First and foremost, Kava is a plant. Specifically, it is a beverage made from the root of Piper mythesticum a close relative of Piper nigrum or Black Pepper. The name Kava is given to this beverage by the people of Vanuatu, commonly believed to be the architects of this plant. Although the exact origin of the plant is as of yet unknown, it is believed to be an artificial selection of another member of the Piper genus, Piper wichmanii.
Kava, has many names reflecting the many languages in the South Pacific. The Hawaians referred to it as ‘awa, or ‘awa-‘awa. In the Marques island it is referred to as [INSERT NAME] Regardless what it was called, the plant and beverage it was named for had the same reverence and respect: a root of peace and friendship. But let's be honest- much like anything good for you, it doesn't taste all that great.
Why drink it? Why have islanders in the Pacific been consuming it for over 3000 years?
Well, for one thing, we all seek new experiences- especially when it turns out those new experiences make you feel great!
It's more than just a beverage.
Kava is believed to have originated out of Vanuatu. Vanuwhat?! Think of Vanuatu as a set of islands that Fijians might plan their family vacation to. These islands are about 750 miles west of Fiji, or about the distance between San Francisco and Tijuana (though I imagine the sailing trip to be a little more exciting!). We source most of our kava from Vanuatu because the kava roots and tradition are older, and therefore the product, in this case through selection, is superior.
Take wine for example. An "old vine," in wine terminology, can grow for over a hundred years. The yields get smaller, but the wine is therefore more concentrated, complex, and intense. In the kava world, the active ingredient is known as a kavalactone. These kavalactones, unique to this plant, are what provides the soothing, psychoactive effects of our beverage. Don't worry! It's very subtle! You won't be seeing flying unicorns and the trees won't start talking to you.
Because the Pacific Ocean is so expansive, it can be a little foggy to understand how and when the spread of kava occurred to neighboring islands of the Pacific. That Fijian family vacation today seems a lot more feasible with GPS a strong hull on your vessel of choice than it would have been 2-3 thousand years ago. [insert imagery from that one terrible movie.. what was it? WaterWorld! Of yourself drifting through an Pacific world (less the pirates and post-apocalyptic part of course)] Let's just say travel wasn't as frequent and ships didn't necessarily travel in a straight line. Despite superior Islander ocean knowledge and navigation, kava missed a few islands, and culturally, it wasn't introduced until a much later period in history.
Vanuatu has over 70 different cultivar of kava. With different types of kava, you can expect a slightly different experience. The spread of kava throughout the Pacific can be generally tracked by which islands have a bigger and better selection of Noble kavas. Travelers and drifters would typically only bring along their most prized family kava plants and varietals. As a result, island nations like Fiji have only about 7 different cultivar- 6 in Samoa, 7 in Tonga, 2 in Tahiti, and about 8 in Hawaii- to name a few.
As kava spread to different islands over thousands of years, it was loved by all, and adopted for all sorts of stuff. Because it spread so slowly, and due to lack of cell phone reception 2 thousand years ago, different islands have adopted kava for different reasons: ceremonial, recreational, spiritual, medicinal, political, and cultural. It's also because of this slow spread that kava actually has a different name, depending on which island you float to.
As I previously stated, Kava is more than just a beverage.
It might have taken a little longer for kava to float over to the Bay, but why is the Bay Area adopting kava? We elect to recreate this long lost art of community. We are but one tribe in a very, very big village. We are here to learn from tradition, and in turn, create our own. Whatever your reason to consume kava, whether it a be socially driven desire, to help reduce anxiety, for better sleep, to try a new experience, or even just as a more positive alternative to your day to day (or night by night) lifestyle- we say Welcome!
On the islands, we don't say "cheers", we say BULA. Just like that, all caps. And to you, reader, for getting this far and not losing too much focus, I say BULA!