Kava found me a few years back when I was trying to manage what can be crippling anxiety. A child of the “there’s a pill for that” era, I’d tried everything from a Xanax prescription to self-medicating with red wine. Both these options led to further anxiety in the long run and I’m one of the lucky ones who never developed a crippling dependence to either. The powers of Google offered overwhelming but hopeful promises to my search for “holistic remedies for anxiety.” That week I purchased a tincture of Valerian and a few boxes of Yogi brand kava tea. The latter calmed me without inducing brain fog, a hangover, or sending me straight to the land of nod.
National chain Kavasutra has been open for awhile in the city, but Bushwick now claims not just one, but both of Brooklyn’s only kava bars. Brooklyn Kava and House of Kava opened within weeks of one another, and each brings a unique spin to the experience. Sourced from the islands of Fiji, Hawaii, Vanuatu and Samoa, kava is traditionally consumed from the half-shell of a coconut. Don’t be surprised if you hear your kava drinking receptacle referred to as a shell.
Brooklyn Kava, owned by Harding Stowe and Nick Haycock, is a full-service cafe. “This is the only place like this on the East Coast. We wanted to create something super healthy,” Harding says of the choice to only serve all natural ingredients, Counter Culture coffee, and kombucha on tap. The minimal vibe is served by the incredibly detailed, pencil-drawn artwork of artist Sarah Tse and hardly recalls its former tenant, Cafeteria La Mejor, though it did inherit its legacy as a purveyor of delicious morning coffee. While kava is typically more popular in the post-work hours, Brooklyn Kava already has a loyal contingent who take their morning brew with kava, which “provides a nice relaxed focus.” Harding found the beverage the way many do: searching for an antidote job-related stress. “I felt like the only thing to do every night was drink. I was looking for a natural alternative to alcohol,” he explains. He tried to kava and to his “amazement,” it worked. Kava bars were already popular in his home state of North Carolina, particularly the crunchier mountain towns like Boone and Asheville. Prior to opening Brooklyn Kava, he and Nick sold ready-to-drink kava beverages at Whole Foods Markets.
Kava’s popularity is well established in another southern state: Florida. Though born in Brooklyn, House of Kava co-owner Joyci Borovsky grew up primarily in Florida, where “people kava hop. Florida has over 30 kava bars alone.” Like Harding, she came to kava as an alternative to alcohol because she “couldn’t afford to be hungover all the time. An ex brought me to a kava bar because he was recovering and drank it all the time. I thought he was drinking dirt. I fell in love with it because it made me feel great but didn’t alter my mind in any way.” She would do homework at kava bars and “end up hanging out for hours.” The large, loungey space on Central Avenue will soon have a movie projector, which feels like the most logical pairing for the relaxing tonic.
A biology major with an interest in pharmacology, Joyci hopes her spot becomes a community for people seeking safe alternatives to alcohol and other drugs. Those interested in nootropics might already be aware of kava’s reverse tolerance effect: the more you drink, the less you need. As a result, House of Kava offers the first shell for free as first timers will feel its effects less.
Studies have confirmed kava’s efficacy in treating short-term social anxiety should you desire FDA-style approval. Then again, the FDA approves plenty of substances it shouldn’t because big pharma totally has your best interests in mind. While kava has the FDA stamp of approval, House of Kava also sells kratom tea, which does not. In headline-grabbing fashion, VICE once called kratom “the beverage of recovering heroin addicts.” Some of the strains also have caffeine, and Joyci drinks it in the morning as a substitute for coffee.
Having only tried Yogi Tea kava, I was surprised by the intensity of the ingredient served on its own. The drink has an earthy taste, slightly numbing to the tongue thanks to analgesic properties. A chocolate and red rooibos beverage at Brooklyn Kava is a nice option, as the chocolate complements the kava’s earthen taste instead of masking the flavor entirely. Think chocolate milk that relaxes you. At House of Kava a peach flavored shot goes down easily enough. Those who prefer to go hard can order a shell of the pure stuff at either establishment.
I wonder if it will catch on here and find the popularity it deserves. Will Netflix and kava become a “thing”? Will someone try to serve it in mason jars? These are hard hitting questions I can’t answer. For now, I do hope it provides some chill the city desperately needs.
Brooklyn Kava: 191 Suydam Street, Bushwick
House of Kava: 238 Central Avenue, Bushwick
All photos by Jane Bruce; top two are of Brooklyn Kava, bottom two of House of Kava