today from ‘wild kava’ (Piper wichmannii) originating in the northern islands of present-day Vanuatu. Kava was selected for over thousands of years by choosing to re-plant some of the specimens and leaving others behind based on which plants made the best kava beverage.

During its development by human selection, the kava plant lost its ability to reproduce on its own and can only be propagated by taking cuttings of its stem, replanting them, and nurturing them until they develop into mature shrubs after approximately three to five years. The result is a fascinating dependence on human intervention and the existence of over 100 varieties, or cultivars, of kava with unique appearances, tastes, and psychoactive effects.

The Drink

Kava the drink is created when kava roots (either fresh roots or dried roots) are ground down, mixed with water, and filtered to remove the root fibers. The final kava beverage has an earthy look and aroma, peppery and bitter taste, and unique psychoactive properties thanks to the active ingredients, called kavalactones.

While kava's specific effects depend on the cultivar, generally kava beverage promotes warm feelings of relaxation, sociability, peace, and harmony without reducing mental clarity or awareness. Think of kava like coffee, but for the evening to wind down instead of the morning to wake up — like coffee, you are not drunk, high, or inebriated with kava, but you definitely feel good! Kava helps you slow down instead of speeding you up.

The effects of kava can be felt almost immediately, starting with a tingly numbness on the tongue, mouth, and throat. Within a few minutes, mental and physical tension melts away and is replaced with a sense of calmness and contentless. Unlike alcohol, kava does not directly interfere with the part of the central nervous system that impairs judgment. Kava strengthens well-being when drank alone and camaraderie when drank with others.

Kava has a long history as the core social, ceremonial, and medicinal beverage. Inside and outside of the Pacific Islands, kava is a great accompaniment to post-work social gatherings, mid-week wind-downs, or enjoying a good book in solitude. The essence of kava is that it relaxes you and makes you feel good wherever you are.

The Plant

Kava refers both to the plant (Piper methysticum) and to the traditional, relaxing drink made with its rootstock. Kava the plant is a tall shrub that’s part of the pepper plant family. Originating from the Pacific Islands, the kava plant thrives in tropical conditions and in volcanic soil, and is often recognized for its large heart-shaped leaves; however, it is its roots that are used to make the kava drink.

The kava plant is a true human artifact. Pacific Islanders bred kava we know today from ‘wild kava’ (Piper wichmannii) originating in the northern islands of present-day Vanuatu. Kava was selected for more than 3,000 years by choosing to re-plant specimens whose roots made great kava beverages and leaving behind the plants whose roots did not.

During its development by human selection, the kava plant lost its ability to reproduce on its own and can only be propagated by taking cuttings of its stem, replanting them, and nurturing them until they develop into mature shrubs after approximately three to five years. The result is a fascinating dependence on human intervention and the existence of over 100 varieties, or cultivars, of kava with unique appearances, tastes, and psychoactive effects.

The Drink

Kava the drink is created when kava roots (either fresh roots or dried roots) are ground down, mixed with water, and filtered to remove the root fibers. The final kava beverage has an earthy look and aroma, peppery and bitter taste, and unique psychoactive properties thanks to the active ingredients, called kavalactones.

While kava’s specific effects depend on the cultivar, generally kava beverage promotes warm feelings of relaxation, sociability, peace, and harmony without reducing mental clarity or awareness. Think of kava like coffee, but for the evening to wind down instead of the morning to wake up — like coffee, you are not drunk, high, or inebriated with kava, but you definitely feel good! Kava helps you slow down instead of speeding you up.

The effects of kava can be felt almost immediately, starting with a tingly numbness on the tongue, mouth, and throat. Within a few minutes, mental and physical tension melts away and is replaced with a sense of calmness and contentless. Unlike alcohol, kava does not directly interfere with the part of the central nervous system that impairs judgment. Kava strengthens well-being when drank alone and camaraderie when drank with others.

Kava has a long history as an important social, ceremonial, and medicinal beverage. Inside and outside of the Pacific Islands, kava is a great accompaniment to post-work social gatherings, mid-week wind-downs, or enjoying a good book in solitude. The essence of kava is that it relaxes you and makes you feel good, wherever you are.

Kava FAQ

What are the effects of kava? How does kava make you feel?

“Drinking kava is like having a massage from the inside out.” — Jerry Konanui

Kava is widely known to relax the body and mind, and it makes for a great after work beverage in the afternoons and evenings. Kava makes you feel good without diminishing mental clarity or awareness. Kava relieves social anxiety, restlessness, and sleeplessness. Note that some varietals, or cultivars, of kava make you feel more relaxed and introverted, while others are a bit more uplifting and social.

Will kava get me drunk? Will I feel high?

Think of kava as the opposite of coffee — kava relaxes you in the evening while coffee energizes you in the morning. And like coffee, kava makes you feel good without diminishing mental clarity or awareness. So you won’t feel drunk, high, or ‘out of it’ as you may with alcohol, cannabis, or other drugs.

Is kava safe? Should I be concerned about the liver scare associated with exported kava in Europe in the early 2000s?

While the U.S. Food & Drug Administration put out a warning on kava supplements in 2002 due to claims of kava-related liver damage in Germany, two decades of research has since shown that traditional, water-extracted kava beverage (as opposed to ethanolic extracts of kava plant parts that caused the scare) are completely safe for consumption. These water-extracted kava preparations have been recognized as food/beverage (as opposed to drug or supplement) by both the UN and World Health Organization.

If you go to the Pacific Islands, you will see for yourself how traditional kava is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people multiple times a week!

Are the effects of kava different depending on if I take it as a pill/tincture vs. drink it as a beverage?

Kava effects vary from individual to individual, from cultivar to cultivar, and more, but in general, drinking water-extracted kava beverage is more enjoyable and effective than taking a pill containing ethanolic kava extract. Put another way, would you rather have coffee or caffeine pills? We prefer the former, and for kava too! Kava beverage is also time-tested in a way that non-traditional extracts are not.

How long does it take for the effects of kava to kick in? How long do they last?

You should start to feel kava’s effect immediately, starting with a numbing sensation in the mouth. Relaxation typically sets in after about 5-10 minutes and can last up to a couple hours. Much like coffee, you will feel the effects of kava sooner and more strongly if taken on a more empty stomach.

What does kava taste like?

There are variations in kava’s taste given it is a natural, plant-based product. That said, fresh-pressed kava from green, undried roots generally has a peppery, bitter note. It’s an acquired taste (like coffee or alcohol), but fresh kava is easier to drink than a beverage made from dried kava root, which is commonly served in kava bars throughout the continental U.S. and has a far earthier taste. Finally, the mouth-numbing effect of kava means that the ‘taste experience’ changes with each sip as you feel less and less!

Should I ever mix kava with alcohol, cannabis, or other substances?

For us, kava is best enjoyed without other substances.

What we do know is that kava can impede the body’s ability to break down alcohol and the two should not be mixed.

Are there any side effects of drinking kava?

In the Pacific Islands, traditional kava beverage has been consumed daily by hundreds of thousands of people for centuries, and moderate use is not associated with any serious side effects.

Excessive use over time can lead to dry skin, and excessive use during one sitting can lead to upset stomach and drowsiness. That said, like coffee, most people ‘feel good’ after 1-2 servings of kava and don’t desire more. Unlike alcohol, where drinkers often want a lot more after a couple servings, kava drinkers usually are content after a couple servings.

Is it safe to drive after having kava?

Studies show that kava taken in small and moderate does not effect mental function or driving ability. It has been suggested that large doses of kava may effect motor skills and, therefore, caution is advised when operating heavy machinery when kava is consumed in higher doses.

Is kava addictive?

Unlike alcohol, kava is not classified as a drug and does not have physically addicting properties. In fact, it is known to have a “reverse tolerance” — where the amount required to experience effects actually diminishes over time.

Is kava legal in the U.S.?

Yes. Kava has always been legal in the U.S. Pacific Island nations have been advocating for kava’s safe use globally ever since the liver-damage scares of the early 2000s — in September 2020, the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations voted to approve kava as a beverage when mixed with water.

Can kava be consumed during pregnancy or lactation?

Like coffee consumption, kava consumption during pregnancy or lactation is not recommended. As always, if you have any health concerns we strongly advise consulting your qualified medical professional.

Can I grow kava where I live?

Kava typically grows in tropical environments with high temperatures and humidity year-round, plentiful rainfall, and moist soil. It spread from Melanesia east into Polynesia as seafaring Pacific Islanders brought kava with them to new islands.

Kava is still grown exclusively in the Pacific Islands, and kava is to the Pacific Islands like wine is to the Mediterranean — different terroirs, different varietals, different contexts across the region. But in theory, as wine spread beyond the Mediterranean, kava could spread beyond the Pacific Islands to similarly suitable climates.

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Kava Facts + Resources

Family
Piperaceae
Genus
Piper
Species
Methysticum
Species Author
George Forster
Vernaculars

Kava
Ava (Samoa)
‘Awa (Hawai‘i)
Sakau (Pohnpei)
Yaqona (Fiji)

Where it’s cultivated

In all sub-regions of Oceania (the Pacific Islands): Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia. Most of the world's kava is grown in Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Hawai‘i, and the Solomon Islands.

Helpful links + further reading

‘Awa: Views of an Ethnobotanical Treasure, Ed Johnston & Helen Rogers, 2006

Kava Forums: Kind community of kava lovers from around the world.

Kava: The Pacific Elixir: The Definitive Guide to its Ethnobotany, History and Chemistry, Vincent Lebot, Mark Merlin & Lamont Lindstrom, 1997.

The Association for Hawaiian ‘Awa (AHA): A 501 (c)(3) charitable organization established for research, education, and preservation of the cultural and medicinal values associated with the ‘awa plant.

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