Written by Mary Rean
It does involve ‘slamming’ back a shell or small bowl of a slightly peppery-tasting, olive-green liquid. But, according to Todd Henry, one of the owners of Auckland’s first central city kava bar, Four Shells, in the historic Victoria Park Markets building, a bowl of kava isn’t something you sip slowly for its flavour. “People don't choose to drink kava for its taste, more for its effects,” he says.
Kava is a plant with a long-established history: for thousands of years it has been part of the cultural and ceremonial life of many Pacific Island nations. Generally, the root is ground and used fresh or dried to form a powder, then made into a drink. People have used it over the centuries for social, cultural and medicinal reasons.
It is said to provide relief from stress, anxiety and insomnia (and this chronically poor-sleeping writer agrees with that, after tossing back a shell of it at 10.30pm and sleeping like a baby). Todd says people also drink it because it encourages relaxation, harmony and good conversation – without the downsides of alcohol. It’s non-addictive, healthier to drink, contains a lot less calories and no artificial chemicals. It doesn’t affect your judgement, leave you feeling woosy, give you a hangover or, worse, cause you to say or do things you may regret or pass out altogether.
It’s quite easy to describe what it doesn’t do, but harder to put your finger on what it does do. The taste is definitely unusual – earthy and, I thought, a bit peppery, with a slight hint of banana skin flavour – and your tongue feels a little numb for a while afterwards. I’m not sure I felt much different after drinking one shell, and Todd wasn’t surprised. “Kava has a reverse tolerance effect. You won’t always notice much the first time, but the effects develop the more often you have it.”
He says the main effects are on your mood: anxiety reduces and you feel more relaxed, which is part of the reason it is easy to have good conversations. You’re less self-conscious and more contented.
Four Shells is a bit of a united nations, with its owners arriving here from around the world; Todd is from Pennsylvania, while his wife ‘Anau Mesui-Henry is Tongan; Anton Kuznetzov hails from Moscow in Russia, and his partner Monica Kuznetzov is from Alabama.
They all have different experiences of kava; Todd says his first encounter was on a holiday in a small Fijian village, and he was impressed by its relaxing effects. A few years later he moved to Auckland where he met ‘Anau, whose family have been growing, cultivating and producing kava for many years. He says it didn’t take him long to swap the odd beer for a kava. “It gradually grew on me and now I really don’t want alcohol anymore. Sharing a bowl of kava is a good way to catch up with people and through it I have made a lot of very good friends,” he says.
Todd says in the Tongan community, people often belong to kava clubs. “Kava seems to build a community atmosphere, where people socialise together and make connections with each other.”
Monica and Anton’s exposure to kava came through another business they are involved in, which offers float therapy. To help people relax – and get the maximum benefit from their therapy – they offer clients a drink of kava before they are immersed in the water. “It can be confronting to be floating alone for an hour and we have found that kava allows people to relax more deeply and focus more quickly,” says Monica.
Kava also induces harmony and good will in people, says Anton. He has experienced this first-hand in business when the partners hadn’t been able to agree on some quite important issues. “So, we decided to share a bowl of kava before our next meeting, and it was amazing – everyone discussed the issues and for the first time we managed to come to an agreement, harmoniously.”
They all got together (over a bowl or two of kava) and the idea of a bar dedicated to the relaxing drink emerged. Four Shells, with its cool, casual vibe and a Pasifika-style décor, is open afternoons and evenings from Wednesday to Sunday, offering guests a different experience to your average drinking hole. Visitors are welcomed, often chatting with the owners, who take turns mixing up the brew behind the bar, discussing the best ways to sample kava, or ordering a shell or group bowl and sitting at a table with friends, chatting, playing one of the board games available in the bar, and relaxing as the kava takes its gentle effect.
“A real benefit of kava is having it with someone and sharing a conversation. People often come up to the bar and want to talk to us. And because often they haven’t had kava before, we spend time talking about it and explaining how you drink it – you slam it back, you don’t sip. You can either have a shell on your own or a big group bowl that you share. Then you might sit down and have a chaser – something you drink more slowly like coconut water or kombucha, arepa or green tea – and let the conversation flow,” says Todd.
“Visitors from all walks of life, all ages and ethnicities come into the bar,” says Anton. “We have regulars, tourists, people who want to try it properly, office people who drop in for a bottle to take away to a meeting. Often, people are looking for an alternative to alcohol. Some of our regulars are people who drop in for a shell of kava after work rather than sit stressing in the traffic on the motorway.”
Todd says tourists often come in because they are interested to try kava after hearing about this exotic South Pacific drink. “They have an awareness that we are part of the Pacific and feel that it is fitting to come in and try kava here.”
Four Shells offers small snacks like Tongan chips, but “kava is not something you generally have with food. You drink it on an empty stomach then have a meal afterwards. Also, we don't want to blur the lines; we are a kava bar rather than a café, and we want the space here to be relaxing,” says Todd.
The team at Four Shells is passionate about kava and their bar and, as well as showing people how best to consume kava, they want to educate them about it, too. “After drinking four shells of our particular mix of kava, you’re likely to feel the effects – which is part of the reason for our name – although everyone is different,” says Anton. “Some customers regularly drink more than that, while others have less. It’s quite personal.”
They agree that there are plenty of myths out there, which need dispelling. A lot of people think kava is alcohol or some sort of fermented drink that messes people up or makes them violent, says Todd. “Or it's a drug like a narcotic and you get high, which it isn’t. It’s the opposite really, you relax and feel chilled and content.”
One way to dispel the myths is by giving kava a presence and letting it be visible and accessible. “People often ask questions about the myths and we set them straight,” Todd says.
Four Shells make no medicinal claims for kava but, says Anton, “I think it was traditionally consumed in the Islands for lots of illnesses like headaches, stomach cramps, toothache, as well as during the delivery of babies, and there is some research that shows it helps with stress relief and anxiety. It is similar in effect to anti-anxiety drugs – but it isn’t addictive.”
Interestingly, says Monica, there are quite a lot of kava bars springing up in the United States now, but they don’t have the same cultural reference that New Zealanders have. “There, it is see as more of a healthy or non-alcoholic choice, something new, and something that reduces anxiety. Here, more people have heard about it or experienced it themselves when they have been on holiday in the Islands.”
“It’s more gimmicky in the US,” says Todd. “The drinks are more like cocktails and some even have whipped cream on top.”
What to expect
Kava is made from the powdered roots of the kava plant – Piper Methysticum – and is similar to New Zealand’s kawakawa plant. There are many different strains or cultivars of kava, all with slightly different tastes and effects.
At Four Shells, your shell or bowl of kava is made to order, so they make up different brews on different days: Pacific Elixir, Samoan Kava and Tongan Kava, which are all single origin cultivars. “They all taste different,” says Todd, “but people don't choose for the taste, more for the effect.”
Powder is added in a strainer bag to room temperature water, then squeezed and kneaded for five to seven minutes, before it’s ready to drink. “There is a process but it isn’t hard and doesn’t have to be exact to work,” says Anton.
As well as its freshly made kava, Four Shells has a range of powdered kava for making up at home, and bottled kava to take away.
It seems Japanese soldiers drank kava during the Second World War for an immunity boost, and some rugby teams drink it as a muscle relaxant and to help with the dizziness that results from concussion. And a few NFL teams, particularly those with Polynesian players, use it for post-game relaxation and team bonding.