Just chill. New hip gathering spots are serving naturally brewed beverages to ease anxiety, melt away stress, clear the mind and take the edge off. The calming teas and drinks are steeped from the ground root of kava, a Polynesian plant celebrated for centuries in the South Pacific for its euphoric and sedative properties.
About a dozen kava bars have popped up in the last few years in Southwest Florida. The region is a bit behind the curve, though, considering that the Sunshine State has the most kava bars in the nation. Tampa Bay particularly has become a popular hot spot for the kava craze.
A kava bar is not a traditional bar. It’s not exactly a coffee bar. It’s a new kind of social lounge that is creating a notable buzz without alcohol and caffeine. While these casual, peace-loving places could be hangouts for hippies, they are more apt to be meetups for millennials where everyone is welcome.
Kylee Brinkman added kava to her third location of The Bowl, which opened in January in the University Village shops near Florida Gulf Coast University. “Millennials are my target market so this is in line with what my customers want,” she says.
If the beverages prove successful at her acai bowl business, she plans to add them to the lineup at her Naples locations. “I think the energy buzz you get from it is something you don’t experience from alternative options like coffee,” Brinkman says.
Sisters Caroline and Jacqueline Rusher opened their first Kava Culture kava bar three years ago in Bonita Springs. Since then, they have introduced five others from Tampa to North Naples with locations in downtown Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach and Port Charlotte. They also launched Botanical Brewing in November in a former Cape Coral craft beer brewery where they manufacture kava seltzers with flavors such as peach-lemon and raspberry mojito. “Our plan for Botanical Brewing is to be the new kombucha. That’s our goal,” Caroline Rusher says.
The Rushers started making their kava creations last March at a small location that they quickly outgrew before searching over the summer for a larger space with brewing equipment that they purchased in October. Botanical Brewing is 70% wholesale and 30% retail with an on-site taproom. They started kegging their kava creations and began marketing the nonalcoholic drinks to area breweries, bars and restaurants.
“That’s our little pandemic baby. Born out of the pandemic,” Caroline Rusher says. “It’s something good to come from 2020. It’s an escape from the ordinary. I think everyone needs that right now.”
Rusher, who started going to kava bars 10 years ago in Fort Lauderdale, found that the beverages serve as a calming, social lubricant. “It’s a different environment. You just meet the most interesting people,” she says.
“People are there to meet new people and try new things.” She thinks that kind of social community is missing for a lot of people, especially transplants who didn’t grow up here.
The earthy-tasting kava is similar to java in that it is consumed for its effects more than its taste. Like coffee, kava can also be bitter. Caroline Rusher recommends first-time users sample kava on tap, which is sweeter tasting.
“It’s something that’s new and different so people are naturally skeptical,” she says.
Kava bartenders have become experts at chatting up the positive health effects and variations for a product that often needs a little introduction to the uninitiated. When throwing back a bowl of kava, they even lead the “Bula!” yell, Fiji’s equivalent of “Cheers!”
A kava caveat: The FDA advised years ago that kava-containing products have been associated with liver-related injuries in other countries. While kava remains legal, doctors advise people with liver conditions or those who have been consuming alcohol to not drink it.
Nevertheless, the herb has been used to help with ailments such as migraines and insomnia. “It helped with my headaches,” says JD Bechthold, one of four recent graduates of the University of Miami who were inspired by a Miami Beach kava bar to open Naples’ first location, Nectar Lab, in January 2020. Bechthold welcomes the three other kava bar brands that have since opened in Collier County.
“It will make the area more aware of it. It’s a proven concept. I think it’s overall a good thing,” he said. “It’s a solid business to be in.”
The local trend-setting Nectar Lab, which offers an upscale lounge experience, has a second location targeted to open this March in Gulf Coast Town Center in Lee County and a third location in the Miami area, said co-owner Drew Gendron.
Photo Credit: Kevin Bires