All photos Laura HayesMy tongue is numb and I feel like I’d be willing to tell strangers my secrets. I’m two coconut shells deep into my kava session at sPACYcLOUd Lounge in Adams Morgan. The best part about the hippie bar and vegetarian restaurant is that when you descend the stairs you can take a trip to myriad destinations. Toss back a few Latvian beers, swirl goblets of Georgian amber wine, or board an imaginary flight to the other side of the world—Polynesia and Melanesia—where kava is most enthusiastically consumed, sometimes ceremonially.
While the New York Times‘ called kava “nature’s Xanax,” sPACYcLOUd owner Tatiana Kolina prefers “organic Xanax.” The substance derived from the piper methysticum medicinal plant purportedly has the ability to take the edge off, reduce anxiety, and help social inhibitions slip away. Kolina calls it a hangover-free alternative to alcohol that creates a mild buzz. “It helps me relax, makes me chill, and gets rid of anxiety,” she says.
Like any mind-altering matter derived from the natural world, there’s plenty of folklore and history about kava’s origins and mystique. For starters, it’s said that in traditional tribes, children are tasked with chewing the roots and lower stems of the plant to create a pulp to start the kava-making process. In Vanuatu, groups gather at sundown at a meeting place known as a nakamal, where sometimes only men are welcome.
Nowadays, you can buy the powder on Amazon or at stores that also stock CBD such as Qi Kratom CBD Tea on U Street NW. Kolina initially tried to source kava from that store but says they didn’t give her enough information on what to do with it, so she went to the world’s how-to platform, YouTube, to determine how to serve kava at her lounge. “Once you watch the videos, people who know about kava tell you what they’ve been using and why,” she explains. “Then I felt comfortable buying certain brands.”
Kava bars are popular in Florida, Hawaii, California, New York, and Colorado, but surprisingly haven’t taken off in D.C. yet. Kolina is trying to change that. She serves kava two ways. First there’s the traditional offering combining kava and water served alongside two wedges of fresh pineapple, should a sipper not love the bitter, earthy taste. “It’s like serving a lime with a tequila shot,” jokes sPACYcLOUd patron Ceci Mendez, who says she stops in for cups of kava when she needs help leaving anxiety at the office before commuting home to Bethesda.
The other option is kava mixed with water, coconut cream, fresh mint, and blueberries. “When you stir it, you’re stirring your intentions,” sPACYcLOUd employee Elyce Humphrey says. The team is working on a few more kava “cocktails.” The traditional flavor is $5 for a single and $7 for a double, while the coconut one is $7 for a single and $10 for a double. Before you start drinking, consider uttering the traditional toast of “bula,” the Fijian word for “life.”
So how much should you drink in one sitting? “What I understand is that in the beginning you need a lot,” Kolina says. “Some people take eight shots to feel anything.” Unlike alcohol where your tolerance builds up, requiring you to drink more to feel the same buzz, kava is the opposite, according to Kolina. “With kava, as it builds up in your system, you need less. So far people come in and there’s never anyone getting drunk on it. They just sit and relax and have nice conversation.”
sPACYcLOUd has a wooden bowl for kava that’s good for groups. “When you drink from the same bowl, you become united and connected,” Kolina says. Thursdays are the best nights to visit the lounge because that’s when a kava Meetup group gathers. Anyone can join. Sometimes the lounge brings in a DJ to play music that jibes with the kava experience. Soon sPACYcLOUd will offer “kava flow” yoga classes.
Kava is legal in the U.S. for personal use as a dietary supplement. A German study in 2002 led to a ban in that country after researchers found a link between kava and liver damage. That ban was eventually lifted. Most conclude that more research is required.
“With alcohol, people drink and the next day they feel embarrassed,” Kolina says. “But with kava you enjoy it and you remember and you feel good. You can be yourself. You’re not afraid the next day. ‘What did I do? What did I say?’ You can be open and comfortable.”
sPACYcLOUd Lounge, 2309 18th St. NW; (703) 403-4134; spacyloungedc.com