I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked into the Kava Culture bar on Fleming Street in Key West. Kava? Java? And what about cava, the sparkling wine from Spain? Admittedly I was a bit befuddled but also curious because—let’s be honest—any establishment promoting itself as a “bar” was right up my alley. Anyone remember baked potato bars?
Kava Culture is situated in an historic commercial building that I recall once housed a nautical antiques store. Inside it looked more like a coffee house than a bar. Not a sterile Starbucks kind of place, but more like the Central Perk coffee house from the sitcom Friends with its big windows, wooden floors, tin ceiling, comfortable sofas, graffiti artwork, and U-shaped bar. Ironically, Friends was playing on a big video screen when I bellied up to the bar. And, yes, you guessed it, Phoebe was sitting directly across from me in a fuchsia tie-dye dress and sipping something from a coconut-style bowl she held up to her lips with both hands.
Phoebe’s bowl, I learned, contained kava, a brown tea made from the ground-up root of the Piper methysticum plant, which roughly translates to “intoxicating pepper.” It’s traditionally been used by Polynesian cultures in folk medicine and for social and ceremonial occasions such as when Prince Harry visited Fiji in 2018 and glugged down a bowl of kava to the loud cheers of Fijians in attendance.
It is generally believed kava first found its way to the west coast from Hawaii in the early 20th century where it was used to treat gonorrhea, kidney disease, and nervousness. In 1900, kava extract even appeared in the Sears Roebuck catalog as a “temperance wine,” an alternative to alcoholic drinks.
The first kava bars began showing up in hip neighborhoods in San Francisco and New York in the 1990s. But the drink has more recently come into vogue nationwide as more and more people are seeking healthier alternatives to alcoholic drinks while still looking for a way to unwind and socialize after work and on weekends. The global kava market is expected to grow from $1.2 billion in 2022 to $3.4 billion by 2029.
Kava’s popularity stems from the fact it produces a natural buzz, a state of calm relaxation, and can reduce anxiety without impairing cognitive function or promoting addiction. It’s healthier than alcohol and the impacts from one kava drink generally can be felt after about a half hour from the first taste and can continue for several hours.
As kava culture is quite alien to me, I turned to the young ‘tender behind the bar to guide me through my initial experience. She started me out with a bowl of classic kava tea, which was a tad bitter and rather underwhelming, except that it slightly numbed my lips. It’s common to mix kava with natural fruit flavors to balance the bitterness of the root so I next sampled two teas on tap that featured pear and orange flavors. Both were nice, but a tad too sweet. (No sugar, though, just natural products.) I wasn’t feeling much, so I asked the ‘tender if she could mix me something a bit stronger to take the edge off a little backache that had popped up earlier in the day.
She nodded and drew forth from one of the taps a drink she proudly called “Lemon Pound Cake.” A handsome man sitting beside Phoebe at the bar yelled “that’s the best.” Instead of kava root, it was made with Delta-8, a natural hemp extract promising a mind-dominant buzz, whatever that meant. I looked at the tulip-shaped glass of yellow liquid she set in front of me and wondered what the heck I was ingesting and if it all was legit. Key West does have a history of flaunting conventions. Long story short, kava is legal, and it is considered a dietary supplement. Delta-8, however, is less cut-and-dried. It was tasty, though, so I spent the next half hour sipping the Lemon Pound Cake and watching Friends on the big screen.
The bike ride home from the kava bar was simply amazing. For once all the traffic lights were green in my favor. The setting sun shone warm on my face. And everywhere I looked there were purple orchids and pink bougainvillea. Chickens ran alongside my bike. An elderly gentleman even tipped his straw bowler hat. I felt incredible and my back pain was gone. Count me a kava culture convert. Bula! ▼
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town, and Fun with Dick and James.