Getting Mellow on Kava

by Daniel Smith

I first came across kava late at night, while desperately scrolling through a sleep-aid forum. Users of the psychoactive plant described it as as “natural Xanax.” Perfect for sleeping and/or getting high.

Ever the skeptical journalist, I carried out my own research (i.e. I Wikipedia’d that shit for 20 minutes) and learned that kava use began with Polynesian cultures which used kava tea for important ceremonies and/or getting high. In recent years, it’s been spreading quietly across the globe.

In the US, Kava remains under-the-radar and unregulated, with only several dozen kava bars as of 2015. Luckily for me, Berkeley’s MeloMelo is one such kava bar, and one of two in the Bay Area. I headed here to continue my research, embedding myself in the kava scene, trying the tea, trying it several more times and buying some for home. That’s journalism, baby!

The Venue:

From the outside MeloMelo looks like any other Berkeley neighborhood cafe. On the inside it looks like Cost Plus World Market opened an opium den:

Berkeley academics cluster at a table, chatting in indoor voices which register as a bare murmur above the gentle ambient music. Brass planters, filled with leafy plants, zigzag across the wall overhead. The bar is decorated with hand-carved instruments and wooden kava paraphernalia. Two writers sit stooped over their laptops, only looking up to accept tea. In the corner, a young couple slowly sinks into a big, comfy couch with their limbs strewn all over one another, uninterested in the shelves of literature and board games.

The Menu:

Kava’s really the main thing on the menu, but it comes in many forms: traditional cold-pressed kava tea ($5 small, $9 large); fruit’n’kava concoctions designed to hide the root’s unpleasant taste; they even have edibles — kava candies ($5), chocolate bars ($5) and truffles ($3).

There are a few other hippie drinks, too, like kombucha ($4) and yerba mate ($4).

The Tea:

I order the traditional tea, dubbed the “Purist”. It comes in little hand carved coconut cup. Inside is some mucky, gray water which looks like it was ladled from a puddle.

I lift the cup to my lips and Derek exhales just one word: “bula.” (According to my internet, “bula” is a context-dependent Fijian word for just about anything, including cheers).

“Bula,” I repeat and down the brew. Just as I suspected, it tastes like a gross puddle.

Suddenly my mouth and throat are numb. The feeling soon fades, and as it does, a gentle heat in the back of my head creeps over my mind, down my spine, and into my chest. It’s not unlike the afterglow of whiskey on the throat, only it also leaves me with focused energy. Then the sensation spreads to my bowels and for a solid minute I’m pretty sure I’m gonna have the coffee shits. This too passes.

Derek, who’s preparing more tea behind the bar, looks over and asks, “how you feeling?”.

I give a one-word response. “Smiley.”

We grin at each other, maintaining eye contact for what seems, by all social norms, a weirdly long amount of time. It’s not awkward, though. It feels like the kind of smile you might share with a kind old lady strolling through the park.

“Yeah,” Derek says, looking around at all the calm, happy folks. “It’s nice. Everyone’s on the same level.” According to Derek — and Wikipedia — kava leaves users clearheaded. “You don’t lose yourself, you don’t become a beast.”

A sharply dressed man chimes in; he regularly drinks four cups a night and claims to never have suffered more than an upset tummy and next-day grogginess. Derek one-ups the sharply dressed man with the tale of a customer who single-handedly finished the Tidal Wave ($50) — a giant tortoise shell of a bowl meant for 15 people. Apparently he was no worse for the wear.

Might as well order another tea, I reason. Derek brings another cup along with a small, glass bottle with plastic dropper on top, labelled “sample.” It’s a tincture, a solution of glycerin and kava extract. Concentrated stuff.

After my second cup and a few droplets of the tincture, my chronic backaches are absent and I feel oddly tired, as though I’ve just woken up. It’s a subtle feeling, though, which is usually the case for new users due to kava’s unique “reverse tolerance,” (i.e. sensitivity to kava increases with frequent use).

I start to wonder if I’m actually impaired at all and head to the bathroom to self-conduct a field sobriety test. I ace the physical coordination portion, touching my finger to my nose with a little aid from the mirror. Then I recite the alphabet backwards and get to “w” before skipping to “u” and then to “r.” That’s typical, though.

I conclude that, if anything, I’m too sober. After all, it’s 9 p.m. on a Friday. I call an Uber and head over to Drake’s Dealership to remedy the situation with a few brews — but not before purchasing a 2-ouncer of tincture ($25) for journalistic purposes.

For the record, I slept like a baby.


Daniel is a Bay Area homegrown who moved to Japan to write about food & drink, lifestyle, and being a clumsy foreigner. He now lives in San Francisco where he continues to write on these subjects for the East Bay Express, Lamorinda Weekly and The Travel Magazine in addition to bayarea.com.

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