Places of Reno: Going to Sol Kava for a Pacific Brew

Student Journalist Jazmin Orozco tries traditionally brewed kava, for the first time in downtown Reno, with tips and historical insights from a “kavatender.”

Sol Kava, located in the West Street Market in downtown Reno, prides itself as Reno’s only kava bar. It has been open since April 2017. Photo by Jazmin Orozco shared with Reynolds Sandbox.

Kava doesn’t lie — it tasted exactly the way I imagined a root mixed with water would.

The plant is indigenous to the western Pacific region, specifically to Polynesian cultures which have used the root ceremoniously for centuries. Like many foreign culturally-practiced traditions, it has made its way to the mainstream USA. Adopted by the alternative medicine crowd a small shot of kava offers a prescription for stress or anxiety. The first documented kava bar in the U.S., Nakava Bar, opened about 14 years ago in Florida, the state with the most reported kava bars to date.

Sol Kava, established by Kristen Jaskulski in April 2017, is Reno’s first and only kava bar.

I walked into the West Street Market and took a seat at Sol Kava’s bar on a Saturday afternoon. The weather was nice, but it was still a bit early for the weekend crowds, so I sat alone. Aaron Crouse, a 29-year-old Sol Kava employee, greeted me from behind the bar. Crouse mentioned that he’s been working at the kava bar for about two months.

Aaron Crouse has worked at Sol Kava for two months. He says working at Sol Kava has felt like the most natural fit for a job that he’s ever had. Photo by Jazmin Orozco shared with Reynolds Sandbox.

After I ordered the traditional noble kava, Crouse explained that it is customary to clap one’s hands and shout, “Bula!” before taking the dose of kava. “Bula!” is a Fijian cheer, meaning blessings of wellbeing and happiness. Crouse and I clapped our hands, cheered “Bula!” and tipped the half coconut shell back. The remaining taste of kava reminded me of chewing on coca leaves in Peru and Bolivia — earthy, bitter, and watery.

Sol Kava serves their ceremonial kava in its traditional form, originally created by Pacific Polynesian cultures thousands of years ago. This half coconut shell contains pressed kava mixed with cold water. Photo by Jazmin Orozco shared with Reynolds Sandbox.

Kava is historically and naturally found in the Pacific islands of Hawaii, Micronesia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga.

The roots of the kava plant, or piper methysticum, contain kavalactones, which are responsible for producing the sedative effects upon ingestion. For thousands of years, cultures of the Pacific have used the roots of the plant for its anesthetic and euphoriant properties for religious, political, and social purposes. As Crouse explained to me, “It’s used for ceremonial purposes, like weddings, birthdays, or funerals. In almost any get-together, kava is the main drink.”

It has been prepared by these communities by pressing, chewing, or grinding the roots of the kava plant and adding its contents to cold water before immediate consumption.

West Street Market in downtown Reno attracts a diverse crowd, of both regular and new customers. Photo by Jazmin Orozco shared with Reynolds Sandbox.

When I asked about the culture Sol Kava has created, Crouse said, “People come in all nights of the week — there’s definitely a group of regulars who cycle in and out. I’ve met most of my friends here and did before I even worked and I’ve known a lot of people who have met a lot of people here. It’s a lot of artists, a lot of musicians, kind of wide-minded crowd, but also, there are days where it seems way more diverse, like days where you don’t recognize anybody at all and days where it seems like its everybody you know.”

Sol Kava’s website defines its establishment as “an intimate space that inspires personal serenity and socialization.”

While the kava plant has a medicinal, religious, and cultural history, it is being used today in the U.S. as an alternative for alcohol or other drugs in social situations. Its mentioned sedative effects catch the attention of many busy, stressed, or anxious adults. Furthermore, it creates an alternate opportunity for people who may not want to drink on their night out.

Sol Kava attracts an artistic crowd and caters to anyone who wants to enjoy a night out without the influence of alcohol. Its popularity as a substitute to alcohol, or other drugs, is growing. Photo by Jazmin Orozco shared with Reynolds Sandbox.

“I feel like kava can definitely be compared to alcohol in a specific way, as far as the social lubricant aspect goes, it definitely helps people relax enough to open up. I’ve seen people sit here very much like they’re at a bar for hours from the time we’re open to the time we close. I personally don’t drink very much at all anymore and having kava in my life is definitely a big part of that,” said Crouse.

Alternative medicine is a growing trend in the U.S., and the kava plant has made its entrance into Reno’s community, catering to its stressed and holistic-living seekers.

If kava were a bit more financially accessible — the cheapest kava option at Sol Kava is $4 plus tip — I might consider drinking it to unwind from a stressful day at school. For now, I think I’ll just stick to herbal teas — they’re cheaper.

Photos and Reporting by Jazmin Orozco shared with Reynolds Sandbox

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