Kava is a traditional beverage from the Pacific Islands that is often consumed informally and in traditional ceremonies across the region. The beverage is made from a root that is mainly grown in Vanuatu and Fiji and is high in kavalactones — chemicals which make kava mildly narcotic and known for its relaxing effects.
Although it may not be commonplace in the United States yet, a recent wave of kava bars is opening up across the country, with over 100 bars that serve kava available now. Many of these are concentrated in a few areas of the United States, but several states have witnessed their first kava bar opening in the last few months.
In January 2019, Tennessee saw its first opening in Knoxville. Arizona saw its first in April as well, with the bar owners seeking to provide an alternative to alcohol, bring Pacific culture to the United States, and promote relaxing spaces for socializing. Kava has recently gained more vocal supporters such as the half Tongan former NFL player Matt Masifilo, who played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers. He founded a company aiming to be the top US distributor of the beverage, and gave a recent interview on kava saying, “there’s not enough kava right now to meet demand, especially with the phenomenon of the American kava bar scene that’s exploding on to the market right now.”
Kava is commercially important both to Pacific Island country economies as a whole and to individual families. In Fiji over 21,000 farms grow kava worth an estimated $31 million. In Vanuatu, kava is the third largest export crop and generates an estimated $7 million, or almost 1% of Vanuatu’s GDP, providing income to 30,000 households involved in its cultivation. With the spread of interest in the US market, and an uptick in consumption, kava represents an important emerging commercial and cultural connection between the Pacific Islands and the United States.
Julia Wargo is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a second-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies studying Conflict Management and International Economics.