Kava Terminology Decoded – A Glossary

January 3, 2018

The Latin or botanical name for kava is Piper Methysticum. This translates as ‘intoxicating pepper.’ In truth, kava has many names. This kava plant terminology glossary was created for anyone wanting to learn all about kava and to gain a better understanding of how to buy and drink kava. It is a handy reference guide to Piper Methysticum. It provides definitions and explanations of terms that will help you to quickly become fully versed in kava drinking lingo.

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.

Piper Methysticum, a Kava plant bush.

– KavaKava or Kava (Tonga and Marquesa, now widespread)

– Awa (Hawaiian Islands)

– Ava (Samoa)

– Yaqona (Fiji)

– Sakau (Pohnpei)

– Malok / Malogu (certain parts of Vanuatu)

The Effects of Kava

The effects of drinking kava are said to be heavy, heady or balanced. Heavy means it will make your body feel heavy, relaxed, and are more sedative, so they are best for evening use. Heady means it will provide more mental relaxation, clear the mind, uplift you, make you feel happier and sometimes even more energetic and productive, so they are great for daytime use. Balanced is a mix of the two and the effects you feel are part heady and part heavy.

Kavalactones: the active chemical ingredients in the kava plant responsible for delivering the beneficial, mind and body relaxation effect of the drink. Learn more.

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.

Waka - Roots of the Kava Plant

Waka (Roots) portion

Kava Plant Component Parts

Waka: Fijian word for the roots of a Piper Methysticum plant. Typically, the kavalactone content of the roots are 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.

Kava Root Pieces Being Dried

Lawena (Stump) portion

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.

Kava Products and Preparation

Preparation of ground kava root tea

Medium Grind Preparation

Medium Grind Kava: root that is pounded or ground to medium consistency and used to prepare a kava tea the traditional way.

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. Read About Easy Kava Preparation.

Micronized or Instant 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. View our selection of Micronized Instant kavas.

Jars of Micronized Instant Kava and Bottles of Kava Concentrate

Micronized Instant Kava and Kava Concentrate

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.

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.

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.

Pacific Roots Kava Bottles WebsiteSo-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.

Kalm with Kava’s created Pacific Roots Kava to replicate the Green kava served in the nakamals of Vanuatu and on Hawaii. Pacific Roots Kava is the most authentic kava beverage on the market and one of the strongest too.


Buy Pacific Roots Kava

Wooden kava tanoa and bilo

Tanoa and Bilos

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.

Bilo / Shell: the traditional coconut shell cup that is used for serving and drinking kava. A shell is also the term used to denote a normal serving size or one drink.

Grog: a term used in Fiji that means a batch of kava made the traditional way.

Piper Methysticum Varieties or Cultivars

Noble and Non-Noble or Tudei Kava

There are over 105 different varieties or cultivars of Piper Methysticum. The most important distinction is between Noble and Non-Noble or Tudei (Two day) varieties. Tudei, (also called Isa and Iwi in Hawaii), gets its name from the possible negative side effects (primarily headache and nausea) from this variety that can last for up to two days! A root’s chemotype is an indication of whether it is a Noble or Tudei. Rest assured, we only sell Noble varieties!

Dr Lebot's Book: Kava the Pacific Elexir'

Dr Lebot’s Book

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 Culture

Nakamal Vanutau Kava Bar

Vanuatu Nakamal

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”.

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.

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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