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Kava bars are taking root in Northeast Ohio. What is kava?

Isaac Hamilton
Sacred Waters is a kava bar with locations in Lakewood and North Olmsted.

An alternative to alcohol that is growing in popularity across the country has made its way to Ohio: kava drinks.

Several kava bars have popped up in Northeast Ohio in recent years, like Sacred Waters in North Olmsted.
“It’s kind of like walking into my living room. My home is your home,” owner David Kovatch said as he pointed out comfy chairs and a pool table inside the bar on a recent afternoon.

The house specialty is kava, he said.

“Kava is a root that grows in the South Pacific Islands like Hawaii and Fiji, and it's been used for over 3,000 years ceremonially medicinally socially,” Kovatch said.

The liquid made from the root is a milky light brown color, often served in a hollowed-out coconut or mixed with syrups and milk to cover its earthy taste.

The organic compounds found in kava have a calming power, similar to anti-anxiety medications, Kovatch said. The drink contains kavalactones, which interact with receptors in the brain and give the consumer a relaxed feeling, he said.

“So it just kind of melts the stress and anxiety way and gives you this nice clean euphoric feeling sense of well-being,” Kovatch said. “There’s no hangover; it's not impairing anything in any way and it actually has a reverse tolerance. So, the more often you drink it, the less you need to drink to feel the effects.”

Sacred Waters regular Lisa Summers frequently orders a kava drink after a busy workday, she said.

“With me being a business owner of a couple of businesses and things like that, it's like, I stay stressed out, high-strung. But by the time I get here, the kava actually helps me chill out,” Summers said. “You know, my stress level goes from 100 to like 70.”

The sign that greets customers of Sacred Waters, a kava bar in North Olmsted.
Isaac Hamilton
The sign that greets customers of Sacred Waters, a kava bar in North Olmsted.

Kovatch opened the first location of Sacred Waters in Lakewood in 2022 — Ohio’s first-ever kava bar, he said.

Kava bars are gaining popularity in the U.S., he said. He first encountered kava when he took a business trip down to Florida.

“I immediately fell in love with it. I've been sober for a long time — over 10 years. I had never seen a community like that before outside of a bar,” Kovatch said.

That sense of community inspired him to open up his first location in Lakewood and the second spot in North Olmsted a few months later.

“I wanted to build a community and it was a great opportunity to do so," Kovatch said. That’s how we change the world - by building community."

Another kava venture recently opened on the other side of Northeast Ohio.

Lindsay Cronk and Matthew Butler opened Kava Sol in Willoughby in June of 2023.

The clientele is unique, Butler said.

“The demographic of people that come in are very open-minded on both sides,” he said. “It's more of like a flow of, you know, if you're open-minded, you're willing to talk about things that most people don't talk about.’”

Kava is classified as a dietary supplement in the U.S. and is currently unregulated.

Kava bars like Kava Sol and Sacred Waters also sell drinks including kratom, an herbal substance that the National Institute on Drug Abuse says can produce an opioid-like effect.

While kratom is also currently not regulated, the National Institute on Drug Abuse lists concerns about possible contaminants, withdrawal symptoms and serious side effects.

At Kava Sol, every product Butler sells is tested by a third party for effectiveness and safety, he said. What third party?

“There’s a lot of places that are, you know, producing kava and kratom products and it's crap, you know, it's, it's not safe,” Butler said. “You know, the analogy I use is you wouldn't buy sushi from a gas station, would you?”

Recent reportsshow the demand for non-alcoholic beverages and spaces is on the rise, with Gen Z consuming less alcohol than previous generations.

Kovatch at Sacred Waters hopes kava bars will take root in Ohio, but not everyone is on board yet, he said.

While business is booming at his original Lakewood location, North Olmsted city officials recently denied his zoning request to stay open, citing concerns about kava and kratom, he said.

“So, I’m going to be picking up and moving my kava bar,” Kovatch said. “I’m done fighting. I don’t want to be where I’m not wanted.”

Kovatch has hope for the future and plans to relocate to Berea, he said.

Editor's note: This story was produced by Isaac Hamilton, a recent Kent State University graduate. He produced this story as a student in the Audio Storytelling and Podcasting I class taught by Ideastream Public Media reporter/producer Anna Huntsman.