HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – It Doesn’t Taste Good, But . . .

By Kelly Moran

It Doesn’t Taste Good, But . . .

Kava comes to you in a cup that’s half of a coconut shell.  You take a sip.  It’s both watery and gritty.  The taste is earthy, with hints of tree-bark and . . . oh, gosh – soap!?  But a few moments later, your mouth is rather pleasantly numb.  You barely taste the second cup, and by then you feel quite relaxed.

Kava Plant

“It doesn’t taste good,” Dave Stevenson admits, “but it makes you feel good.”  And he should know.  His kava bar on the Bayfront in Hilo is one of a handful on the Big Island serving this ancient Polynesian beverage.

We call it kava (KAH-vah), probably because the Samoans call it “kava-kava.”  The Hawaiians have always called it ‘awa (ah-vah), while the Fijians call it yagona (yahn-GO-nah), and the Micronesians of Pohnpei call it sakau (sa-kow).  The different names reflect only geographic and linguistic – not botanical – differences.  All around the Pacific, it’s the same plant: Piper Methysticum, so-named because it’s a member of the pepper family that produces intoxication.

Missionaries didn’t approve of it, but neither did they get it outlawed; so it’s never been illegal.  Extracts and tinctures (infusions in alcohol) have been sold by herbalists and pharmacists for well over a century. Yet kava was never very popular as a “drug,” not even among the countercultural population, because – unlike marijuana or LSD – it is not hallucinogenic.  It’s a mild tranquilizer, a bit like beer in that it relaxes you, although some people also find that it also relieves minor pains.  The day I visited Stevenson’s Bayfront Coffee, Kava & Tea Co. two women from Iceland were sipping kava to help overcome their ten-hour jet-lag.

Historically, kava was a ceremonial beverage, and in many Pacific island groups it’s still prepared under strict rituals, dipped from a communal calabash bowl, and served in a cup that’s passed from hand to hand, while legends and stories are told around the circle.  (In ancient times, Hawaiian boys and girls chewed the roots and spat them into the bowl before the water was added.  This is no longer done, anywhere, at least not in public.).

Kava Root
Kava Root

Like the sharing of a tobacco-pipe among Native Americans, kava ceremonies in some societies of Oceania were also held to cement a peace or truce after a conflict, both for the symbolism of the rituals and for kava’s relaxing effect on the participants.

In today’s kava bars, a cup costs about $5: what you’d pay for a glass of wine or a bottle of beer in a tavern.  In local farmers’ markets, or online, dry powdered kava comes in zip-lock baggies and costs about $30 a pound.

Powdered Kava
Powdered Kava

The basic preparation is simply a cold-water infusion.  Mix half a cup of kava in two cups of water, let it stand for about half an hour, and then strain it or squeeze the juice out through cheesecloth.  The liquid can be plain water or coconut juice (Stevenson calls the latter “ali’i style,” after the Hawaiian word for royalty). 

Photo Credit:
Photo Credit:

Adding fruit flavors helps to improve the taste, and baking kava into cookies or brownies can also make it more palatable.  (There’s a YouTube video showing how to make the beverage, at

Stevenson has been tracking kava for many years.  “My background is in food-preparation,” he said.  “I grew up in Florida, and worked in the citrus-processing industry.  When I got to Hawaii, I became the test-customer for a local kava bar, and that’s what got me interested in starting my own,” which he eventually did.  His bar at 116 Kamehameha Ave. opened in 2007.

“Kava is best in the afternoon or evening,” he explained, “when its social aspects can kick in.  It does promote social interaction, but unlike pot or beer, there’s no loss of mental clarity.  And ladies will find that there are no belligerent drunks in a kava bar.

“Kava has been in use here as long as there have been people  here,” he went on.  “I have an image in my mind, of the day when the first Polynesian voyagers reached Hawaii, after months at sea.  They rode the waves onto a beach, and when they had hauled up safely on land, the captain said “Break out the kawa, boys. We’ll unload the canoes later!”