A ceremonial, traditional drink in Polynesian culture, the concoction known as kava has many different names despite its common origin in the Polynesian islands. Used as a sedative and anesthetic, it can also provide mild euphoric sensations depending on the strain, preparation, and composition of the plant itself.
Grown only in Hawaii, Micronesia, Fiji, the Samoas, Tonga, and Vanuatu, kava has long been held a Polynesian ceremonial and cultural creation. Vanuatu, the supposed origin of kava and the most protective of kava plants grown there, may have been the home of the drink more than 3,000 years ago.
Made by grinding or pounding the kava root using a mortar and pestle and combined with a small amount of water, the root itself releases moisture and when added to cold water, produces a fresh, more potent effect than processed kava. Ideally, fresh-made kava should be consumed immediately after production to ensure the best possible quality.
As to the psychoactive effects of kava, it’s not comparable to alcohol or cannabis. As described in Kava: The Pacific Elixir:
“Kava seizes one’s mind. This is not a literal seizure, but something does change in the processes by which information enters, is retrieved, or leads to actions as a result. Thinking is certainly affected by the kava experience, but not in the same ways as are found from caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, or marijuana. I would personally characterize the changes I experienced as going from lineal processing of information to a greater sense of “being” and contentment with being… When the mixture is not too strong, the subject attains a state of happy unconcern, well-being and contentment, free of physical or psychological excitement. At the beginning conversation comes in a gentle, easy flow and hearing and sight are honed, becoming able to perceive subtle shades of sound and vision. Kava soothes temperaments.”
Where to Try Kava on the Big Island
The Big Island has four notable kava bars that serve the drink to the public, but as with many things Hawaiian, an authentic and highest-quality kava experience will come only with knowing a local family and trying their recipe. If that options not available to you, the following establishments should be atop your list if the traditional classic piques your interest.
75-5803 Alii Dr
Kailua-Kona, HI 96740
One of the best kava establishments on the Big Island, Kanaka Kava is also one of the few places that will ship frozen and perishable kava and related ingredients from their store. For an extra treat, their kava chocolate bars are a delicious alternative to the typical kava experience.
55-3412 Akoni Pule Hwy
Hawi, HI 96719
Kava and music on the Big Island’s northern end rarely gets this groovy. Kava Kafe is equal parts a kava bar and Hawaii cafe, with the quality of each focus neck-and-neck depending on the seasonal ingredients. All in all, should you find yourself that far north, you owe yourself a visit to this Big Island mainstay.
Bayfront Kava Bar
264 Keawe St
Hilo, HI 96720
Live music, bonfires, and enough kava recipes to make your head spin (hopefully not), Bayfront Kava Bar is one Hilo’s favorite kava establishment. It’s a groovy time no matter the time of year or what day it might be, so stopping into this funky spot is a must for the kava curious.
Uncle’s Awa Bar
12-5038 Kalapana Kapoho Beach Rd
Pahoa, HI 96778
As hole in the wall as it gets, Uncle’s Awa Bar is a music venue, causal eatery, and one of the best places to try authentic kava in all of Hawaii. Mostly known as a nighttime farmer’s market, it’s an excellent opportunity to experience the aloha spirit with Pahoa locals and enjoy island living in a rural setting. Open Wednesdays from 5PM until “whenever,” it’s a great experience exploring the market or taking your drink down to the Kaimu Black Sand Beach for a quieter evening on the Big Island.