Culture: How Kava Bars Are Spurring Community Along California’s Coast
A lot of “herbal supplements” make claims you basically have to take on faith. Kava is not one of them.
As I sipped kava—made from the dried and ground or crushed root of the plant and not the leaves—out of a coconut shell at the Santa Cruz outpost of MeloMelo Kava Bar (which also has locations in Berkeley, Oakland and soon Los Angeles), I first felt my lips and tongue and then the inside of my cheek go numb.
Chemically, kavain in the raw plant is responsible for that sensation. Dihydrokavain, a muscle relaxant, kicks in as well. Other components can be attributed to kava’s anti-anxiety and psychoactive properties.
You might next feel relaxed after a shell or two at MeloMelo. By the time you make it to the artist Kyle Field’s opening at Minnow Arts down the street where he is performing with his band Little Wings, after dropping into a plant and chocolate shop for a glass of Chenin Blanc (Santa Cruz is an interesting place), you may be feeling chatty, relaxed and slightly euphoric all at once. And you might also start to understand the power of this ceremonial beverage from the Pacific Islands.
As a social lubricant and medicine in the Pacific Islands— probably first in Vanuatu then spreading to Fiji, Hawaii, Tonga and the Solomon Islands as a so-called “canoe crop”— kava goes back centuries. The Islands, each with their own terroir and varieties, are the main source of true kava today.
“I sat and had a traditional kava ceremony with some kupunas,” says MeloMelo cofounder Rami Kayali, who was studying in Hawaii when we spoke to him. “That’s the pivotal point for me that made me realize that this isn’t just some random plant that people ingest. This is a culturally, historically significant plant that plays a huge role here in the South Pacific.” As someone of Lebanese-Palestinian descent who was born in Jordan and grew up in Japan before coming to the U.S. and finally settling in California, Kayali might be perfectly positioned to be kava’s cross-cultural ambassador. While MeloMelo’s locations can feel like hip Bay Area coffee bars, Kayali strives to keep that connection he felt to the root’s roots and sees his bars as gathering places.
“The same thing happens wherever I open,” says Avi Weber, founder of Mystic Water Kava Bar, who has run kava bars in Florida, Ithaca, New York and Southern California—currently in Huntington Beach and Ventura. “Wherever I open, the same thing has happened with the community forming. It really just shows the power of the plant itself.”
Both he and Kayali agree that, beyond bonding people together, kava has an innate ability to bring the imbiber to a point of peace with whatever they might be dealing. Even being stuck in traffic. And in Los Angeles, that’s really saying something.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!