It was half a decade ago that my friend called me up to tell me he was moving from Los Angeles to Santa Cruz to help manage a kava bar. Amongst the many questions I had, the most pressing was “…kava…? …bar…?” He explained to me that kava was a plant from the Pacific Islands and the root was used to make some sort of drink or tea or something like that.
Chances are, if you have heard of kava, it’s either been in drink form, droplet form, powder form, or some other ingested form. It is known for its sedative, anesthetic, and euphoria-inducing properties. People ingest it for any of the above reasons, but never for the taste. Like I said, it’s from the root, so unless you’re big on dirt, you won’t be seeking out the flavor of kava. Many indigenous tribes used kava as a ceremonial drink to soothe relations between them and other tribes, and also to help in negotiations. After all, everyone’s more receptive when they’re high, right?
When I visited my friend in Santa Cruz, I was wrapping up a round of immunosuppressant drugs and a quick Google search for kava showed something about liver damage, so I quickly declined the invite to try some and drank some delicious liquid chocolate at this kava bar, instead. Within the year, he left Santa Cruz, moved to Vegas, and gave up his dream of opening a kava bar, himself, though he still bought this powdered root and made his own kava drinks.
During the pandemic, he had gotten so good at making his own kava drinks, he started writing down his process and recipes, made a label, and began working with local and federal health and food people to start bottling his drink and selling it to local stores, farmer’s markets, and kava bars around the country.
When he was just in town visiting, he brought some of his mystical kava drinks for me to try, as well as many more bottles to shop to a local kava bar here. The kava bar was in Grand Rapids and I live closer to Detroit, so we made a day of it. I agreed to drive out there and back and we made negotiations on playlists for the four-hour round trip.
Up until this point, I had some assumptions about kava. First, I didn’t think it had any effect, really. Like, maybe a mild one, but something closer to what people get from CBD than what people get from THC. I also assumed, since it’s on menus as singles and doubles with many flavor options, that it was similar to coffee, and therefore hot. I figured we would go to this ‘kava bar’, sip our weird root tea and hang out. I was down for that. After all, it would be nice to see what it is my friend is trying to make as a business.
After he ordered two doubles for us with no flavoring (I had no idea what I was doing), I took a seat and he went to the bathroom. While I was sitting there alone, the barista (or bartender or shaman…I don’t know the terminology) delivered our drinks. They were in what I thought were giant wide coffee mugs like the ones you would see on Friends, but were actually cereal bowls. The shaman told me they are typically served with pineapple as a palate cleanser and asked if I wanted some. I am never one to turn down pineapple, even on pizza (don’t @ me), so I sent my shaman bartender away to bring me pineapple.
Before my friend came back from the bathroom, I sipped some of this creamy coffee looking beverage. It was not good. I don’t know what I was expecting, knowing it was dried and ground up roots cheeseclothed into a drink, but regardless, yuck. I did notice that my tongue and throat had a slight numb feeling to them. I was not expecting this. Then, my friend returned and gave me the run down.
First, to my disgust, he asked what I expected. Fair question. Then, he asked why I didn’t get a flavor in it. Because I’ve never had this before, dumbass. Finally, he instructed me on how to drink it. Essentially, the process was to pound the entire beverage and then you get to feel a little fucked up. There was no sipping involved. This did not sit well with me.
When I thought of a ritual where you pound a drink that tastes like shit so you can get fucked up, I thought of alcohol. I was like ‘wait, I’m pretty sure I gave that up’. I was feeling triggered in a way I hadn’t ever been since I quit drinking. The entire idea of this was wrong. It felt wrong. I felt wrong about it. When I first said I didn’t want to drink it, my friend got super pissed off, taking it as a personal attack since he was building his entire business around this. Then, when I explained the process felt triggering, he continued to be an asshole about it. You know how you know you have selfish friends? When you say you’re uncomfortable with something and they make you feel bad about it.
The rest of the time we spent there, I ate the pineapple slices and schooled my friend in Scrabble. I am the best. Then, the real treat of the trip, I went next door to an ice cream parlor and picked up a chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich for the drive home. No triggers there. Two hours and a gut-wrenchingly large amount of Elvis Costello songs later (he’s fine, but not for me), we were home.
Moral of the story: do your research before trying something new. Not really. Be open-minded. Try new stuff. But if you’re sober anything is challenging that, make sure you have friends that are more concerned with your well-being than their self-serving interests. Also, kava is fucking gross.