If you walk into any grocery store these days, you’ll most likely be confronted with an expansive selection of unique beverages, ranging from tart kombuchas to fruity probiotic seltzers. In recent years, it seems as though the market for nonalcoholic beverages has grown massively, making room for drink alternatives such as sparkling tonics and prebiotic sodas.
The major appeal of these products, aside from their aesthetically-pleasing packaging and elusive ingredients, usually revolves around their claims of providing consumers with feelings of mood-boosting euphoria and relaxation (akin to the marketing behind popular alcoholic beverages).
Enter kava, a South Pacific root brewed into a medicinal tea that possesses multiple calming and stress-relieving properties. The kava plant has been employed for centuries to alleviate a number of ailments, from insomnia to migraines to general anxiety. This perplexing libation has now taken a hold of Santa Cruz at MeloMelo, a hip Downtown bar entirely dedicated to serving up copious amounts of kava.
“Offering noble kava to the Bay Area since 2013, MeloMelo works with our farmers, distributors and suppliers to establish fair trade and sustainability in the South Pacific Islands. MeloMelo continues to celebrate the tradition of kava while maintaining its inherited roots as we share this elixir and experience with you.”
— MeloMelo Kava Bar in Santa Cruz, CA
What is kava?
First and foremost, Kava is a plant. In our case it is the name of the beverage made from the root of the plant Piper methysticum, 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.
Vanuatu is a set of islands about 750 miles west of Fiji, or about the distance between San Francisco and Tijuana. We source most of our kava from Vanuatu because the kava roots and tradition are older, and therefore the product is superior. 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 Hawaiians referred to it as ‘awa, or ‘awa-‘awa. In Samoa it is referred to as ava, and yaqona in Fiji. Because it spread so slowly, 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’re on. In all of these cultures, however, the plant and beverage it was named for had the same reverence and respect: a root of peace and friendship.
“MeloMelo is a space for people 18 and over to come and socialize, unencumbered by alcohol. It’s a nice place to come study or dance! We have DJs here often. It’s just a good place to be creative and connect with other people in the community.”
— Helena, Bar Manager at MeloMelo Kava Bar
How does kava work?
Kava is most typically consumed in its popular beverage form, usually made by steeping the plant roots in cold water. This is done to maintain the active ingredients that lend kava its signature calming properties. These enigmatic descriptions of kava all lead to one looming question: what does it actually taste like? Many consumers report the medicinal tea to have an intensely herbaceous and earthy flavor.
However, most drinkers don’t consume kava for the flavor, but for its all-natural high and myriad of health benefits. Kava fanatics typically report feeling relaxed, tingly and even a bit sleepy after consumption, similar to the warm buzz achieved by alcohol and marijuana. These effects are, of course, entirely dependent on the quality of the kava, the brewing method used, and the consumer’s own tolerance to adaptogens of this sort.
MeloMelo has certainly tapped into this niche craving for a health-centric buzz by cementing themselves as the Bay Area’s first nakamal, or kava bar. With locations in Oakland, Berkeley, and Santa Cruz (and a new Los Angeles location coming soon), MeloMelo has successfully been the first to bring a traditional beverage that’s been consumed for thousands of years to California’s beloved coast.