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Alternative to alcohol: Michigan's first Kava Bar in Grand Rapids

In its first two years of business, Kava Kasa is bringing a new flavor to Grand Rapids.

/Abby Schnell

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/Abby Schnell

/Abby Schnell

On Cherry Street, Grand Rapids, the local bar known as Kava Kasa is listed on Google as a tea room. However, this is not a tea bar nor a place for alcohol. This bar only serves kava: the drink that doesn’t feel or taste like anything else. Bars dedicated to the drink from the Pacific Islander root of the same name have been popping up all over America. This includes Kava Kasa, the only kava bar in the state of Michigan. The owner, Riccardo Schinina and his partner Karen Salenno, spoke about the benefits of kava: physically and emotionally. He said with confidence that the drink definitely saved his life.

For Schinina, “the story” began about five years ago, back in St. Petersburg, Florida. Having suffered from a torn shoulder tendon, Salenno was immobilized for an entire year. To treat the pain, he was subscribed an increasing list of opioids that were becoming difficult to obtain. “We’d drive from pharmacy to pharmacy all day, trying to convince people we weren’t drug dealers,” Salenno explained.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the misuse of opioids has been called “a serious national crisis.” The reverse-tolerance of the drug means that for patients, the pain-relieving effects decrease after each use. Fortunately for Schinina, the solution was found in one of the multiple kava bars in St. Petersburg. The drink, which is known for its calming effects, helped Schinina get off opioids and back on track.

When Schinina and Salenno moved back to Michigan two years ago, the problem was immediate: no kava bars. Within the first two weeks of searching, Schinina decided to open up, “it was like a calling.”

They opened Michigan’s first kava bar in 2016. While the two were nervous at first, Schinina and Salenno were happy to find the business successful. “We have lots of regulars,” Salenno explained, “and we love building regulars.”

The drink itself is rather simple: powdered kava root in water. Kava is famous for its calming effects on both mind and body: anti-anxiety, anti-stress, and a muscle relaxant. It has often been called a social lubricant, allowing people to relax and open up with one another. Salenno calls it “like a glass of wine, without the heaviness.” Schinina says it’s “the only thing that makes you feel good that isn’t poison.”

The casa itself has a calming atmosphere, with a variety of areas to relax or do work. Offering drinks, teas, and smoothies in a variety of flavors, it’s fairly easy to find your preferred type of kava. Kava Kasa allows customers to add other things such as coconut. Schinina usually drinks it with chocolate almond milk. Ordering kava from Kava Kasa means getting a single, double, or triple of your desired kava in a bowl with a pineapple wedge. While it’s said the taste is difficult to describe, it resembles tea or coffee in its bitterness, accompanied by almost a grainy aftertaste. The effects, however, are not like coffee. It may even be reverse coffee.

Upon drinking it, you can expect your lips and tongue to go numb within a few minutes of drinking. It’s recommends to finish your drink within 20 minutes, since the benefits of kava are more prominent the faster you drink. This includes a sense of calm, like after taking time to breathe or meditate. Kava is drug sensitization effect, meaning the more you drink it, the more quickly these effects occur. Salenno occasionally used kava when she quit smoking, saying she didn’t want to smoke after drinking kava. Today, Schinina and Salenno typically only need a little bit of kava in order to feel calmer.

Several informative pamphlets at Kava Kasa claim a myriad of health benefits, from anti-fungal to better sleep. However, the scientific community’s reviews more mixed. While there are studies that kava is a natural treatment for cancer, others reports that the drink causes liver damage.

While the New York Times calls kava “nature’s Xanax,” Schinina believes from experience that “Xanax is no joke.” Michigan’s opioid epidemic is proof of that. For those who can’t drink, or want a safe ride home, kava offers a “sober way to get out and have a good time.”

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