Ask any frequent consumer of kava what their favorite part of the immensely earthy beverage is, and they’ll most likely point to the drink’s stimulating effects of relaxation. Known for providing consumers with an all-natural buzz, this elusive plant- which has been a cultural staple of indigenous communities for many years- has been linked to reducing anxiety, insomnia and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

How exactly does kava make its way from the soil to the bartop? Rami Kayali, owner of Downtown Santa Cruz’s own MeloMelo Kava Bar, recently traveled to Pāhoa on the Big Island of Hawaii to visit one of their massive kava farms. Take a look inside the groundwork that goes into creating your new favorite concoction.

A land of its own

MeloMelo has been working with this particular farm for roughly four years, with some of its farmers offering over ten years of experience. The operation covers a sprawling 200 acres, most of which are currently used for harvesting kava, or ‘awa, as it’s referred to in Hawaii. A single one of the farm’s nurseries houses about 500 to 600 plants, all currently around five months old.

In addition to the nurseries, a few of the farm’s crop fields are over two years old, some of which hold about 50 plants per row for a total of 500 in one field. Several of the kava plants are interspersed with ice-cream-bean trees, or Inga edulis, a fruit native to South America. These trees help maintain the nitrogen levels in the soil, particularly within the leaves of the kava plants. The farm is also home to two adorable goats, Pablo and El Chapo, who dutifully help with grass-trimming and mowing.

The kava on the farm spans several different cultivars and varieties, the most common being Hiwa, Honokāne Iki, Mahakea, and Nene. The farm also boasts some more rare varieties of kava, such as Mo’i, Pana’ewa and Kumakua, which are harder to come by.

“At MeloMelo, we have a rotating selection of over 15 different varieties of kava from all over the South Pacific, and are just starting to source more from Hawaii as their industry develops. Currently, we have Nene, Mo’i, and Mahakea in abundance, and are working towards planting and sourcing more.” — Rami Kayali, Owner of MeloMelo Kava Bar

Resident kava farmer, Tiffany, shows off some of the farm's nurseries and moss beds.
Resident kava farmer, Tiffany, shows off some of the farm’s nurseries and moss beds. Credit: MeloMelo Kava Bar

Resident farmer Tiffany, who’s been working with kava for almost four years now, explains the various stages which entail an abundant kava harvest on the farm. To begin, the farmers will select a kava plant of ideal age, growth and stature. A large stem cutting of this plant is taken and chopped into multiple pieces to extract the plant’s nodes, or the area of the stem where the buds are located.

Those chopped plant pieces will then be placed in moss, watered and covered until the leaves begin to develop. Once the roots have gained strength and size, Tiffany will transplant them to a pot. Usually, the plant itself will indicate when it’s ready to be placed in the ground by exhibiting solid stems and roots coming back out into the ground.

When it comes to harvesting the kava, there are a few methods favored by the farmers. Traditionally, a digging device called an o’o bar is used to strike the ground around the plant repeatedly in a ring formation. The plant is then wedged up to allow for both the finer lateral roots and the basal/stump roots to be gently released from the ground. However, due to the intense labor attributed to the o’o bar method, a backhoe is more commonly used to attain higher commercial volumes of kava.

Rooting for gold

An integral part of harvesting kava revolves around separating the plant’s lateral and basal roots, known in Fijian as waka and lawena, respectively. Isolating these roots allows farmers to harness the plant’s six major kavalactones, the compounds found in kava root that impart the signature relaxing or soothing effects to the final beverage. The kavalactones form the fingerprint of the plant, and while the lateral roots remain in search of water and nutrients, the stump or anchoring roots lend the plant its structure or base (hence the term ‘basal’).

The kava farm's resident goats, El Chapo (L) and Pablo (R).
The kava farm’s resident goats, El Chapo (L) and Pablo (R). Credit: MeloMelo Kava Bar

A helpful way of understanding each root’s properties is to consider waka, or the lateral roots, as the “active” part of the root, due to the higher concentrations of kavalactones held within the lateral roots which mark the kava as more activating or stimulating. Conversely, lawena, or the basal roots, is the “body” of the root, and thus affects the body of the consumer to make them more relaxed.

In places outside of Fiji, most kava tend to be blended to a ratio intended to achieve a more balanced effect from both the basal and lateral roots. In other words, the kava is not selectively harvested for its individual parts, but is instead mixed all together. Certain varieties will be more relaxing overall or stimulating altogether, regardless of the ratio.

In Vanuatu, certain varieties are exclusively reserved for special occasions, such as weddings, rituals or offerings. Tudei kava is commonly reserved for funerals, as its effects last over a period of two days and is said to alleviate the mourning process.

Harvesting, cleaning, and processing usually takes a whole day, but bars like MeloMelo tend to receive the product dried, which usually adds a day or two to ensure the kava is dried sufficiently. Once shipping is accounted for, it takes roughly three to four days for the final product to arrive at the bar. While dried kava is more shelf-stable and easier to work with, fresh (or “green”) kava tends to offer a much nicer palate.

“We are working on supplying green ‘awa more consistently as demand and interest increase. However, since it’s a root crop, it requires a cold supply chain to keep it from spoiling, so it’s a bit of a more involved process.” — Rami Kayali, Owner of MeloMelo Kava Bar

One thing is for certain: through their commitment to fair trade and sustainability in the South Pacific islands, MeloMelo is sure to continue expanding the cultural horizons of Santa Cruzans for many more years to come.

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