BILLINGS — A kava tea house has replaced the old Pickle Barrel restaurant on 32nd Street West, which has led many to wonder: What is kava?
“Kava is a plant from Fiji, Tonga, Hawaii, any of the South Pacific islands. It’s a ceremonial drink over there,” said the owner of DaKava House, Shane Fichter on Monday.
People may be celebrating the shop with shots on the patio, but it’s not alcohol with their cups. It’s kava, a drink made from a type of plant.
While Pacific Islanders have been using kava for thousands of years, it started to gain popularity in the U.S. a couple of decades ago.
“What it does is the kavalactones in kava will lower your anxiety levels and give you that social, bubbly, talkative feeling that alcohol would give you, but none of the drunken impairedness,” Fichter said.
There is a stigma when it comes to the plant. Kava was banned in Europe in the early 2000s out of concern it could cause liver problems.
“It seems that that decision was made a little hastily. That there’s not a ton of evidence that it causes liver problems in people using it in moderation,” said Steve Carleton, the chief clinical officer of Gallus Detox Centers in Denver.
He said just like any mind-altering substance, kava can be addictive.
“Used in moderation, similar to alcohol, similar to marijuana, it can be safe if done responsibly,” Carleton said.
But kava isn’t the only product being served that many people aren’t familiar with. DaKava House also uses kratom in its Thunder Tea.
“Kratom’s actually a cousin of the coffee plant. But it doesn’t deal with caffeine, it deals with alkaloids,” said Fichter.
Kratom, which caught the attention of the Montana Legislature this year, is used by some to help with everything from pain to anxiety.
“I have some old knee injuries from sports, and I was taking ibuprofen every single day and [I have] one tea, and I feel great,” said Billings resident Heather Wick, who often frequents DaKava House with her husband and two kids.
The kratom served at DaKava is very different from the product often in the public spotlight. Kratom sold in smoke shops is often chemically altered, which makes it dangerous.
“Kratom, when produced in these labs, they engineer it in a way that makes Kratom unnatural” said Carleton.
“We get all of our kava from Kalm With Kava (an Arizona-based large distributor), which is all lab tested. And yes, all of our kratom comes right from an Indonesian farmer, gets tested there, and also gets tested here in the States,” Fichter said.
Fichter said that kava and kratom are only served to those 18 and older, but they offer other drink options to kids.
It’s a new business serving up a new type of brew, and its customers hope it's here to stay.
“I want to introduce this to people, and I want to just make it so that it’s a safe thing that will stick around,” said Fichter.
“Honestly if somebody’s going to go to a kava bar or a regular bar and drink 10 drinks, kava’s probably a safer alternative to that,” Carleton said.