I am a wine enthusiast and beer connoisseur, some might stick me into the snob category on both accounts, but here in the south pacific, Kava is king. So first, the definition of kava is in order: the mildly intoxicating root of the pepper bush, ground to a powder or pulp and mixed with water. As with most dictionary definitions this gives as little clue to the actual reality of kava and the social life around it as saying that wine is fermented grape juice.
In October in Tonga I had my first taste of kava in a circle of the workers at the boat yard, singing songs and drinking the brownish liquid that tastes somewhat of soap. Although this was a day off for the workers, the kava drinking is a very ritualized experience with men sitting around in a circle on a mat, and clapping as a way of asking for more. I drank approximately a gallon of this intoxicant to see what it can do, and ended up waterlogged and hung over the next day, but with little additional effect beyond the initial cup.
As we moved west to Fiji, our interaction with kava became more involved. To get permission to stay at an anchorage or tour a village you need to present “sievuseivu”, which is the process of presenting a bundle of dried kava root to the chief of the village. We get the anchor down, put Grin together, and go see the chief before we cause any problems. We meet the chief, he says a speech in Fijian welcoming us to the village and we become one of the members. The equivalent that most of the people reading this would relate to is taking a bottle of wine when you go to dinner at a friend’s house. After the presentation of seivuseivu, you are invited to join them in the kava circle and have a few cups with them. Once again, a group of men and young boys gather in a circle, giving the hollow fisted “claps” to indicate they are ready for another.
Kava in Vanuatu is different, and when Mac (our trusty steak delivery server at Waterfront Grill) we jumped at the chance. Here kava is done not in a circle in the chiefs house, but at a kava bar. With Mark guiding us, we walk up the steep hills in town to the definitively non-tourist area. The scent of large bags of fresh, peppery kava being ground in an 1950’s vintage industrial sausage maker perfumes the street from a distance. A single black light or red light hoisted here and there glow on the hillside, each a signpost for another Kava Bar. Soon, we arrive at the Seaside Kava Bar. While you might have images of a high end bars like Herbs and Rye in Las Vegas, you would be way off the mark. Think tiki-bar in disrepair, lit by a couple small LED lights. We are in for the real deal tonight.
Now, the modern ceremony starts. First, we sit down and relax for a few minutes. Then, Mac directs us to the “bar” to get our first drink. There is a man stirring a large tub of brownish liquid and a line of people all ordering coconut shells. The bar man is keeping a quick pace dealing out the liquid kava in the 50, 100, 150 or 200 milliliter (mL) increments. The cost is one cent per milliliter, and we place our order for a round of 150 mL shells each. We pay the bartender and move out to the front porch. We give a round of cheers and down the whole shell at once. This is not a sipping beverage. I suspect the porch is the preferred drinking location because it seems possible that, like the last Jägermeister shot of the night, kava can bounce back out and onto the floor. Then we return to the back alley to sit on an assortment of benches and let the effects of the kava take hold.
I must mention, however, that there is one side quirk of the kava experience that is a little confounding to western standards. It seems to produce a lot of phlegm in the locals. With a significant amount of loud hacking, this phlegm is tugged from the back of their throats and expelled in puddles on the dirt floor. Not anything bad, just saying it is a noticeable part of the experience. Leslie and I would giggle a little when we would hear a particularly verbose hacking/spitting session.
From there, it is like an old time English pub, slightly intoxicated men would stand around and talk local news and politics or whatever the topic du jour might be. We repeated our little ceremony of fetching kava shells from the bar man for three more rounds, at which point I was pretty sure the next round would “bounce” out of me. Mac then bought a couple beers and handed them our way. “A couple Tuskers to level you out,” he said. The beer does indeed take some of the edge off the flavor and full-stomach effects of the kava.
We wrapped up the night around midnight, but this bar stays open all night to catch what we call in Las Vegas, reverse happy hour: people who are getting off the night shift and want to grab a drink before heading home.
I give all of these experiences as examples of how kava is consumed, but what I really want to convey is the love that all these people have for all aspects of kava. First, they are all very proud of their kava. They love to talk about kava, and are very happy when you say that you like their kava. When you mention kava, their eyes light up like mine do when I see a delicious microbrew. When we bought some kava to take to our friend Freddie in Tonga everyone in town paused to ask questions, curious what we were doing with their kava. I suspect Freddie had some extra visitors at his house that night. In Fiji, you buy the kava as dried roots wrapped ritualistically in a bundle for sievuseivu, and as you walk home from the market with several bundles under your arm you get comments and questions from every man you walk by. In Vanuatu, kava is an essential part of all ceremonies, you cannot get married without a requisite, and large, amount of kava for the ceremony.
Although I still stick by my opinion that kava is all the fun of a hangover without the fun of being drunk, the ritualistic coming together of a village, both old and young, to discuss life is worthwhile. For the tourist, there is certainly a sense of “terroir” in the kava in that it is ground up root and you definitely get to experience and taste the rich, black, volcanic dirt that the kava is grown in. The local people are always thrilled to have you out to their home town kava bar and there are no kava bar fights. So, I will continue to wander down dark alley ways with new friends and seek out the peppery wine of the of the South Pacific.