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Sept. 26, 2022

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For downtown Vancouver’s latest bar, Bula Kava House: It’s about feeling, not flavor

Pacific Island-based tea said to decrease anxiety, induce euphoric sensations

By , Columbian staff writer
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Tsea Nava, kava tender at Bula Kava House, works behind the scenes in downtown Vancouver on Tuesday morning. The kava bar had its' soft opening Aug. 9, marking Vancouver's first kava bar.
Tsea Nava, kava tender at Bula Kava House, works behind the scenes in downtown Vancouver on Tuesday morning. The kava bar had its' soft opening Aug. 9, marking Vancouver's first kava bar. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Light-brown kava tea swirled around the inside of a coconut shell as kava bar owner Judd Rench explained how to drink the tea in the traditional Hawaiian fashion.

“If you’re with a group, you clap once together in unison once before drinking,” he said, prior to demonstrating. “Then you drink the whole thing at once — though there’s no pressure to finish it all — and when you’re done, clap twice.”

Rench opened Bula Kava House, 610 Main St., on Aug. 9, marking the first appearance of a kava bar in Vancouver. Considering the novelty of kava, Rench and his employees make an effort to educate everyone who comes in about the tradition surrounding the tea.

“You’ll often hear people yelling ‘Wait, wait, wait’ so a group will hold and they can all drink together,” Rench said. “We’ve been joking we’re going to make shirts that say ‘Wait, wait, wait.’”

Kava is a shrub grown in Oceania. Its roots are ground and squeezed to make tea, part of a cultural and social tradition in the Pacific Islands like Vanuatu dating back over 3,000 years. The active ingredients include kavalactones, lactone compounds that affect the central nervous system. These compounds are believed to cause muscle relaxation, decreased anxiety and euphoric sensations that vary depending on the type of kava.

Bula Kava House

Where: 610 Main St., Vancouver

Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. weekdays; 11 a.m.-midnight Saturdays and Sundays; closed on Labor Day

Owner: Judd Rench

Employees: Three

Information: 503-477-7823 or info@bulakavahouse.com

Despite its earthy flavor, kava tea has grown in popularity, spanning across cultures in which it is used for parties, anxiety treatment and socializing, or as a replacement for alcohol.

The Vancouver bar marks the second time Rench has introduced a city to the drink. In 2011, he opened Portland’s first kava bar on Southeast Division Street. At the time, he said, it took about two years to build a lively community around the place because of a lack of knowledge about the plant.

At the new Vancouver location, business has started to gain traction, Rench said. Around 10 patrons he regularly sees at the Portland bar live in Vancouver.

“They’re spreading the word,” he said. “So I do feel like this place will kind of get the community vibe a little bit quicker.”

Rench originally planned to open the Vancouver kava bar in April, but due to backups in construction and supply shortages, he postponed a soft opening to early August.

“It’s so cool down here how supportive everyone is,” Rench said about the neighboring businesses. “It’s got this small-town feel in a way that Portland doesn’t have anymore.”

The Vancouver kava bar carries eight out of the 100 types of kava. Rench said he usually has three on tap at a time, one of which is made with 50 percent more kava powder than normal.

Unlike coffee, kava has a reverse tolerance effect: The more frequently you drink it, the less you need to feel the full effect. Rench recommends a strong batch to those trying kava for the first time.

“We know that we’re going to get a lot of people in here that are going to be trying it for the first time — and it doesn’t taste good,” Rench said. “So if you’re trying something for the first time and it doesn’t taste good, it better have an effect.”

Employee Tsea Nava, who goes by they/them pronouns, has worked at the kava bar since early August. Nava recalls walking in for their interview on a hot afternoon dressed in professional work attire and realizing that all the employees were dressed in casual summer clothes.

“When I walked in, I was like, ‘This was a really good environment,’” Nava said. “The first time I tried kava was right after my interview, which I had about a half shell of and I didn’t really like. Now I really enjoy it.”

Rench’s vision for the Vancouver kava bar is a communal space built on open-mindedness — something the kava helps initiate, he said. “I’ve had people say we’ve saved their marriage,” he said. “It’s a really cool thing.”

People can come anytime throughout the day and work, Rench said, pointing to outlets strategically placed under the bar top and surrounding wood tables.

Despite the business’ current low numbers, Rench said he looks forward to growing the kava community in Vancouver.

“Kava is something that there’s a lot of education in getting people familiar with it,” he said. “It does take a while to build that community.”

Bula Kava House is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 11 a.m. to midnight Saturdays and Sundays. It will be closed on Labor Day.

Columbian staff writer

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