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Kava Terminology Decoded – A Glossary

January 3, 2018

We get it—there are A LOT of different words, sayings, and names related to kava. To help you feel welcome in the kava community and learn all about kava, we created a glossary of kava terminology broken out by topic and relevance. It provides definitions and explanations of terms so you can quickly become fully versed in kava lingo–bula!

Table of Contents

What is Kava Root?

  • Kava/Kava Root: Kava is a small shrub grown in Pacific islands, mainly Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, and Hawaii. The history of kava is very rich, as islanders have used kava plants for centuries in social rituals, religious ceremonies, and medicinal purposes. Primarily, the root of kava is ground down and made into a natural beverage for consumption. When consumed, the effect of the active ingredients in the kava plant is psychological and physiological relaxation.
  • Piper methysticum: The Latin or botanical name for kava. Piper methysticum translates as “intoxicating pepper.” There are estimated to be over 100 different varieties of the plant.

Piper Methysticum, a Kava plant bush.

Parts of the Kava Plant

  • Waka: Fijian word for the roots of a Piper methysticum plant. Typically, the kavalactone content of the roots is about 2X as strong as the stump portion. But with the strength, there also comes a much stronger or more peppery taste.
  • Lawena: Fijian word for the basal stem of the kava plant, the thick, fleshy stump or base of the root. This part of the kava plant often has a lower concentration of kavalactones and is somewhat weaker than the lateral roots but often tastes much smoother.
  • Makas: Originally a Vanuatu term referring to the insoluble parts of the root that are leftover in the muslin bag and thrown out after a traditional preparation. It has also come to refer to the coarse fibers of stump and roots, with low kavalactone value, that are sometimes included in the production of micronized kava. The best, more potent micronized and instant products have the makas filtered out in processing but many online vendors take shortcuts and grind everything together.
Waka - Roots of the Kava Plant

Waka (Roots) portion

Kava Varieties & Cultivars

There are over 105 different varieties or cultivars of Piper methysticum, so let’s explore the ones that are most relevant to the Kalm with Kava community.

  • Noble Kava: Desirable kava varieties that are consumed on a regular basis and have a different kavalactone ratio to Tudei kava that is less likely to produce negative side effects. At Kalm with Kava, we only sell Noble varieties of kava. Learn more about Noble kava here.
  • Tudei (Non-Noble) Kava: Tudei (pronounced “two-day”) kava (also called Isa and Iwi in Hawaii) refers to a variety of kava that can cause negative side effects based upon the root’s chemotype. These negative side effects can last for up to two days and include headache and nausea among others. Rest assured, Kalm with Kava only sells Noble varieties of kava. Learn more about Tudei kava here.
  • Dr. Vincent Lebot: The world’s leading kava researcher and author of the book “Kava: The Pacific Elixir”. Dr. Lebot is a botanical geneticist who has authored numerous peer-reviewed articles on kava.
  • Acetone test: This is a simple means of testing whether a kava is Noble or Tudei that was devised by Dr. Vincent Lebot. When mixed with an acetone solvent, a kava will display a light golden color if it’s “Noble” and a darker reddish or orange color if it’s a “Tudei.” ​ (View Dr. Lebot’s video explanation)
Kava Root Pieces Being Dried

Lawena (Stump) portion

The Effects of Kava

  • Kava Effects: A term used to describe how the kavalactones in kava impact the mind and body after consumption. Some of the common kava effects customers experience after drinking kava include the following: natural sleep aid, anxiety relief, stress relief, boost mood,increase sociability, muscle relaxation, and mental calm.
  • Heavy: A description of the effects of kava when the kava makes your body feel heavy, relaxed, and more sedative. Heavy kavas are best for evening use. View our medium grind heavy kavas here.
  • Heady: A description of the effects of kava when the kava makes you feel more mentally relaxed, clearer in mind, uplifted in mood, happier, energetic, and more productive. Heady kavas are great for daytime use. View our medium grind heady kavas here.
  • Balanced: A description of the effects of kava when the kava has a mix of both heady and heavy kava effects. View our medium grind balanced kavas here.

Kava Root Science

  • Kavalactones: The active chemical ingredients in the kava plant responsible for delivering the mind and body relaxation effect of the drink. Learn more about kavalactones here.
  • Chemotype: The composition of kavalactones in a given root or the plant’s chemical make-up. The chemotype can be used to help identify where the plant originates from and whether the effects are likely to be heady, heavy, or balanced.
  • High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) Testing: A method of separating out and measuring the different concentrations of kavalactones in a sample to establish the roots’ chemotype.

Kava Plant Cultivation

  • Kava Plant Propagation: A process by which the number of kava plants is increased through hand cultivation. Kava plants cannot reproduce naturally, so kava farmers must use propagation to plant and grow new kava plants.

Other Kava Names

Piper methysticum originates from the South Pacific islands where it has many different names. Here are some of the more common names for kava along with their associated islands.

  • KavaKava or Kava: The name given to Piper Methsyticum by the residents of Tonga and Marquesa. Both names are commonly used across the world now. (Tonga and Marquesa, now widespread)
  • Awa: The name given to Piper Methsysticum by the residents of the Hawaiian Islands.
  • Ava: The name given to Piper Methsysticum by the residents of Samoa.
  • Yaqona: The name given to Piper Methsysticum by the residents of Fiji.
  • Sakau: The name given to Piper Methsysticum by the residents of Pohnpei.
    Malok/Malogu: The name given to Piper Methsysticum by residents of certain parts of Vanuatu.

Kava Products & Accessories

  • Medium Grind Kava: Kava root that is pounded or ground to medium consistency and used to prepare a kava tea.
  • Bilo: The traditional coconut shell cup that is used for serving and drinking kava.
  • Tanoa/Kumete: the traditional wooden bowl used in kava drinking ceremonies, often hand-carved from a single piece of wood. Some tanoas are intricately carved works of art and cultural heirlooms.
  • Micronized or Instant Kava: Kava root, preferably with the makas removed, that has been processed in a manner that allows it to be mixed directly into any beverage to create a drink without the need for straining that is required for a medium grind.
  • Kava Concentrate: Extraction of the active ingredients of kava into a concentrated form. For example, our concentrate is a flavored cordial that is diluted with water to easily create a kava drink.
  • Kava Capsules and Pills: Kava powder or extract packed into a capsule or pill format.
  • Fresh or Green Kava: Freshly harvested kava root stump that is cleaned and drank the same day or within a couple of days of being pulled from the ground. This fresh kava preparation occurs in Vanuatu and Hawaii. So-called “Green” kava has a gentler flavor profile. Kava that is not thoroughly cleaned and dried prior to shipping runs the risk of molding or spoiling. This is why most kava available online has been dried prior to export. The traditional preparation of kava in Fiji uses dried kava root.
  • Kava Mints: A Kalm with Kava product where kava has been packaged into the refreshing form of a mint.
  • Kava Tincture: A concentrated, liquid form of kava that is taken with a a dropper directly or mixed in with a non-alcoholic beverage.
  • Kava Strainer Bag: Used to steep kava root in hot water and strain away any coarse fibers and particles. Our kava bags are available in original, synthetic, and authentic formats.
Jars of Micronized Instant Kava and Bottles of Kava Concentrate

Micronized Instant Kava and Kava Concentrate

How Kava Drinks are Prepared

  • Traditional Preparation: Involves placing the ground root in a muslin bag, dipping the closed bag in a bowl of water and kneading until the water turns brown to make a tea. The ground root is not mixed directly with the water just strained through the muslin cloth during the kneading process to filter out the makas or unwanted coarse fibers.
  • Easy Preparation: A style of preparing kava that uses a blender and cloth strainer to prepare.
  • Grog: A term used in Fiji that means a batch of kava made the traditional way.
  • Shell: The term used to denote a normal serving size or one drink of kava. The term “shell” refers to a bilo shell cup.
  • Toss and Wash: The mixing of any kava powder in water and drinking without straining. This preparation process is normal when micronized or instant kava, is being used. It is not recommended when using medium grind or traditional kava due to the increased chance of stomach upset resulting from the consumption of the makas.
Preparation of ground kava root tea

Medium Grind Preparation

Kava Culture

  • Nakamal: The name for a traditional meeting place or community center in Vanuatu. Today many nakamals in urban areas of Vanuatu function predominately as a place where kava is prepared and drank, equating essentially to “a local kava bar”.
  • Kava Bar: Kava bars are like traditional bars but where kava is served instead of alcohol. They are growing in popularity across the world, and many of the U.S. kava bars can be found on our kava bar locator map.
  • Bula: pronounced boo-lah this is a traditional Fijian greeting. It literally translates as ‘life’ but really is a greeting wishing you health and happiness. During a kava ceremony, it is customary for a person to say “Bula” before drinking their shell.
Nakamal Vanutau Kava Bar

Vanuatu Nakamal

Shop Kava Online at Kalm with Kava

On that note, here’s hoping you enjoy a more informed kava buying and drinking experience now that we’ve decoded the terminology for you with this handy kava plant terminology glossary. Any experts out there, we invite you to share any other terms we missed below!

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