Image: Courtesy of Kava Collective.

Tall and affable with a mop of hair combed to the side, the bartender dips a ladle into a large bucket of a light brownish liquid and pours the contents into miso soup bowls. Among a few individuals reading books—no laptops—and Olympic sports playing on a large-screen television behind the bar, my friend, Liz, and I sit at a well-worn wooden table. Crafted wood art pieces hang on the walls and a freestanding art piece of a dark barked tree looms to one side.

We have just entered Kava Collective, one of a handful of kava bars that have cropped up in San Diego in recent years. We’re drinking kava straight up, without added chocolate or fruit juice, a good starting point for novices like us. I take a sip. The liquid is room temperature and bitter. Not bad coffee bitter, astringent bitter, with a broad oak flavor and a slight, underlying sweetness. I take another sip while Liz gulps hers down. 

Image: Courtesy of Kava Collective.

The next thing I notice is my mouth going numb, mostly the roof of my mouth and my tongue. Glenn Prickett, the owner of Kava Collective, smiles as I say this, and I’m told that the numbness is a good sign of the quality of the kava. I take another sip. Now my lips are going numb too.

Image: Courtesy Kava Collective.

Kava bars emerged in Hawaii and Florida around 20 years ago. The rest of the country has been learning of the drink’s stress-reducing qualities in more recent years, with kava bars now in most major US cities. Made from the powdered root of the kava plant, the drink has been part of the ceremonial and medicinal life of the Pacific Islands for centuries. Prickett says that Pacific Islanders use the not necessarily delicious drink in large groups and rely on kava’s relaxant and social lubricant properties when they settle their differences. In keeping with the Pacific Islander kava traditions, the miso bowl is meant to resemble the coconut shell, or kava bilo, that the tea is typically served in.

Matt Drey, a former Border Patrol agent who owns Matt Drey Arts, the gallery next door, joins us. He attests to the calming effects of kava. “In law enforcement, it’s just really stressful,” he says. “Kava and community could be a real release for me.”

Folks have used kava as a pathway away from destructive addictions or habits, praising its ability to relieve stress without impairing one’s ability to function. There are, however, health concerns, with the use of kava being linked to liver injury that is sometimes serious or even fatal. Kava enthusiasts counter that those incidents are associated with high-concentrate kava supplements that flooded the alternative health market during the 1990s. Prickett says that his kava “does not cause liver damage.”

Among the activities at Kava Collective are the storytelling group, improv comedy night, and game night. On Fridays there is a women’s AA group that meets in the gallery and usually spills over into Kava Collective as the passageway remains open between the two establishments.

Both Prickett and Drey agree that kava and kava bars nurture community. “We want to keep people off their iPods,” Prickett says. “People come here when they celebrate their victories,” adding that they come to Kava Collective to get through their bad times as well.

Image: Courtesy of Kava Collective.

“Look around,” Drey says. “There are artists, musicians, doctors. This place is a great example of the most diverse group of people getting along. We want to foster this community but we also want to contribute to the larger community, too.” He points to the neighborhood outside. “We want to be giving back to the larger community.”

Kava Collective

1731 University Ave., San Diego

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