Owner Alex Sienkiewicz extends a shell at Kava Social (courtesy of Kava Social)
Sep 9, 2021
Alternative by nature: Inside Brooklyn’s kava moment
How a tea from the South Pacific that elicits mild psychoactive effects has taken root in the borough
At Kava Social in Williamsburg, Sam Smith sinks into a plush chair cradling a straight shell of Fijian kava. “We’re going through a bioactive renaissance here in the U.S.,” he says between sips. “People want to get high.”
Smith and I just happened to meet at Kava Social on the first day of his East Coast kava bar road trip proselytizing his latest project, Grog Maps. If that sounds familiar it might be because Smith also created the Weed Maps guide to dispensaries and more in 2008—a line of work which led him to blow out his cannabinoid receptors and pivot onto the next big thing in plant medicine. Smith says there’s 300 kava bars across America today—a figure up 25 percent over the past year alone. Still, misinformation about kava abounds. Grog Maps seeks to alleviate the issue by offering users an exhaustive map of American kava bars paired with a community function and cultivar library.
“People want to feel things,” Smith continues. “But I think people are uniquely looking for plant based solutions more than lab based solutions.”
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.”
Kava and community—and Misfits
Vanessa Lopez helped manage one of those two pioneering Brooklyn kava institutions, learning the industry’s ins and outs. She continued drinking kava after leaving that role—for the chemical benefits, but also to stay connected with the community she relied on for her own emotional wellbeing. In Summer 2020, Lopez and her partner soft-opened Misfit Kava, the borough’s first entirely Latina-owned bar. They christened their enterprise with a vision—to create a community space that values people over profits. Their Stay Gold kratom “kocktail,” for example, blends banana oat cream with apple ginger juice, pineapple, rosemary, and turmeric. Misfit donates 50 percent of the proceeds from this drink to the Stay Gold Fund, which helps fund gender affirming surgeries.
Misfit is maximalist from their principles to their aesthetics. Their Leo Szn Forever kocktail, the bar’s longest standing mixed drink (in homage to Lopez’s sun sign) mixes fresh pineapple juice with house-made ginger cane syrup, cayenne, and mint, with a celestial sprinkling of edible glitter on top. The bar’s vast indoor space and expansive backyard shimmer with lights, murals, and charmingly mismatched secondhand furniture. Painted eyes gleam on mint green walls against the bar’s warm, low light. No decor, however, can account for the glow forged by this bar’s founding vision. Misfit offers an endless array of imaginative events from free spirited festivities like Kava Prom to serious seminars like Narcan training. “At the end of the day, I really get to hang out with all my friends every day,” Lopez smiles while I sip a Mood Stabilizer, my favorite.
What matters most of all is that this alternative, helpful plant medicine solution is becoming more accessible and attractive to more people. “I always love to hear about a new kava bar opening,” Lopez says, perched at the precipice of a bioactive renaissance.
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