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What is Kava? The Mystery of Piper Methysticum

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Imbibed for centuries in the islands scattered across the south pacific, the roots of the piper methysticum (kava) plant were in many ways formative in the cultures of Oceana. Kava, the drink made from the prepared roots of the kava plant, provides potent relaxation and a sense of calm, happiness, and peace. It has been used ceremonially among a variety of cultures across the South Pacific and is integral to many societies, and has now spread around the world.

So what is kava, anyway? And why would someone want to drink it?

Kava has waxed and waned in popularity throughout the rest of the world, though it has enjoyed quite a resurgence over the last few years. And its future looks bright. In this article, I will dig deep into the roots to uncover the history, significance, and power of this wonderful substance.

what is kava


What is Kava?

Kava, in its most traditional form, is a drink made from the masticated roots of the piper methysticum plant, a plant that flourishes throughout the islands of Polynesia. It is believed to have been originally domesticated in either New Guinea or Vanuatu, but it quickly spread across Polynesia. It thrives in Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, and even in Hawaii — all over Oceana.

The kava plant doesn’t grow very well outside Polynesia, though there have been many attempts to make it grow in other locations. China has been attempting to grow it, and if China succeeds, this would obviously change the kava market dramatically.

Additionally, scientists have been attempting to synthesize the active molecules in kava, and have been succeeding, at least somewhat.

Regardless, at this time, virtually all the kava in the world is grown throughout Polynesia and is dried and exported throughout the world.

Why Would You Want To Drink Kava?

Not for the taste, that’s for sure!

Kava doesn’t taste very good at all (see below for more information), but it produces quite pleasant effects on the body and mind. The resulting beverage is a mild narcotic and produces a numb mouth, relaxation, calmness, and pleasant vibes.

The Basics of Kava

Kava Field, Hawaii
Kava Field, Hawaii
  • Kava has been safely used throughout Oceana for centuries
  • Kava is not addictive
  • Kava is legal throughout most of the world (be sure to check your local laws)
  • There are two major types of kava: Noble and Tudei. Essentially you should only ever be consuming Noble kava
  • Kava produces anxiety-reduction, stress-relief, calmness, sleepiness, and a chill sense of well-being
  • Kava is frequently sold in other formats such as supplements, tinctures, etc. For the most part, these should be avoided
  • In the 1990s, there were some issues with liver failure that caused many countries to make the plant illegal
  • The cause of these liver problems are still unclear, but it seems they were related to people taking poor quality supplements that contained non-edible parts of the kava plant, as well as large amounts of alcohol and other drugs

What is Kava Drink?

The most traditional kava recipes are really only available in the South Pacific, and involve mashing fresh roots against coral, or getting the women of the tribe to pre-chew the kava and spit it out. These roots are mixed with water and downed as quickly as possible, and produce the most potent effects. However, it is almost impossible to get fresh kava root outside of the South Pacific, so this method is not commonly used.

Delicious Kava (Dua Na Bilo) Ready to Drink
Delicious Kava (Dua Na Bilo) Ready to Drink

Dried Kavas

Most kava is dried for export, and even throughout Polynesia, most people end up making their kava with dried kava because it is so common. The kava root is dried and ground to different particle sizes. There are two major sizes commonly found:

Medium Grind

Medium grind kava is the most common size of kava grind and must be strained and filtered before consumption. Commonly kava drinkers will use a nylon strainer bag to strain their medium grind kava, and will kneed the kava in the bag for several minutes before ingestion.

Kavafied Pro Premium Commercial Grade Kava Strainer Bag
Kavafied Pro Premium Commercial Grade Kava Strainer Bag
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$19.99

Last update on 2022-01-18 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

See here for details on how to make kava with medium grind kava.

An example of a medium grind kava is Kalm With Kava’s Loa Waka Kava.

Kalm With Kava Fiji Loa Waka Medium Grind Kava

Micronized/Instant Kava

These two categories are in some ways separate, in some ways similar. The grind for both micronized and instant kava is much much smaller than medium grind. With micronized kava, the resulting powder dissolves almost completely in water; with instant kava, it typically completely dissolves in water.

If you have a sensitive stomach, you may still want to strain micronized kava, but many find they don’t need to. Instant kava generally cannot be strained.

These formats are usually a bit more expensive than Medium Grind per dose of kava. Additionally, there are fewer cultivars available in micronized format compared to medium-grind.

Kalm with Kava’s Fiji Loa Waka Micronized Instant Kava is an excellent example of this format.

Kalm With Kava Fiji Loa Waka Micronized Instant Kava

Other Common Types of Kava

Kava very famously comes in tea format (Yogi Kava Tea), as well as supplement and pill format, kava candy format, tincture format, extracts, and other styles.

With the exception of the Kava Candy mentioned above, most of these kavas are low quality and should be avoided. Pills, tinctures, and grocery-store teas don’t provide much sourcing information, and therefore we have no way to evaluate whether the kava is Noble or Tudei, nor do we know if the kava is made from parts of the plant that aren’t normally consumed.

Due to the potential liver health risks from poorly-sourced kava, it’s best to stick to the authentic kavas.


What Is Kava Used For?

Kava is used in a few major different ways. Traditionally, Pacific Island cultures used kava for ceremonial purposes. But it is also often enjoyed simply for recreation with friends and family, in much the way alcohol is consumed in western cultures. You can dig into my comparison between alcohol and kava here.

Additionally, many people consume kava for medicinal purposes. It often used to self-treat the following conditions:

Medicinal Uses of Kava

  • Anxiety (it is often compared to Xanax in its effects)
  • Muscle Pain
  • Migraines
  • Stress
  • Alcohol withdrawal
  • Benzodiazepine withdrawal
  • Opiate withdrawal
  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs)

WebMD has a pretty comprehensive page listing the potential uses of kava (though they scare-monger the liver concerns, in my view).

Kava Ceremonies

Traditional kava ceremonies vary from village to village, and from island to island. Commonly, village elders will join together to make and drink kava in a ritualized manner. This might consist of something like:

  • Village elders and their guests gather for a kava ceremony
  • Men are dressed modestly, as are women (typically in a sarong-like dress
  • Elders enter the ceremony area first, followed by the rest of the party including guests
  • Everyone sits down, and the elders begin preparing the kava
  • The kava is needed and strained through bags into a large wooden bowl
  • The chief, or primary elder, drinks the kava first
  • Other elders receive their kava
  • The kava is poured into coconut shells
  • Kava is then distributed around the room, first to men, and finally, to women

Drinking Kava in a Ceremony

  • Typically the drinker will clap their hands
  • Shout “Bula!”
  • Down the Hatch
  • Clap once again
  • Say “Mathe”

Again, this varies from island to island, and from culture to culture.

Variations Across Oceana

Of course, with so many island nations, and small populations scattered around Polynesia, the kava ceremony varies from place to place. For an amusing take on the ceremony, you can check out the following video, which shows Prince Charles enjoying a very special Royal Kava at a ceremony in Vanuatu.

The last time Royal Kava was drank was in 1974, when Charles’ father Prince Philip was in Vanuatu. Some people there believed that he was a god, and continue to feel that Prince Charles is the son of god.

Kava for Non-Ceremonial Purposes

The majority of kava enjoyed throughout the Pacific Islands, and elsewhere throughout the world, is not consumed in ceremonial circumstances.

Instead, it is frequently enjoyed at home with family and friends, out at a Nakamal, or elsewhere. Kava is a social drink, and its consumption helps bring people together, aids in conversation and relaxes everyone who is chatting and sitting around.

This is how I enjoy kava, and how most modern users of Kava drink their beverages.

What is a Kava Bar, or a Nakamal?

Nakamals are essentially kava bars, and they are found throughout Polynesia. That said, there are wide differences in these spaces, depending on where you go.

Rural nakamals are often ceremonial meeting places and community areas, frequently restricted to only men, where kava is drank and local issues discussed. Some may even provide sleeping areas to visitors, like an inn. Some nakamals do not feature a door, which is a sign of welcome for all (if you’re male, that is).

Often in these rural communities, the nakamal is not a business, and there is no buying and selling of kava.

In more urban areas, and elsewhere throughout the world, Nakamals are much more akin to traditional bars, with lighted signs that state that kava is available inside. These nakamals sell their kava and generally are not restricted to men only.

Kava Bars in the United States

Over the past several years, a large number of kava bars have been opened in the United States, with more sure to come. The wonderful KalmwithKava put together an interactive map showing the locations of many kava bars throughout the United States. I’m thrilled to see so many, even if there are none near me! Over the past several years, the number of bars has grown significantly.

As Germany has finally relaxed its laws regarding kava use, the kava plant has been welcome throughout most of Europe as well. As far as I know, there are no kava bars in Europe at this time, though.

The Difficulties of Growing Kava for Export

It takes about five years for a kava plant to mature enough to harvest. This is a significantly longer time horizon than many commercial crops require, and this extended growth period makes forecasting demand difficult. Additionally, cyclones are frequent problems in Polynesia, and these fearsome storms can destroy kava plants, further complicating supply.

Consequently, there is a good deal of price fluctuation in kava due to these supply challenges. Forecasting kava demand is exceptionally difficult, so price spikes for extended durations are not uncommon.


Kava Effects

The effects of kava are somewhat varied, depending on the cultivar and strain of kava that you choose. The major effects consist of:

  • Numbing of the mouth and throat
  • Relaxation
  • Euphoria
  • Anxiety-reduction
  • Muscle-relaxation
  • A sense of well-being
  • Sedation

What Does Kava Taste Like?

Traditional preparations of kava have a complex angular dimension, with plenty of buttery, oaky undertones and hints of vanilla, cedar, tobacco, and mint. The chewy tannins bring on a flamboyant unctuousness that will delight the palette and make the spirit soar!

Err, wait, sorry, I forgot this isn’t a wine label. Let’s try this again.

Kava tastes like peppery mud, basically. It doesn’t taste good, and you shouldn’t trust anyone who says it tastes good. Even in the Pacific islands, no one drinks kava for the flavor. Sure, you get used to it, but it never will taste good.

This is one of the big downsides to traditional kava preparations and is likely one of the big reasons why kava isn’t much more popular. There is clearly a significant amount of peppery zing in many different types of kava, and the more or less peppery the flavor, the more mild or sharp the experience.

Beyond that, kava tastes pretty muddy and earthy, and your goal is almost always to get it down as quickly as possible.

Masking the Flavor of Kava

As I mentioned in my guide how to make kava, you can mask the flavors of kava in a variety of ways. The most common ways I see people mention on the internet, or in kava bars, are:

  • Pour a bunch of chocolate syrup into the kava
  • Add a bunch of fruit juice to the kava

The problem with either of these methods is that you’re consuming a bunch of sugar along with your kava. Sure, it tastes better, but it’s in no way healthy to consume that much sugar.

Try Soda Water as a Chaser

My favorite technique for getting down kava without drinking a bunch of sugar is to simply chase down the kava with some soda water — flavored or unflavored. There’s something about the carbonation that seems to overwhelm the palette and quickly clear off the flavor of the kava. And there are no calories in soda water, so it’s much much healthier.


Kavalactones and their Effects

Kavalactones are the active ingredients in Kava. There are several different kavalactones, also called kava chemotypes, found in various kavas. All kavas contain a mix of these major kavalactones, as well as some minor ones as well.

The six major chemotypes are:

  1. Desmethoxyyangonin (DMY)
  2. Dihydrokavain (DHK)
  3. Yangonin
  4. Kavain
  5. Dihydromethysticin (DHM)
  6. Methysticin

Many kavas are categorized by the quantity of each of the six most important kavalactones. These numbers are given in descending order, for example, 245316.

By looking at the order of these numbers, you can determine the effects of a kava (to some degree). For example, kavas that start with the number 4 are highest in Kavain, and will be “energizing” while kavas that start with 2 will be highest in DHK, and will be more relaxing, or “heady”.

If you want to deep dive into how all the chemotypes interact, see this article here.

Noble vs. Tudei Kava

Noble kavas are those kavas that have chemotypes that start with 24 or 42. These are considered the highest quality kavas, and are the only kavas that are allowed to be exported according to Vanuatu law.

Kavas that start with other numbers are considered Tudei kava, and are lower quality. They may cause nausea and hangover, among other undesirable effects.

It is best to purchase only noble kavas from reputable brands that test their kava and provide information on independent testing.

How Long Do The Effects of Kava Last?

The effects of most traditional noble kavas will last for about an hour, perhaps a little longer than that. Most kava drinkers enjoy multiple shells, or drinks, in one sitting. This will extend the length of the effect, and of course, will increase the power of the kava in a similar way to alcohol.

The more you drink, the more “crunk” you’ll feel and the longer it will last.

How Long Does Kava Last Before it Goes Bad?

Some kava vendors include a Best By date, but most don’t. Try to keep your kava dry and away from the sun, and it should keep for quite a while. As long as you don’t see or smell any mold, your kava should be good for over a year.

Try to remove as much air from your package as possible, and consider vacuum-sealing the kava, or otherwise seal the kava as best you can.

I often use resealable glass jars like these to store my kava:

Bormiolio Rocco Clear Jar with Chalkboard, 25.3 Oz
Bormiolio Rocco Clear Jar with Chalkboard, 25.3 Oz
Lid has an airtight seal to keep food fresh; Versatile jar; can be used to store and display sugar; flour; tea; candy and much more
$15.39

Last update on 2022-01-18 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

How Can I Know Which Kavas are Good Quality?

Kava is regulated as an herbal supplement in the United States, which basically means it’s not regulated at all. Consequently, you can find loads of products that include Kava in the package.

Avoid them.

A good rule of thumb is: if a kava is sold mixed with other substances, it’s probably low-quality kava. You probably won’t find any testing information, details about where it came from, what kind of kava it is, etc.

Additionally, if the company selling the kava sells other supplements that aren’t kava, avoid them. They are likely purchasing bulk kava on the secondary market, and have no information as to where it came from or what it is.

There’s no way to know if it is safe. As to why there are safety concerns, see below.

The Kava Subreddit has a great deal of information about various kava brands, and which ones are responsible. Kavaforums also provides valuable information on testing and responsible kava brands.

Here is a detailed article on several good quality kavas available on Amazon.


Risks of Kava

Liver Concerns

By far the most significant concern about kava ingestion involves its impact on the liver. When Kava last had a spike in popularity in the late 1990s, there were several cases across the globe involving hepatoxicity, liver failure, and even death, due at least in part to kava use.

Many countries banned kava as a response, but as more studies have been done, most countries have since reversed those bans.

It is still not entirely clear what caused those liver failures, but the World Health Organization [WHO] did an excellent examination of the circumstances. The general conclusions at this time are:

  • People were consuming low-quality parts of the kava plant that aren’t normally used for consumption
  • People were consuming kava in the form of supplements and extracts that concentrated the negative effects of these low-quality parts of the plant
  • Many users were combining kava with other drugs, including alcohol
  • Kava, when consumed in its traditional format, shows no elevated liver concerns.

In the end, kava should be used responsibly. It should only be consumed from reputable sources that test their kava and publish the results. Avoid most kava supplements and kava tinctures, and avoid kavas that are sold by companies that sell a variety of non-kava products.

Instead, choose a traditional medium-grind or micronized kava from a high-quality brand that provides sourcing information and testing data.

Also, it is wise to avoid mixing alcohol and kava.

Dermopathy

Some users who consume too much kava, or those who consume the woody portions of the root that are normally filtered out (“kava toss and wash” as kratom users call it), may run into issues with dermopathy. Dermopathy is a condition where the skin gets scaly and hard, before peeling off like a sunburn. This frequently occurs on the hands, back, and neck.

You can attempt to mitigate dermopathy by using moisturizers on the skin. And avoid the toss and wash method of consuming kava. Filter and strain your kava before you drink it, unless it is instant kava.

My preferred method of preparation is to use an Aluball. It’s quick, easy, and mess-free. I reviewed the Aluball here.


Conclusion

Kava kava is one of nature’s miracle drinks. While clearly not as popular as alcohol, coffee, or tea, it is a potent substance that has mood and mind-altering effects. It has been consumed for thousands of years by many people across the world. And it’s growing significantly in popularity.

When used responsibly, there are very few risks to kava, and lots of upside. Choose your kava vendors carefully, and only consume kava that includes sourcing information and independent lab tests.

Once you have that, prepare your kava, and prepare to relax!

Bula.


52 thoughts on “What is Kava? The Mystery of Piper Methysticum”

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