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Friday, April 12, 2024

Not often do people come across an herbal medicine that works against stress, calms nerves and “creates a general feeling of well-being” without it being illegal. But the drink Kava, an ancient beverage crop from the South Pacific, legally holds all of those characteristics.

Kava is a plant with roots that are used around the world for medicinal effects such as sedation, muscle relaxation, pain relief and diuresis, excess urination. It’s also used as a remedy for anxiety, nervousness and insomnia.

“Some people call Kava the drink of peace,” said Dr. H.C. “Skip” Bittenbender, an extension specialist for Coffee and Kava at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

He has been growing, drinking and researching Kava for about 11 years.

Bittenbender said Kava originated from the area of Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. The crop has been in cultivation for thousands of years and is older than coffee or tea.

Kava’s botanical name, Piper methysticum, means “intoxicating pepper,” according to

“We drink Kava because it makes us more calm and gives us a better outlook on life,” Bittenbender said.

Instead of traveling to Hawaii or Papua New Guinea to sample this “South Pacific treasure,” Gainesville residents can sip some Kava on University Avenue.

Mo Ellithy, 23, opened Kava Lounge, 1007 W. University Ave., nine months ago after moving to Gainesville from Cairo, Egypt. Kava Lounge serves its customers hookah and Kava drinks in a relaxed social setting.

Ellithy, a UF biochemistry senior, was inspired to open the lounge after his friends from Papua New Guinea opened one without hookahs in Boca Raton, he said.

“Kava is more of a social thing,” Ellithy said. “People come together and try it together.”

Ellithy picks up Kava for the lounge every couple of months in Boca Raton once it gets there from Papua New Guinea. The Kava is organically grown by the Vanuatu tribe and tested before it comes into the states, Ellithy said.

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Kava Lounge serves two types of Kava drinks in half of a coconut shell — Shaman, $3, or Fire Island Kava, $4, which is more concentrated and has a stronger taste.

Ellithy said that the lounge sees a mixed crowd.

“After 2 a.m., it is only the kids,” Ellithy said about the lounge, which is open until 4 a.m. “But between 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., we see all types of people — neurosurgeons, lawyers — coming in just to drink Kava and unwind.”

Kava’s mellow effects take about 10 to 15 minutes to kick in, but depend on the person and whether he or she has eaten, Ellithy said.

Most of Ellithy’s customers don’t expect it to taste as earthy as it does and for it to have a slight numbing of the mouth. He said that the people who say they do not like Kava attribute the reason to its strong taste.

Ellithy said there are ways to dull the strong flavor, such as adding citrus fruits to the drink.

Many first-time Kava drinkers have a hard time putting their thoughts about Kava to words.

“Drinking Kava tastes like if you were to drink a rainforest,” said Jake Skolnick, 19, a communications major at Santa Fe College, after his first taste of Kava.

Skolnick and his roommate Sami Greenberg, 21, come to Kava Lounge to relax, order hookah and enjoy the atmosphere.

“It’s a perfect place to come with friends to recap the night after going out,” Greenberg said. “It’s soothing...good music, low lighting and you have the choice to lounge back or sit on the floor.”

Whether “drinking the Earth” is a pleasant or unpleasant experience, Ellithy leaves it to his customers to decide.

 “You either like it or you don’t,” he said.

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