Nearly every day, folks will find Kenn Hoyumpa behind the bar at Bula Kafe in St. Pete’s Kenwood neighborhood, serving coconut shells full of a brown, murky liquid. That’s kava, a mild sedative derived from a Polynesian root. In traditional Pacific cultures, kava is often part of formal social and religious ceremonies. Now kava’s part of a growing U.S. bar culture — and it started right here in Florida.
Hoyumpa was one of the original employees of the first kava bar in North America, Nakava in Boca Raton. He moved to Tampa and opened Bula five years ago, and he and the team just opened a second Bula location in Madeira Beach. Hoyumpa estimates there are now about 20 kava bars across the state, and more are opening throughout the country at a slow but steady clip.
Given humans’ hunger for new ways to alter our consciousness, it’s a little surprising the growth of kava hasn’t been explosive. One factor may be that the drink is an acquired taste. The ground kava root is generally bitter (though Bula sells flavored options), and the active ingredient isn’t water-soluble. So downing a shellful feels a bit like swigging fine sand floating in water.
But the regulars at Bula (pronounced boo-lah) seem to love it. The tiki-themed spot has become a major community hub for 20-somethings in western St. Pete.
“A lot of people come here regularly,” Hoyumpa says. “They call this their second family.”
If you’re looking for a more solitary experience, however, you can make kava at home — with a little effort.
According to Hoyumpa, “I wouldn’t say it’s a simple process. It’s a bit time-consuming.”
The ground root needs to be soaked and mixed in warm water, then slowly strained through a nylon mesh. And the most touchy part of kava-making is the water.
“It’s very, very temperature-sensitive,” Hoyumpa says. “It’s two parts cold water to one part boiling water.” He recommends searching out instructional kava-making videos on YouTube to get a sense for the process.
Kava has so far escaped any serious regulation. It’s legal to sell to minors, though Bula refuses to. In 2002, the FDA released a warning about possible liver toxicity from kava consumption, but that was mainly aimed at pills and extracts made using dangerous solvents, rather than the natural drink itself.
But Hoyumpa cites significant benefits from kava, mainly as a replacement for more dangerous intoxicants.
“There was a time I was drinking a lot,” he says. If he hadn’t replaced alcohol with kava, “I probably would have ended up with bad things happening. Kava is a part of saving my life.”
To DIY. Bula Kafe and other local kava bars carry the root powder and equipment you need for kava-making.
Not to DIY. Alongside the two Bula hangouts, Mad Hatters Ethnobotanical Tea Bar and Sawgrass Tiki Bar & Tea House (St. Pete), Low Tide Lounge (Gulfport) and Blue Lizard Hookah Lounge (Tampa) are among the Bay area’s kava purveyors.
Kava vs. kratom. Many spots that serve kava also offer an intoxicating tea called kratom, but they don’t have much in common. While kava is from Polynesia, kratom is indigenous to Thailand. And if the pleasant buzz of kava evokes a South Pacific beach, the dissociative clamor of kratom has more in common with a long night in Bangkok. In fact, bills banning kratom are circulating through Florida’s statehouse, and this writer strongly advises against driving after consuming kratom. Consider yourself warned.
Books for beginners. Hoyumpa recommends Chris Kilham’s Kava: Medicine Hunting in Paradise, as well as Getting Stoned With Savages and The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost.