It’s a non-alcoholic drink with sedative effects and an acquired taste that is sometimes described as similar to drinking muddy water.
Now an Australian-owned business in Fiji is giving the popular South Pacific beverage kava a flavour makeover to try to broaden its appeal.
“Kava is a fairly challenging taste for many, and having a flavour profile such as coconut, guava, pineapple or even chocolate banana helps mask that taste but still delivers the efficacy required,” said Fiji Kava founder Zane Yoshida.
“I was inspired by the success and creation of energy drinks and I believe kava can be the relaxation drink equivalent.”
Kava (Piper methysticum) is a plant native to the Pacific islands. It’s turned into a drink by drying and crushing the roots and adding water.
Kava is an important part of life in Pacific countries and, in recent years, a way for subsistence farmers to earn a decent living.
“We get lots of money with the kava, a lot more money than we had before,” farmer Alosio Ray from Natewa Bay on Fiji’s Vanua Levu island, said.
While prices soared after Cyclone Winston devastated many kava farms in 2016, demand has also come from new consumers, particularly in the United States.
“There’s been an explosion of demand for kava and an explosion of growth of kava bars throughout the US,” said Mr Yoshida, a Brisbane-based entrepreneur who grew up in Fiji.
“When I started this project 10 years ago, we estimated that there were 50-odd kava bars in the US; that number is now in excess of 450.
“We can’t sell flavoured kava drinks in the Australian market right now,” he said.
“We are not permitted to mix kava with anything else but water.”
Trial leads to opportunities and oversupply problem
Australia is among the countries that restrict the use of kava.
In 2007 it banned commercial imports because the substance was being abused in some remote Indigenous communities, after being initially introduced as an alternative to alcohol.
Previously Germany banned the clinical use of kava over fears it could contribute to liver damage, a decision that was later reversed.
Two years ago Australia lifted its ban, although kava sales are still not allowed in the Northern Territory.
It is part of a pilot program that recognises the cultural significance of kava to Pacific Island communities.
Praveen Narayan, whose family has been in the business for four decades, was quick to take advantage of the rule changes and export to Australia.
The managing director of Green Gold Kava said he did not expect there to be something of a stampede.
“I’m a bit dumbfounded because New Zealand has been open for ages, the US has been open for ages. There wasn’t that kind of rush that happened to Australia,” he said.
“In Fiji we have, as of last year, about 375 companies registered as kava exporters. Out of that around 200 exported to Australia.
“Total exporters from the Pacific to Australia was 430 companies. That’s a huge number.”
Fiji Kava’s drinking powder has also made it onto supermarket shelves in Australia, but Mr Yoshida said the lifting of the ban should have been better controlled.
“Those who comply with the food standards in Australia should have been allowed to participate initially,” he said.
“There’s certainly a glut in the market, as we’ve seen kava prices certainly collapse since the kava commercial trials commenced.
“We need to be able to appeal to a broader Australian population, not just a sub-group of the Australian population being Pacific islanders.”
The Australian government has commissioned research to analyse the health and economic impacts of the trial on Pacific and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities before deciding the future of the pilot, which winds up at the end of the year.
Despite oversupply issues, Mr Yoshida is hoping the ban will stay lifted to help realise a life-long dream to not only export more kava but better-quality kava too.
“I think timing is right to take kava to the masses in the West, given the stresses of everyday life right now that we’re facing,” he said.