At Bula Kava House, we celebrate the rich kava drinking traditions that take place around the globe. From our Portland kava bar to the nakamals of Vanuatu, Bula’s own Judd Rench has had the opportunity to experience some of the varied traditions that encompass the ceremony that surrounds drinking this sacred beverage.
Most kava drinking cultures have both an informal and formal way of drinking kava. When you consider the long and culturally significant role kava plays in many of the island nations where the plant is grown, it’s not surprising to hear that the formal ways of drinking kava are very ceremonial. But kava is meant for everyday drinking, so informally many cultures strip away the ceremony to enjoy the peace and serenity that comes from drinking some of the world’s finest kava.
During his travels to find our Bula customers interesting new kavas to experience, Judd has had the opportunity to witness firsthand some of many different ways kava is enjoyed in the regions of the world that have grown the plant for generations. While each location offers a different twist on how kava is consumed both formally and informally, there exists a mutual respect for kava that runs universally through every culture that enjoys this sacred plant.
In Judd’s experience, kava can be drunk at any time in Fiji. Guests and visitors are expected to bring kava when visiting someone’s home or village. The kava powder the guest brings is prepared by the host and served for all to enjoy.
Typically, the kava is presented in one shell, which is passed between each individual. When your turn to drink comes around, you’re expected to clap once before receiving the shell. After you’ve finished the shell in one long drink, others around the kava circle will clap three times. Occasionally the drinker will also clap, but in Judd’s experience this can vary.
Claps are made using a hollow hand, which gives a duller sound when compared to the type of clapping normally heard at sporting events. Getting the sound right is important when clapping, as Judd can attest. He was asked to try clapping again until he was able to produce the right type of sound.
Before drinking, you can say “bula” and after you say “maca” (pronounced matha), which means in essence, “it is drained.”
In Vanuatu, kava isn’t usually consumed at home, but rather in what are known as nakamals. These are open air buildings where you can purchase and drink prepared kava. Unlike the coconut shells most often associated with drinking kava, the beverage is typically served in a plastic bowl in Vanuatu.
Drinkers will take their kava out of the nakamals and stand facing nature. The kava is then consumed in one long drink, but tradition dictates that you spit out the last of the kava, returning it to the earth.
When finished, visitors will return to the nakamals to sit in near silence so they can “listen to the kava,” according to Judd. Some small, quiet conversation is allowed, but loud noises or any boisterous activity is strictly discouraged.
In Tonga, kava consumption typically occurs in churches during sessions that last most of the day. In Judd’s experience, spending 8 to 10 hours drinking kava wouldn’t be an abnormal amount of time. Of course, visitors don’t drink kava the entire time, but intermittently throughout the day.
In sharp contrast to Vanuatu, the time spent between drinking kava is usually filled with plenty of conversation, singing, and guitar playing. The entire experience is far more festive and acts as a way for the men in the community to come together.
Women are strictly prohibited from drinking kava in Tonga. One unmarried woman is chosen to serve the kava during these marathon sessions, which is considered a great honor among members of the community.
Hawaii is one of the few places in the U.S. to have its own tradition of drinking kava. Modern kava drinking in Hawaii is usually very casual, with little to no ceremony involved. Perhaps before the islands’ westernization, drinking kava had more tradition, but most of that was lost after Hawaii became the 50th state.
What little tradition you do see involves drinkers dipping a finger into the bowl, letting the droplets hit the ground “for the ‘Aina (land).” Drinkers will then dip their finger twice more into their bowl before sprinkling a few drops over each of their shoulders in a gesture that is meant to remember their ancestors.
Finally, the drinker will clap their hands once, using the same hollow hand gesture as in Fiji, chug their bowl, and then clap twice.