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Feb. 24, 2024

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Kava bar coming to downtown Vancouver

Owner of Portland shop bringing Pacific islands drink to Main Street site

By , Columbian Associate Editor
7 Photos
Portland resident Marco McLean enjoys a relaxing morning while visiting Bula Kava House in Southeast Portland. The bar's owner is planning a second location in downtown Vancouver.
Portland resident Marco McLean enjoys a relaxing morning while visiting Bula Kava House in Southeast Portland. The bar's owner is planning a second location in downtown Vancouver. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Vancouver’s first kava bar is coming around late March of next year to the former Lucky Loans building at 614 Main St.

Kava is a drink extracted from the root of a Pacific islands plant that’s related to the pepper plant. The drink is gaining popularity in the U.S., mostly in Florida cities, and spreading to Los Angeles and Portland. Judd Rench, owner of Bula Kava House at 3115 S.E. Division St. in Portland, will bring it to Vancouver.

Rench, 40, opened Bula Kava House, Portland’s first kava bar, a decade ago; he said it was difficult to sign a lease because landlords didn’t think that the product was popular enough to be successful. They were proven wrong.

At first, it was a learning experience for customers. Rench had to give a little speech to explain the product, its origin and meaning. It has a slightly earthy and cucumber taste and is served in coconut bowls. Most of the Kava offerings are in the $5 range. The drink causes a slight numbing of the mouth followed by euphoria “that is kind of like an anti-coffee, but it doesn’t put you to sleep,” he said.

“Some people come in and work while drinking it all day,” said Bula Kava server Victoria Myers. “They want an alternative to alcohol.”

Marco McLean, 60, a regular to the Division Street location who visits about five times a week, said that the kava gives him a chill feeling. He thinks it will be popular in downtown Vancouver.

“With some people, physiologically, kava clicks with them,” he said.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, kava has been studied for its effect on anxiety, but there’s major a lack of research on the drink. Like alcohol, overconsumption of kava may be linked to liver damage, although most research suggests it’s healthier than alcohol.

Unlike alcoholic beverages, kava is unregulated. Rench travels the Pacific and buys the roots directly from farmers when he can. At Bula Kava, he tests all the batches for safety and purity, he said.

Finding kava

Rench was born and raised in Southeast Portland. After dropping out of high school, he moved to Thailand and then to the Turks and Caicos islands as a scuba diver and instructor.

“I was just kind of traveling around, doing the young Judd things,” he said.

He and his then-partner moved back to the Pacific Northwest, and then to Hawaii so Rench could work at a dive shop in Kona. His co-workers invited him to an outdoor kava bar in a small shopping mall that they frequented, and he became a regular.

“It tasted like dirt at first, but made me feel really good,” he said. “I felt like people in Portland would like this. Then, we were always talking about how good a kava bar would do in Portland. It was a fun, random talk and we didn’t think anything would come out of it.”

He moved back to Portland around the end of 2009, and earned a business management degree from George Fox University — without ever having earned his high school degree or equivalency diploma. He launched his kava business.

The Division Street location’s grand opening was March 22, 2011. Rench hopes the Vancouver location’s grand opening will coincide with that date in 2022, but in any event he plans to open no later than early April.

He signed a lease in late November and is awaiting building renovations before he can transform the space into something similar to his first spot: slightly Bohemian and modern, but paying respect to the Pacific islands origin of kava.

Rench chose Vancouver because his partner works here. Rench sees downtown’s appeal rising as more restaurants, bars and coffee shops have opened and more people spend time in the city center.

“Vancouver is a cool place,” he said. “I like the vibe.”