To David Bonilla, a kava bar is much more than a business. "It's more about a lifestyle and creating a community of like-minded people," the Awa Kava Lounge partner says.
The lounge, located at 3930 NW Second Ave. in Miami's Buena Vista neighborhood, soft-opened a few months ago in an old 1940s house featuring coral-rock pillars. "Think of your traditional grandma's house smack dab in the middle of Miami," he says.
Bonilla, along with partners Danny Milotta and Jose Luis Lopez, wants to turn Awa Kava into a haven for the stressed-out, overworked, and overcaffeinated lot that Miamians tend to be. The lounge, which offers kava and kratom, along with cozy couches, games, and television, is also an alternative for people tired of the bar scene. Awa Kava is still in a soft-opening phase, with a kitchen and botanical bar being installed. It will then offer house-made kombuchas, chichas, and other global teas and herbal remedies. A patio with fire pits is being finished.
On a weekday at 7 p.m., a band sets up as people slowly arrive from their jobs, ready for a little release from the workweek. The scene is similar to a neighborhood watering hole, except for the beverages offered.
Bonilla says that, like a few drinks, a bowl or two of kava can relax you at the end of the day. You won't lose track of your senses as you would with a few shots of tequila or some glasses of Chardonnay. "If someone comes in here inebriated, they would stand out like a sore thumb, because while everyone here is relaxed, they're fully conscious and aware." Another benefit of kava over booze is that you won't feel like death the next morning. As Bonilla puts it, "Would you like to wake up tomorrow with a headache, or would you like to wake up tomorrow feeling great?"
Knowing the benefits of stress relief without a hangover, why isn't there a kava bar on every corner? "The hurdle that every kava bar gets to jump is educating people on what kava is. It's a natural substance that provides stress relief and relaxation. That's as simple as it can get. "
Kava is a drink made from the root of the kava (or awa) plant, found mainly in the South Pacific countries of Vanuatu, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea. The root is ground up and mixed with filtered water at room temperature. Then the liquid is filtered to make a murky brown beverage. Kavalactones in the drink are said to help people with insomnia, anxiety, stress, depression, migraines, toothaches, and ADHD. But kava also comes with a warning. According to WebMd, "Many cases of liver damage and even some deaths have been traced to kava use. As a result, kava has been banned from the market in Switzerland, Germany, and Canada, and several other countries are considering similar action."
Studies linking kava to liver damage have proven inconclusive, however. Though the University of Maryland Medical Center states, "It is impossible to say what, if any, dose of kava might be safe," it also admits, "researchers have not been able to confirm that kava is toxic to the liver. It's not clear whether kava itself causes liver damage, or whether taking kava in combination with other drugs or herbs is responsible. It's also not clear whether kava is dangerous at previously recommended doses or only at higher doses." As of now, kava is considered a dietary supplement by the FDA and is legal to purchase and use in the United States.
Bonilla says that kava, like anything else, is safe when offered by a reputable establishment. "We want to be responsible business owners. You get people who don't want to pay a pretty penny for their ingredients." Awa Kava, he says, uses only certified noble root. "You've got to source the product from the right people and do a lot of research."
After a moment of wondering whether I should be worried about my already taxed liver, I decide I need a little less anxiety in my life.
Awa Kava offers three kava beverages in different strengths. Counter to nearly everything else, from caffeine to bourbon, people start with a higher dose of kava and require less as they drink it. Bonilla explains as he ladles out a "high tide" in a plastic bowl: "Kava brings a reverse tolerance to the table. You start with a high-potency beverage, and you need less as you go on." He quips, "Kava is even better on your pocket the more you drink it."
As I reach for the bowl, Bonilla adds a fresh pineapple wedge. "It helps with the taste." I take a sip. It's neither good nor bad — similar to the flavor of what a dirt tea must be like. I finish the kava and wait for something to happen. My lips and tongue tingle and get numb as I speak with frequent customer Sebastien Perez.
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Perez comes into Awa Kava about five times a week for his fix. "For me, it's like going to Starbucks, but I get relaxed instead of hyper." He swears by the murky beverage. "People are more stressed than ever, and there's no answer to that. I can go into a store to buy a Red Bull, but there's nothing to relieve stress." Perez says he found kava about a year and a half ago. "Originally, I was looking for something natural that would relax me with little to no side effects. I came across kava and ordered some. I prepared it by watching a YouTube tutorial, and it really grew on me."
He says that when Awa Kava opened, he quickly became a regular. "The crowds are great and so are the conversations. Perez, who has hypoglycemia, can't drink alcohol because of the sugar content. "Having kava is my Friday night. I'm able to drink and be social, and there's no hangover. I feel happy. Alcohol doesn't always make you feel happy. Now I have something for me."
As we chat, I notice that my legs and spine are a bit spongy. Physically I feel like I've just stepped out of a sauna, but mentally I feel no different. Perez suggests I might want to go for a second round, but I have to get home. As I pack up my things, a man comes in and starts talking about politics angrily. He needs a bowl of kava, I immediately think.
Awa Kava Lounge is open daily from 10 a.m. to 3:30 a.m.