Dear Kava Guru,
Is Kava better fresh?
This is a question for the true kava aficionado—one who has deeply explored all the facets of kava, the many tasty and enjoyable varieties, and is now wondering what more can be done to maximize the kava experience. Is kava better fresh is certainly a question the Guru has also pondered, and when given the chance, I would say the experience of fresh kava is not to be missed!
In the South Pacific, kava brews made from fresh roots are often the norm. Though kava roots are usually dried before being sold at market or given away as gifts, in informal village get-togethers the root is often prepared fresh. This means that more effort must be put into processing the kava: while dried roots can be easily pounded into a powder using a mortar and pestle, due to their moisture content the fresh roots are more resilient and must be shredded or chewed—still a common practice in some South Pacific regions—before being steeped in cool water . However, this effort may well be worth it!
There are three main reasons why kava may be even better fresh than dried: higher strength, sweeter flavor, and the certainty that you’re getting a single strain of kava. Read on as I share my guru wisdom about the points in favor of fresh kava root!
Strength: First on the list is that all-important factor when choosing kava—strength! Fresh kava root often has the reputation of being stronger than the dried root , and there are two very simple reasons why this is probably so. First of all, fresh kava root is, well, fresh! When you buy fresh you know for certain that the kava root was harvested from the plant only a few days ago and the kavalactones have had little time to degrade . Though dried kava root or root powder lasts longer if properly stored, if it has been stored in suboptimal conditions it can lose a great deal of its strength.
The second reason fresh kava may be stronger is because it is sold whole rather than pre-ground. This has to do with surface area: once the root has been peeled, the kavalactones in kava (being somewhat volatile) can escape when exposed to the air over time. When kava root is ground into a fine powder, it creates LOTS of surface area for compounds to escape from, because each granule of kava root is exposed to air . In contrast, the whole fresh root has a smaller overall surface area, which seals in most of the root matter and its constituents from the air. For a useful analogy, think about coffee beans: baristas and coffee gurus everywhere always tell us that whole bean coffee is better than ground for the same reason—whole beans lose fewer constituents to the air and thus retain their full flavor for much longer.
Single Strain: Perhaps more important to the kava connoisseur, but certainly worth noting as well, is that when you buy fresh kava root you know you’re getting a single strain of kava. Powdered kava root, as well as products like instant kava and kava capsules, may often be a blend of different kava strains rather than a single-origin cultivar. Again, this is totally fine if you simply want to use kava to relax and unwind; all kava strains have their merits and I would be overstepping my bounds by declaring one strain to be better than the others (though the Kava Guru has his favorites, heh heh). Yet if you’re interested in getting to know kava’s various strains and their individual effects, perhaps to employ them for a specific medicinal use…then obtaining whole kava root, fresh or dried, is absolutely the way to go!
Flavor: Another reason for the buzz around fresh kava root is simply that it may taste sweeter than the dried version. There’s reason to think the drying process may affect the ratio of chemical constituents in kava root (especially the older, vertical roots), resulting in a bitterer brew than that made from fresh kava root . Now, kava is quite a chemically complex plant, so it makes sense that even a simple heat treatment such as sun drying could affect its overall flavor. If you’re someone who finds the taste of dried kava less than agreeable, it might be worthwhile to seek out the fresh variety.
However, don’t despair if you can’t order fresh kava where you are; there are ways to get the most out of dried kava for an experience approaching the fresh variety. Check out strains of kava known to be sweeter even when dried, such as Tongan kava or Hawaiian Mahakea kava. You can also look for kava powders with a high lateral to vertical root ratio, as the young lateral roots of kava tend to be sweeter (and may be stronger as well). To prevent your dried kava from losing strength, try buying the whole dried kava root or kava root chips and shred or grind them as needed to prepare your kava. Store dried kava powder in an airtight bag away from extremes of heat or moisture, and it should last about 3-6 months. Even better, if stored in a vacuum bag in the freezer, dried kava powder can last indefinitely!
1. “I was so drunk on kava last night I…” The Traveling Editor Blog. Accessed May 14th, 2014. http://www.thetravellingeditor.com/i-was-so-drunk-on-kava-last-night-i/.
2. “How to Use Kava”. Kona Kava Farm. Accessed May 14th, 2014. http://www.konakavafarm.com/kava-how-to-use.html.
3. “Fresh Kava Root.” Buy Kava Direct. Last modified August 3rd, 2012. http://buykavadirect.com/fresh-kava-root/.
4. Kealoha, Makaira. “How Do I Use the Whole Kava Root and Kava Root Chips?” Makaira’s Kava Blog. Last modified August 7th, 2012. http://www.konakavafarm.com/blog/ask-makaira/how-do-i-use-whole-kava-root-and-kava-root-chips/.