I had only heard about kava in passing, so I didn't know what to expect when the bartender at House Of Kava presented me with the brown liquid last Friday. I'm not usually one to try new substances; I'm very comfortable with the my current repertoire, but kava sounded harmless, even helpful.
Derived from the western Pacific kava plant, kava powder drinks were originally used in ceremonies and for medical treatment on Pacific islands like Fiji and Hawaii. As word spread about kava's relaxing effect, kava bars started popping up around Hawaii and South Florida throughout the early 2000s. In 2015, New York City joined the trend with its first kava bar.
A recent New York Timesstory described kava as "Nature's Xanax,'" quoting local kava-drinkers on the beverage's stress-relieving abilities and its recent surge in popularity. Brooklyn Kava founder tells the Times, "I think people can really use it in New York...There are so many people here that are overworked and just stressed." As an overworked and stressed New Yorker, this sounded right up my alley, so I headed to the closest of several Bushwick kava bars in my neighborhood.
House Of Kava's Friday night crowd mingled about a long bar and on benches that lined the interior. A painting of a woman with butterflies on her head watched over the crowded room. "Join the fight to keep kratom legal," was written on a chalkboard, among other wavy drawings. There was a flat screen TV in the corner of the bar, playing footage of African women dancing and carrying pots on their heads while Animal Collective played in the background— this is how I imagine a sports bar overthrown by worldly hippies would appear.
I sat down next to a grey-haired woman staring intently at the glass in front of her. This is when I met the previously mentioned bartender; he introduced himself as Ryan and handed me a laminated menu. It was split up into two sections, "Kava" and "Kratom." Kratom, he informed me, is an energizing tea, while Kava is a more sedative beverage. "People really seem to like the red kratom tea. The gold makes you really talkative and awake, and the red is a step down from that. It's her favorite," he gestured to the woman sitting next to me.
Keeping with my kava-focused mission, I scanned the list of flavored kava cocktails — or, "kavatails" — and landed on the First Timer, right above the daunting 55-dollar Family Bowl. "Good choice," Ryan assured me. The First Timer includes a double-scoop of the kava powder and a "bula shot" to ensure first time kava consumers reap the drink's full benefit. It took about 5 minutes for him to scoop, stir, and serve the pineapple-garnished drink, which looked a lot like chocolate milk. I had read that kava is traditionally served in coconut shells, but the stemless wine glass and pineapple slice was a cute substitute.
The dull, peppery flavor surprised me — it almost tasted like bong water. I realized the sweet-tasting pineapple wasn't meant to serve as tropical decor. My distaste must've spread onto my face; "most people try to finish it in a few big gulps instead of sipping," Ryan told me. I followed his advice with a swig. My tongue and throat started to tingle.
A large basket of snacks sat beside me — Flamin' Hot Cheetos, Munchies, Flamin' Hot Munchies. I thought a bag of chips might make the kava easier to drink, so I grabbed some Flamin' Hot Funyuns, a variety I had not seen before. In a few calculated motions, I bit off the pineapple from its rind, chugged my drink, and shoved a handful of Funyuns into my mouth — kind of like the tequila-salt-lime method, but gross. My stomach turned a bit and I felt my mouth grow numb. Looking around at the funky wall art, and up at the painted butterfly woman, I noticed my wiggling vision. I felt fuzzy, maybe even giddy, but surprisingly clear-headed. The usual tension in my neck and back had slightly subsided.
There was about a quarter left of my kava drink, which I downed confidently. The only downsides from the experience, apart from the bitter taste, was the bit of nausea I felt after that final gulp and the conversation that followed. A visibly drunk man spoke to me from across the bar. His one story, which he repeated about five times, involved him getting drunk, drinking kava, and throwing up at work the next morning. One detail he really stressed was the taste of his vomit, "kind of like a milkshake, it wasn't half-bad."
But the light euphoria and tension relief — physically and mentally — eclipsed any unpleasantries from oversharing drunkards or hints of bong water. Next time, I'll try the kratom.