Kava, a dull, bitter drink that the United States loves

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Sylvie Nadin – November 7, 2019 at 10:14

The Pacific Island States want to make it an export product. While Europe forbids it, kava bars are becoming more numerous across the Atlantic.

A bowl of kava with lemon and mint served at the Brooklyn Kava Bar on January 18, 2018 in New York. | Don Emmert / AFP

Night falls on Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu. A colorful light is hung on a tree and indicates the presence of a kava bar, also called nakamal. People gather there to share some bowls of kava, emblematic drink of this Pacific archipelago. In the shadows, Ni-Vanuatu as well as expatriates and tourists discuss in English or Bichelamar, the lingua franca of the archipelago.
The keeper serves to ladle a cloudy liquid in bowls called shells, for less than two euros. The kava is drunk dry. A sink is available to those who wish to spit or rinse their mouths. The taste is bitter and astringent. Throat clearing is heard. The atmosphere is relaxed. Kava soothes. In Vanuatu, nakamals are places to meet and discuss after work, just like bars and pubs in Europe. But alcohol is not present.

Kava has been drunk since ancient times in some Pacific islands such as Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu or Hawaii. It comes from the roots of kava, a plant related to pepper. “Kava was banned during colonization. After the independence of 1980, very quickly, it becomes a cultural claim, a way to assert itself in relation to the Westerners who never considered it very well. Today, it is a marker of cultural identity. This is the official drink of the government, “says Vincent Lebot, co-author of the book Drinkers kava and researcher at CIRAD.

Vanuatu produces cocoa, coffee, sugar, but these are not competitive products in the export market. Island States can produce only small volumes. “The original idea is to promote a product from small Pacific island countries that they would have exclusivity. This is the case of kava, “he says. A bitter taste, a peppery smell, a dull color, it is not the best selling drink. “It’s not really good. We drink it to share something. People are looking for conviviality, not taste, “says Vincent Lebot.

However, it has many advantages. Kava does not affect the central nervous system. There is no dependency, unlike coffee for example. Neither addiction, on the contrary: when you get used to the effects, there is no need to drink as much. No side effects either, except in cases of particularly excessive consumption where the skin can become very dry.

Europeans have been interested in kava for its medicinal, relaxing and soothing properties since the 19th century. “The Western pharmaceutical industries have developed products that are often not very effective and are not particularly representative of the real effects of kava when it is taken as a beverage”, Vincent Lebot describes. Capsules based on kava extracts have some success.
But in the early 2000s, controversy erupts when extracts made in Germany are potentially hepatotoxic. “This potential toxicity is due to poor quality control rather than the plant itself,” says the researcher. What is hepatotoxic is not kava but the product that the Germans made. Which has not even been really demonstrated. “

Kava plant in a garden on the island of Santo, Vanuatu. | Sylvie Nadin

While in the late 1990s, kava belonged to the group of the most used medicinal plants around the world, the pharmaceutical market collapsed rapidly. In 2001, in Germany, products made from kava extracts were gradually withdrawn from sale. In January 2002, the French Agency for Health Safety of Health Products decided to follow German decisions and banned, according to the precautionary principle, the placing on the market of kava in all its forms. An amazing decision since Kaviase, a drug reimbursed by the Social Security, had been sold in France for decades without any complaint.
New Caledonia, meanwhile, does not prohibit kava, already widespread in its territory. The World Health Organization (WHO) decides to evaluate the hepatotoxicity of kava among regular consumers in the Pacific, but the observations of health professionals in these territories show no predominance of liver problems in these populations. Kava is still banned in France. The damage is done, the reputation of kava is tainted, the doubt still persists today.

Exports up
Despite European bans, the export market is currently expanding on other continents, particularly in the Pacific and the United States. Although there is no funding from abroad for kava, unlike other crops such as livestock or coconut, the number of kavaculturists is increasing year by year. Vincent Lebot nuance: “You have to make a quality product to export but the kava still has a bad image. Vanuatu must invest in quality control. A new scandal should not break out. “
Today, the main export product is dried roots, although some exporters specialize in ready-to-use powder. “It would take a finished product, bottle the kava to value it, make the taste and color acceptable,” adds the researcher. He receives a notification about a novelty: Pacific Roots Kava, a frozen fresh purée from Vanuatu, then bottled in Auckland before being sent to the United States. “This is the first bottle of fresh kava exported that I hear about. Everything has been sold but will it stabilize? “Questions Vincent Lebot.

Fresh kava roots from the islands arrive in the capital and are sold at the kava market Anabru directly to the owners of kava bar. | Sylvie Nadin

In recent years, exports have risen and pushed up prices. Kava becomes locally more and more expensive. “Today, the price of the kilo of fresh kava revolves around 1,000 vats [just under 8 euros] whereas only a few years ago, it was more like 400 vats [about 3 euros]. This kills the local market of kava bars. The effect depends on the dose, and if the price of kava increases, to avoid increasing the price of a shell, it will be more and more diluted, which will reduce its effects. The consumer will then turn to other drinks such as alcohol, “says Vincent Lebot. He added: “Production needs to increase so that it does not become a real problem. If production increases and quality is there, then it can contribute to the economic development of small countries. “
“We have a natural product, with no toxicity, no side effects, with an immediate effect to calm anxiety, it is normal that it pleases.”

Michael Louze, kava exporter
Michael Louze is an exporter, kava enthusiast and creator of a website “to list the kava bars, locate them and note them, the nakamal TripAdvisor!”. His warehouse is located in Port Vila. He receives the kava in the form of dried chips. It washes, digs and sorts to remove pieces where there is mold or skin. He checks that they are the right varieties because they are not all consumable. “I am used to it. I recognize the species by smell now, “he says with a smile. He confides throw about 15% of what he receives, a quantity that is not negligible. “Bad varieties have no proven toxicity, but they can have unpleasant effects the next day, such as headaches,” he says. Kava is like wine: there are more or less good, it depends on the variety and the origin. “

Michael Louze sometimes goes to the market in Anabru kava, Port Vila. Lateral roots and stumps are exposed on tarpaulins, these are the only parts of the plant used to make the drink. A sign with the price per kilo and the provenance is placed next to a scale. Santo, 1,000 vatus. Pentecost, 800 vatus. The price varies according to the origin and the age. “The older he is, the more expensive he is. Normally we do not pick it for three years, “says Michael Louze.
It exports mainly to the United States and New Caledonia but sometimes has requests for other regions. According to him, the overseas market will continue to grow. “We have a natural product, with no toxicity according to the WHO, no side effect, with an immediate effect to calm anxiety, it’s normal that it pleases.” He smiles: he just received by email confirmation of ‘a one-tonne order for New Mexico.
Kava boom in the United States
The first kava bars were born in the United States in the early 2000s. Kava is only drunk in Polynesian and Hawaiian clubs. Laurent Olivier left New Caledonia at this time and the idea germinated in his head to open a kava bar.
“In 2000, I imported twenty kilos of kava roots. He was immediately seized by the customs. I had to explain and negotiate to get it back. Finding a place to settle was also difficult, it was hard for them to understand what I wanted to do, thinking that kava could be a drug, “he recalls. In January 2002, he opened Nakava in Boca Raton, Florida. The concept pleases. Many kava bars open the following years.

In 2012, Laurent Olivier creates an import and distribution company: Kava Depot. He also invests in a laboratory to test the quality of the kava as well as in a processing unit. “The FDA is very strict about the quality and risks of contamination,” he says. Suppliers who want to export to the United States must be registered with the FDA and have processing plants to US standards. She will in the coming months send experts to check all the exporters. If they do not pass the inspection, they will no longer be able to export there. “

Today, there are about 185 kava bars, more than half of which are in Florida. It becomes the fashionable place. Laurent Olivier has an explanation: “A place like kava bar is above all friendly, it fills a gap in American society. It is an alternative for former alcoholics and for those who do not like alcohol. People get used to the taste of kava because its relaxing effect is quickly felt. “Different concepts are emerging such as the kava bar studio yoga, the kava bar art gallery, the kava bar pizza, the kava bar billiard and even the kava bar strip club. “People are very creative when they open a kava bar,” laughs Laurent Olivier.

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