Dear Kava Guru,
How many different varieties of Kava are there, and how do I know which variety to choose?
Kava Lover, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
Any plant that’s been cultivated for a long time tends to branch out into different strains: just as apples, tomatoes, lettuce, and other produce have their varieties, so kava has its treasured strains. This article will help you know what to expect from the most commonly available kava varieties in terms of taste and effects.
Although kava kava is technically one species (Piper methysticum), there are many kava varieties spread out across millions of square miles in the South Pacific. “How many kava varieties are there?” is a question whose answer keeps changing as botanists and phytochemists come up with different methods of distinguishing between strains of kava. Vanuatu alone grows at least 30 and as many as 70 kava varieties depending on the source one consults. However, many Vanuatan kava strains are never exported to the world market because they are classed as “ignoble” strains of unreliable quality and strength. By law, only “noble” strains of kava that have a reliable kavalactone content can be exported from Vanuatu for global trade.
Botanists can often distinguish kava strains by the appearance of kava’s aboveground stems and leaves: kava ranges in color from light to dark green depending on the strain; some strains also have white or purple spots on their stems or leaves. As a consumer, you’re more likely to encounter kava in its powdered root form. Kava powders from different strains will have distinct aromas, colors, tastes, and effects. For instance, some kava varieties can be very uplifting, while others may be sedating and encourage introspection. Likewise, some kava varieties are renowned for their physically relaxing and analgesic effects, while others may work primarily on the mental or emotional plane. The list below will introduce you to the most common strains and their typical effects, so you can make the best choice for your needs.
Fu’u: From Tonga, Fu’u is a very finely ground kava with a complex, nutty, almost coconut or almond-like flavor. It also has very low bitterness. Said to inspire humor, creativity and lively conversation on a wide range of topics, Fu’u is probably best enjoyed at a social occasion with lots of opportunity for conversation.
Tongan White: As the name suggests, this kava is very light tan when prepared —like coffee with a lot of cream—and has a creamy, smooth taste that is quite accessible to the newcomer. It also brews up thicker than other kavas, so you might want to use a bit more water than the typical recipe calls for. Tongan white kava offers palpable muscle relaxation and endows the mind with a calm alertness. Along with Hawaiian Mahakea, many “kavasseurs” mention Tongan white as their favorite kava for relaxing after the workday.
Fijian Kava: Kava seems to have come to Fiji later than other regions of the South Pacific. That didn’t stop Fijians from adopting this healing root as a national staple, and Fijian kava’s stress-relieving and anxiotlytic effects make it easy to see why! Brewing to a rich golden tan, Fijian kava is creamy with an underlying hint of pepperiness and lightly sedating, relaxing effects on the mind and body. Fiji kava helps many people simply feel at ease and is a wonderful variety for relaxing on a weekday night.
Melo Melo: Along with Fu’u, this Vanuatan kava is perhaps the best “party kava” the Kava Guru has encountered. Unlike some varieties that make one want to lay down and contemplate the universe, Melo Melo has a laidback yet euphoric energy that makes us want to get up and dance (though not too fast!), and while the evening away telling stories and cracking jokes. However, as the name suggests, Melo Melo can also be a very “mellow” kava should you decide to approach it that way.
Isa: Also known as Tue Dai or Tudei (pronounced “two day”) kava, the Isa strain from Vanuatu has caused a bit of a kerfuffle in the kava world for its supposed strength, bolstered by the rumor that it is actually Piper wichmannii, the ancient wild relative of kava. As far as the Kava Guru is aware, this claim is marketing hype that has never been confirmed. There is some controversy surrounding Tudei kava strains, however: they can be high in Flavokawain B, a compound that may deplete the liver-protective enzyme glutathione. Since there are so many strains of kava to choose from with purely beneficial effects, in general it may be better to abstain from “tudei” kava cultivars.
Mahakea: Because the Hawaiian Islands are relatively isolated from the rest of the South Pacific, they have given rise to unique kava strains found nowhere else. Take Mahakea: often thought to be the sweetest and least bitter of the kava varieties, Mahakea is rich and earthy with black tea-like undertones. Less cerebral than Vanuatan kavas, Mahakea tends to be very physically relaxing and analgesic, making it helpful for easing sore muscles, headaches, backaches, and general stress relief.
Mo’i: Another famous Hawaiian varietal, Mo’i is often known as the kava of kings: before European Contact, its use was restricted to Hawaiian chiefs and their families—not surprising given its intriguing and unique effects! Mo’i is mentally stimulating and feels physically lighter than other more sedating kava strains. It’s up there with Melo Melo as a euphoric, energizing kava that can make worries disappear and conversation flow freely. With a flavor that is smooth and buttery with hints of cocoa, we believe Mo’i kava really is fit for a king.
With so many varieties of kava, we believe there is a strain to suit everyone—or really several strains, based on your own mood and intention for a particular kava session. When you read the list above, consider what you want to use kava for, as well as the kind of experience you wish to have. You’ll quickly discover the kava varieties that appeal to you!
“Kavasseur: Your Number #1 Source for Kava Reviews and Kava News.” Accessed March 4th, 2014. www.kavasseur.blogspot.com.
“Kava- Strains and Origins.” Wikipedia. Last modified February 21st, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kava#Strains_and_origins
Kilham, Chris. 2000-2005. “Kava, The Plant” in “Kava: an Ethnomedical Review”. University of Massachusetts teaching notes. Last modified March 27th, 2009. https://www.erowid.org/plants/kava/kava_article1.shtml.
“Hawaiian Kava.” Kona Kava Farm. Accessed March 4th, 2014. http://www.konakavafarm.com/kava-hawaiian.html
“Tudei Kava”. Kona Kava Farm. Accessed March 5th, 2014. http://www.konakavafarm.com/kava-tudei.html.