The Appropriation of Kava Almost Destroyed It. Will This Time Be Different?
I was 18 years old when I first tasted kava, poured from a silver thermos into a small bowl made of slick koa wood. I had heard of the bitter beverage while growing up in Hawaii, on the island of Oahu, but had never seen it in person until then. It looked like caramel mud, and smelled of earth and licorice.
Sammy, the Samoan porter at my family’s restaurant, grinned as I cocked my eyebrow at the brew. He reached over and clapped me on the back, then held out the little koa cup with both of his giant, ruddy hands. My dad stood in the corner of the stockroom, amused and curious, grasping a cup of his own.
“You’re of age now, eh? Consider this a ceremony to make it official,” Sammy said, raising the bowl to his eyes and bowing his head gently. “Let us drink.”
We all took a deep sip, and immediately I felt the cool liquid numbing my lips and tongue, as if I had taken a swig of artisanal novocaine. Fighting the bitterness, I suppressed a gag and took another sip as Sammy nodded approvingly. Just one cup was enough to start making my arms and eyelids go a bit heavy, and the conversation seemed to flow forth as we sat in that stockroom.
“It’s one of the most important plants in the South Pacific. It’s practically spiritual,” Sammy reminded us.
After moving to the mainland U.S. for college, I almost forgot about kava altogether. It was hard not to, given that nobody even seemed to know what it was on the mainland. There were a handful of public kava “bars” in Hawaii, but I remembered them looking more like odd smoothie shops than intriguing dens of psychoactive enjoyment. And even in diverse cities, like Los Angeles, it seemed that if anyone was drinking kava, it was happening in the homes of Pacific Islanders, not in a bar setting.
Twelve years later, a whole lot has changed. Just in the past couple years, bars have been popping up across the continental U.S.: BarBula in New York City, Kamp Kava in Davie, Florida, and Da Kine’s Kava in Durham, North Carolina. But talk of a kava resurgence has been slowly bubbling longer than that. In 2016, Forbes hyped the “intoxicating rise of kava bars,” while Rolling Stone dubbed it the “all-natural high that’s sweeping America” two years later. Producers in the Pacific, excited by the prospect of all this newfound attention, are looking to capitalize on a new era of Western “wellness” obsession. The buzz around kava reeks of a trend on the cusp, ready to entice with the promise of reduced stress, mellow conversation, and better sleep—all with minimal side effects. To me, it feels a lot like the faddish excitement over imports like acaí, Ayurvedic herbs, and even Japanese matcha, which have been stripped of cultural context and repackaged for American consumers.
But we’ve been here before, some 30 years ago, when kava first caught the attention of the Western market in the 1990s and was heralded as the Next Big Thing. Kava’s properties of slowing the mind and quelling stress made it a novel alternative to anti-anxiety medications, and pharmaceutical attention exploded as companies raced to nail down a proprietary formula. Germany and the U.S., in particular, had growing markets and immense curiosity about the potential of the plant. Near the turn of the millennium, kava was already a $200 million industry for the South Pacific, with more and more farmers choosing to dedicate their energy and subsistence-farming land to slow-growing kava crops.
Then it all came to a crashing halt. A small cluster of hospitalizations linked to potent kava extracts triggered the ire of foreign regulators, leading to a major ban in Germany in 2002, and similar warnings and bans around the world. Seemingly overnight, the international market for kava disappeared, leaving subsistence farmers with heaps of now-unsellable kava root.
“The West was indiscriminate with its treatment of kava. People in Germany lost touch with the content of how it was traditionally used, and in many ways they didn’t care,” says H.C. Bittenbender, a horticulturalist who has been researching kava for decades at the University of Hawaii. “After the crash, all progress stopped. It was many years before we heard of new plantings.”
Those who work with the plant are now at a crossroads, as countries begin to allow more kava imports and savvy investors try to cash in on a potentially trendy drink. The early-aughts crash embittered many and left lasting damage, especially for poor farmers who had gone all-in on the kava rush of the 1990s. And while time has passed, very little has changed about the way in which it’s harvested. Good kava still takes upwards of five years to grow, and it’s all processed by hand, through farmers who understand kava less as a commodity and more as a way of life.
The story of kava today is a retelling of that past. A string of tiny island nations took on global demand for a near-spiritual plant, then succumbed to the whims of foreign consumers thousands of miles away. What will it take to prevent that from happening again?
Pentecost Island lies one thousand miles off the eastern coast of Australia, shaped like an emerald finger rising out of the Pacific Ocean. The knuckle, so to speak, is Mount Vulmat, crowning a mountain range that slopes down to the sea, blanketed in jungle. At times, the landscape looks impenetrable from the main road that winds along the western shore.
It is one of more than 80 islands that comprise the nation of Vanuatu. Over the course of 3,000 years, the Ni-Vanuatu people have diversified here with a dizzying array of dialects, tribal cultures, and folk stories, but they’ve all bonded over the miracle shrub that springs from the humid hills across the island chain.
The soft heart-shaped leaves of the kava plant don’t stand out much in this dense jungle, but something piqued the curiosity of Vanuatu’s original inhabitants. Through experimentation, they discovered that the spindly roots produced a brew that calmed the mind. The love affair was immediate; even two centuries of colonial meddling from the British and French, who found kava distasteful, couldn’t stamp it out.
Kava crowned kings and welcomed newcomers in some of the most lavish and spiritual ceremonies in Samoa and Tonga. It also became popular as a casual social lubricant over thousands of years. But no matter the setting, the method of extracting kava has remained relatively unchanged over time in its Pacific homeland: Just water and kneading the roots, either by hand or a blender.
When explorers took to the sea to find new islands to the east, they included kava cuttings in their limited supplies, perhaps as a peace offering for any new tribes they met. Today, thanks to the ingenious voyaging of Polynesian peoples across the Pacific, kava grows on islands from Papua New Guinea to Hawaii, with more than 100 varietals currently documented.
Rosemary Leona, a kava processor and exporter, grew up in Pentecost Island, and kava is the reason why she continues to fly there from Vanuatu’s capital city of Port Vila. Leona, 58, senses a generational opportunity for the people in Vanuatu, which remains largely undeveloped and rural.
“There is high global demand for kava now, and everyone knows it,” Leona says. “All the men are planting, and there are even teenagers who have decided to stay back from school to plant kava. It’s not an industrialized process, and it takes years for kava to mature. But there is urgency. Basically a third of Vanuatu’s population grows kava. It’s often their only source of income.”
Leona has been working with Pentecost Island kava farmers since 2014, leaving behind a career in finance arranging loans. Doing so is a rarity for a woman in Vanuatu, but her kava operation has steadily grown in the last six years. Leona recently paid for a “medium-sized” garden of 675 plants and is working to guide farmers to better yields—and, with the current surge in demand, better profits.
“Kava has always been a traditional crop, for traditional ceremonies. But people from my island now understand that kava is a real source of income. They plant a garden and can plan to pay for their child’s education. Another garden can be to pay for a new house,” Leona says. “And the kava is getting better in quality because of demand.”
Curiously, kava seed is sterile and the plant cannot propagate on its own. Its spread is entirely the result of human selection and planting over thousands of years. Credit the power of kavalactones, the organic compounds in kava that give it a psychoactive punch. Even after several decades of research, it’s unclear exactly how these kavalactones work so dynamically on the human body. After a few sips, you can feel kava stimulate both the head and the body; in higher doses, it can trigger a hypnotic sense of peace and deep sleep.
No wonder Europe, and later North America, got excited about extracts and tinctures to treat anxiety and other mood disorders—these formulations meant people could feel the effects of kava without the need to choke down several bowls of bitter brown stuff. By the late 1990s, millions of doses had been consumed safely. Then, a handful of cases of liver damage linked to kava use brought the industry to a halt.
“We investigated the adverse reactions at University of Hawaii, and while we did have over a hundred cases to look at, fewer than 10 could really be ascribed to kava, and it was always kava in a tablet or extracted form,” Bittenbender tells me. “Our first thought was, well, they might be using other plant parts beyond the kava root and stump. Things like trimmings, leaves and stems, which are not traditionally consumed.”
Using heavy solvents to process kava trim is an efficient but problematic process, Bittenbender says. Equally worrying was how Western manufacturers were often buying the wrong kind of kava, grinding up and concentrating “tudei” varietals that are known in the Pacific to cause a brutal hangover. Struggling to meet demand, some farmers in Fiji and Vanuatu pulled whatever kava they could from the ground.
“By the [late 1990s], German companies discovered that the tudei out-yielded the ‘noble’ kava as far as dry matter was concerned. As they had similar total kavalactone content, they decided to buy tudeis despite my efforts to discourage them,” Vincent Lebot, a pioneering researcher of kava, summarized to Kava Society in 2020. “They were very arrogant, but when you come from Germany and visit Vanuatu, you think that science is on your side and that the locals do not know.”
Despite the relatively low number of liver-toxicity cases, the seemingly exotic nature of kava made it a target of sensational news pieces and aggressive bans in the name of public safety. As stagnation in the market mounted, many farmers who had bet big on the crop turned away from it. In the place of a budding green rush was a market in disarray, with too much junky kava and uncertainty around quality control. When Leona chose to enter the kava business on Pentecost Island in 2014, she didn’t just have to win the trust of farmers who are wary of middlemen that failed them in the past. She also had to start building a long-term plan to harvest kava that fetches the best and most consistent prices overseas.
Meanwhile, in Hawaii, Bittenbender did his own reflecting with fellow kava advocates on which direction the industry should go after crumbling to its studs. “We decided that one key was not selling our Hawaiian varieties of kava to be ground up and used in extracts,” he says. “We were going to encourage people to drink it, the way it was meant to be consumed, because it has a safety record that stretches back thousands of years.”
It sounds like common sense, and perhaps the only real way to honor the cultural history of kava. But along with kava’s export to the West comes a distinct push for businesses to try and innovate and capitalize, and for better and worse, it’s changing the way people consume it.
Each Pacific Island community has its own preferred methods for imbibing kava, especially when it comes to potency. Some people choose long sessions with many bowls of mellow brew, while others prefer a stronger hit upfront. Some swear by the flavor and effect of fresh kava over the dried stuff, while others debate over which part of the plant is most psychoactive.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the burgeoning marketing of kava as an party-friendly alternative to alcohol and other stimulants has genuine advocates, like Rami Kayali, a little worried. He tells me one major red flag is the sprouting of bars that shill a mash-up of trendy substances, with little thought given to the history of kava.
“Yeah bro, just add a hit of kratom to get real fucked up!” Kayali, 35, says with mock enthusiasm, referring to the trendy opioid-like plant extract sold in a psychoactive cocktail with kava. “You see these places that sell kava with the addition of things like kava extracts, kratom, and even hard alcohol, offering happy hour specials for cheap, and it makes me think someone is going to get sick or hurt.”
This isn’t just a difference of taste. Kava remains largely unregulated in the U.S., and Kayali worries that a few unsavory incidents could kick off a panicky public backlash, as we’ve seen with drugs like synthetic marijuana—or kava itself. “Divorcing the culture of kava from its use is, in my mind, not just an issue of misappropriation. It’s a matter of sustainability,” he adds.
Kayali opened his own bar, MeloMelo, in Northern California in 2015, serving kava in both classic and “cocktail” form, blended with ingredients like coconut milk and orange juice to take the bitter edge off. His interest in the plant runs deep. Inspired by Bitterbender and Lebot’s work, Kayali began pursuing a master’s degree to better understand the science around how kava grows. A journey to the South Pacific in 2018 to see where kava grew brought him face-to-face to the supply chain, and he witnessed how the industry still ran on middlemen, little transparency for farmers, and inconsistent standards—a reminder, in many ways, of how things turned sour in the past.
“Kava is a lot like wine or coffee in the sense of varietals and terroir. But we also need to avoid the exploitation that happens in the coffee world,” Kayali tells me. “I’d rather we help set up cooperatives, educate about the science we’re discovering, and regain lost knowledge around unique kava varietals.”
For Kayali, seeing this tension in the Pacific clarified his mission in America: The comeback of kava needs guidance from those willing to evolve, not just exploit, the burgeoning boom. To him, the future of kava doesn’t look like a cheesy bar in Florida (although that may be part of it whether he likes it or not). The future he hopes for is a resurgence of native farming, woven with historical wisdom and new scientific studies, to produce kava that fetches living wages for workers. Finding new routes for investment is one key part of that puzzle, and industry groups are working with native Pacific Islanders to find the balance between trade and tradition.
Could this mean that big pharmaceutical companies or consumer brands will make a splash in kava production soon? Perhaps, although some unique limitations apply: Foreign land ownership in rural nations like Vanuatu is restrictive, if allowed at all, as kava trade expert Semy Siakimotu explains to me. He hopes the kava boom can keep young college-educated Pacific Islanders at home, modernizing the harvest while maintaining the culture around kava. Leona, who is now vice chair of the Vanuatu Kava Industry Association, adds that the next decade is a critical time.
“It is true that big investments into small societies of people who have not been exposed to a lot of development and different things can be dangerous. Nobody on Pentecost Island owns land, for perspective,” Leona tells me. “But it’s important for my people to have money. Where they can plan their lives, start up their own businesses, and improve the quality of living. And now, kava is that path again.”
That’s perhaps one great irony of kava today, two decades after a crash triggered by overeager missteps from European and American customers: The imbalance of power remains, especially if capricious Western users screw it up once more.
Regardless, the nascent kava boom is on—and people are discovering kava bars across the country, even as the pandemic stumbles along. Very little of it resembles the kava culture I discovered as a teenager in Hawaii, drinking from a wooden bowl and hearing Sammy’s tales of visiting Samoa.
Thousands of miles away, thousands of farmers plant kava for the future, hoping this resurgence won’t end in disaster again.
Eddie Kim is a reporter based in San Francisco, focusing on the intersection of culture and violence. He is a features writer at MEL Magazine and can be found on Twitter.