Brooklyn Magazine, Vittoria Benzine
Sep 9, 2021
How a tea from the South Pacific that elicits mild psychoactive effects has taken root in the borough
BELOW IS AN EXCERPT FROM BK MAGAZINE: READ THE FULL ARTICLE PUBLISHED ON BKMAG.COM
”Kava is a South Pacific tea made from the root of a pepper plant harvested by indigenous cultures who drink its earthy elixir for celebration and relaxation. Kava yields actual psychoactive effects—think gentle euphoria and looser muscles, a little wavy—thanks to kava-lactones, which work on the brain’s GABA receptors. The American Kava Association explains the plant’s long and complicated relationship with the FDA, which classifies kava as a dietary supplement.
Kava Social owner Alex Sienkiewicz tells me that across their 3,000 year history of kava drinking, the Polynesian islands producing it have maintained stringent regulations and standards, for the sake of both cultural respect and economic exports.
“It’s their heart and soul and their bread and butter all at the same time,” she says of kava’s relationship with these indigenous cultures.
Most kava bars also serve kratom, a completely different beverage and psychoactive compound believed to work on the brain’s opioid receptors. At low doses kratom acts like an upper, but higher amounts produce intense euphoria and even sleepiness. Like most kava bars, Kava Social serves both, though Sienkiewicz focuses more on kava. She likens the kratom market to “the Wild West,” because the compound, derived from a tropical tree native to Southeast Asia, is far less regulated. As such, kratom is contentious, and quality matters. At its best, this plant medicine yields a supremely pleasurable experience, all the good parts of caffeine with a velvet-smooth edge.
Kava enters the mainstream
Florida is actually America’s kava capitol, perhaps due to the Sunshine State’s laid-back atmosphere and extensive number of rehabilitation centers. Although the American kava community traces its roots back to substance abuse recovery, kava’s effects and health consciousness benefit people from all walks of life. Not only has the number of American bars grown steadily, but new products like New York-based Leilo’s canned kava cocktails have quietly slipped into bodegas from Gowanus to Greenpoint. Brooklyn currently leads the country’s kava development, and this dynamic moment in Brooklyn’s kava scene, fueled by idealism and a little competition, marks an exciting new chapter unique for the community at large.
Sienkiewicz encountered kava for the first time while living in Miami. There, she noticed missed opportunities. Kava bars have not traditionally differed much in matters of decor or menu, offering near-identical shells of straight kava in vaguely island-inspired, cramped settings. Your average shell of kava tastes earthy, oftentimes unpalatable to the uninitiated, a bit like actual mud. The most potent part of the drink, the kava-lactones, sink to the bottom. Straight kava’s last viscous sips, thick with sediment, act like a muscle relaxer on the mind if you can stomach their overpowering consistency. (I learned to chase straight kava by chain-smoking, but most kava bars offer pineapple slices or fruit juice to soften the blow.)
Sienkiewicz spent months of research sourcing the highest quality kava from its native islands. Then she set about transforming those kava extracts into adventurous new cocktails, providing the Brooklyn kava community with an unforeseen novelty—kava that actually tastes good. Her creations cater to the refined palate with trendy ingredients like star anise and hemp milk. Kava Social’s informative menu lists offerings like the Kava White Russian and Kratomojito alongside a star rating of each drink’s potency and a description of its effects. Sienkiewicz even dreams up curveball specials alone behind the bar far after hours, providing regulars with impromptu surprises like the Dirty Chad, which blends kava and kratom with Vanilla Spice Chai, Espresso, and Coconut Milk. She guesses about 95 percent of her regulars are first time kava drinkers initiated in part by Kava Social’s accessible, delectable drink menu.
Brooklyn’s kava community was ripe for the rocking that Kava Social initiated. While the scene’s sparse businesses had survived off its insularity, kava has long been poised to break into the mainstream at the hands of that “bioactive renaissance” Smith alluded to. Brooklyn Kava and House of Kava, the borough’s first two kava bars, opened about 2015 in Bushwick. Only Brooklyn Kava remains—the other closed in a flurry of controversy by the end of 2018, marked by conflict between management and employees. Brooklyn Kava held down the borough’s whole community alongside South Williamsburg staple Ka-Va. Both bars are still reliable holdovers where purists can throw back traditional teas at reasonable rates. Taylor Mitchell, one of Brooklyn Kava’s several stalwart kavatenders, sees kava’s reach getting broader. “For the longest time, I think people had no idea what we were doing,” he says.
Alternative by nature, kava bars attract outliers—those curious and adventurous enough to try something new. Every kava bar commands its own aura, fostered by a shifting cadre of regulars. There’s significant overlap across bars, and for good reason—each has its own charm. For anyone intimidated by kava because its aficionados are close knit, Mitchell offers these words of comfort: “That usually clears itself up pretty fast. Kava and kratom make you kind of loquacious, so you’re gonna be more talkative.