Kava bars thriving; customers love muddy mix

Treza enjoys a Kava break during the work day

“It’s a tranquil drink to have while socializing in the non-alcoholic world.”

That’s the explanation from Treza, a customer at the Purple Lotus Kava Bar, in West Palm Beach. She works downtown, moving from location to location, so she stops in for kava the way other people make a Starbucks run.

Kava has been used in the South Pacific for thousands of years as a ceremonial drink. The roots of the yellowish-green shrub are ground and mixed with water or coconut milk, the sludge-like liquid gulped down quickly because of its muddy taste and consistency. This is endured because kava has psychoactive effects varying from relaxing to intoxicating -- depending on source, dosage and body chemistry. For the last decade or so, it’s been pushed on dozens of internet sites as a tonic for everything from insomnia to back pain. In kava bars, it’s often mixed with another herbal ingredient called kratom, which grows in Southeast Asia. One study found kratom’s effects were similar to opiates.

Mixing shells of kava at the Purple Lotus

The Purple Lotus’ owner, Jim Scianno, mixes up several gallons every morning and keeps it refrigerated. Because kava is typically served in coconut shells, customers order it that way: “Jim, let me have another shell.” Scianno pours from a gallon jug, gives the concoction a quick whisk to put the particles in suspension, and sets it down in the fine gravel on the bar. That keeps the drink, which costs between $5 and $20, from just rolling over into another customer’s lap.

“People are ready for this,” Scianno says. “There’s people that don’t want to drink, but they like the way kava feels.”

Best advice: if you choose to drink kava, chug it and chase it with some fresh fruit

“It’s a better buzz than liquor.” Rob, a retired dot-commer, explains his fondness for kava simply. He’s sitting on a barstool at Kavasutra, in Lake Worth, having a few shells.

Al, a golf pro on the stool next to Rob, agrees. “I enjoy the relaxed feeling you get from it.”

“I think it’s a better alternative to alcohol and other substances,” Al goes on. “That’s one of the positives about this. It’s not addictive.”

“If you guys were open at noon,” Rob tells the bartender, “I’d be here at noon.”

Kavasutra’s voice mail is pretty straightforward about the advantages of kava.

“Kava is a beverage made from the root of the kava plant, harvested from various Pacific islands, perfect for relaxation, conversation, insomnia, muscle relaxation or just getting bombed. There’s no age restrictions on Kava, and Kava never shows on a drug test or breathalyzer.”

The fact that kava is a bit off the the legal radar screen is something Rob appreciates, too, surveying the room from the mirror behind the bar.

“You can drink it to where you shouldn’t drive,” he points out, “but you can’t get arrested.”

But you get a different perspective when you talk to Mike Kline.

“The best thing about kava is your mind stays a hundred percent.” Kline helps run Kavasutra. He says customers carry on deep, intellectual conversations at the sidewalk tables out front. He says describes it as “a very calm environment, very tranquil.”

“A couple of my buddies,” Kline says, “compare it to a 20-minute massage or three hours in a hot tub.”

Back at the Purple Lotus, Scianno agrees. Kava is about serious relaxation.

“It’s good for society,” Scianno says. “Every stressed-out city should have a kava bar.”

And as if on cue, a new storefront appears on Town Center Drive in the Abacoa section of Jupiter.