If you are starting off the new year with a mini-break from alcohol, you may be interested in checking out a non-alcoholic bar scene serving up a relaxing earthy concoction that has been used for centuries in Pacific Island cultures as a ceremonial and social drink.
Known for its tongue-numbing, earthy taste and chill vibes, kava is a plant-based beverage known to promote a sense of relaxation. And, the kava bar scene which surged in popularity on the East coast and in Florida in particular, over the past handful of years, is actually right here in North Phoenix.
Enthusiasts usually sip the drink with a communal Fijian cheer of “Shells up! Bula!” (FYI: “Bula” means “to long life and good health.”) And it’s an experience — a communal belonging where everyone is welcome.
Another popular item commonly found on most kava bar menus? Kratom, a different and slightly more controversial plant-based beverage. Kava bars also typically offer herbal teas, kombucha, and caffeine-free drinks.
Valley Vibe recently visited Meraki Kava Bar in North Phoenix where we sat down and chatted with owner Tracy Roberts to get the literal dirt on the rise in popularity of this earthy drink and its related gathering spots.
VV: What made you decide to dive in and open your own kava bar?
Roberts: I teach yoga, and during the pandemic, I used kava as a way to help people de-stress, along with meditation.
VV: What do kava bars offer patrons, both in general and compared with the traditional bar scene?
Roberts: Kava bars aim to create a welcoming and communal atmosphere, where individuals can relax and unwind, socialize, connect and de-stress. Essentially, they provide a unique alternative to traditional bars or cafes, focusing on non-alcoholic beverages and promoting a calm and soothing environment.
VV: What is a common theme in kava bars?
Roberts: Many kava bars have a laid-back, island-inspired atmosphere, with tropical decor, comfortable seating, and dim lighting. Some kava bars may also incorporate elements of Polynesian culture or art.
(Editor’s note: Many kava bars anchor on to their own unique theme. Meraki’s vibe incorporates their Pacific roots vibe with an “Alice in Wonderland” decor touch, paying homage to the classic story.)
VV: What is special about Meraki Kava Bar?
Roberts: The ambiance is cozy, welcoming and community driven. We offer comfortable seating options and friendly staff who are knowledgeable about the various drinks served. It is a great place to meet friends or even have a quiet moment alone. We have live music offerings, and in the new year, we’ll offer a greater variety of teas and other cold kitchen foods.
VV: If there was one thing you wanted to express to people who are unfamiliar with the kava bar scene, what would that be?
Roberts: Kava bars should always have staff that are educated, as well as staff who want to educate newcomers. This is so important to us, as we know how new this niche is — and how many mixed signals the internet can give.
VV: While kava and kratom continue to grow in popularity, there are plenty of critics out there, questioning the safety and efficacy of these products. What should consumers know?
Roberts: Laws can change over time, but in Arizona, kratom remains legal for people to possess, buy, sell, and use. As of now, there have been no specific laws or regulations passed in Arizona to criminalize the possession or use of kratom. However, it’s important to be aware that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not currently regulate kratom as a dietary supplement or approve it for medical use.
(Editor’s note: Arizona’s Kratom Consumer Protection Act disallows the sale of kratom to anyone under the age of 18. Most kava bars also limit the sale of kava to those 18 and older.)
Kava vs. Kratom
Two different plants with distinct properties and origins, here’s how Kava and Kratom differ:
Origins Kava (Piper methysticum) is native to the South Pacific islands, particularly Fiji, Vanuatu, and Tonga. Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) originates from Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
Plant parts used Kava is primarily made from the roots of the kava plant, which are processed and ground into a powder or extracted for use. Kratom is made from the leaves of the kratom tree, which are typically dried and crushed into a powder.
Traditional Use Kava has been used for centuries in Pacific Island cultures for ceremonial purposes. It is known for its ability to induce relaxation, relieve anxiety, and promote sociability. Kratom, in traditional Southeast Asian cultures, has been used as a stimulant, pain reliever, and mood enhancer. Different strains and doses of kratom can produce different effects.
Chemical Composition Kava’s psychoactive compounds primarily consist of kavalactones, responsible for its sedative and anxiolytic effects. Kratom contains alkaloids which interact with opioid receptors in the brain, producing pain relief and mood elevation effects.
Effects Kava’s calming effects can induce a sense of tranquility without significant mental clarity impairment. Kratom has a range of effects depending on the strain and dosage. It can act as a stimulant at low doses, while higher doses can have more sedating and analgesic effects. Of course, the effects of kava and kratom can differ from person to person.
Legality & Regulation Kava is legal in the United States, however some countries have imposed restrictions due to concerns about its impact on the liver. Kratom faces more legal challenges and regulation. Some countries have banned its importation or sale, while others have implemented regulations to control its use.
(Sources: National Institute of Health, Tracy Roberts:, owner Meraki Kava Bar)
Meraki Kava Bar
1601 E. Bell Road, North Phoenix
Other Kava Spots
15030 N. Tatum Blvd., Ste 140, Phoenix
821 N. 3rd St., Ste 12, Phoenix
By Sara Paulson | Valley Vibe Guest Contributor
Paulson is a former award-winning journalist who resides in Florida but visits Arizona regularly. Tyed’s Teahouse in Cocoa, Florida, is her go-to kava bar.