Inside the 2012 Kava Festival

Chill Fest: Field Notes explore Honolulu's vibrant and varied scenes and subcultures. This month: the 2012 Kava Festival

Photos by Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

What it is

A noticeably mellow affair. Now in its ninth year, the event is hosted by the ‘Awa Development Council and the University of Hawai‘i, and takes place on a Saturday in late October at UH Mānoa’s McCarthy Mall.

Who’s there

More than 1,000 attendees between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., most of whom show up around lunchtime. Lots of curious students, families and small dogs, as well a healthy turnout of crunchy granola types. The vibe is rootsy and Hawaiian, with people greeting each other honi style. Also in attendance:

40 volunteers in yellow T-shirts serving up kava, talking story and keeping the festivities going.

Half a dozen kava vendors with large bowls of the prepared drink at the ready. So many offer free samples that you could easily get your fill without pulling out your wallet.

Kukini Suwa leads an ‘apu-making workshop for $10. ‘Apu, the cups used to drink kava, are crafted from halved coconuts.

Several farmers sell native plants and local varieties of kava for the extramotivated enthusiasts who want to make their own kava from scratch.

Academic types. Skip Bittenbender, for example, a professor in the UH Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, and veteran kava drinker, contributed to the sampling table of different kavas. “There are no angry kava drinkers,” he says. “It’s the original anti-road rage elixir.”

More masseuses than you can count, referred to at one point as “the lomi homies,” by the animated emcee.

Four poi boards and eight poi pounders for poi-making lessons—popular with the youngest of the festivalgoers.

Two men in malo.

A couple of people sporting ‘awaholics T-shirts.

Camille’s on Wheels food truck and other food vendors, such as Waiola Burger and Sam’s Kitchen, serving lots of plate lunches.

One Papa John’s booth, which looks oddly out of place here.


Awa is the Hawaiian word for kava, the Pacific Island plant. Its roots are used to produce the relaxing drink the festival celebrates. Piper methysticum is the scientific name, kava is the English common name. Names for kava in other languages are ava (Samoa), yaqona (Fiji) and sakau (Pohnpei).


Many of the vendors warn first-time drinkers of tongue-tingling or numbing effects. Also to be expected? Reduced anxiety, a relaxed feeling and possible sleepiness.


For those who haven’t acquired a taste for the flavor of kava (often likened to dirt), the root finds its way into a variety of other foods and drinks, including baked goods such as brownies, a candy called KavaKava Candy and a chai kava drink. There were also three kinds of kava mochi: traditional mochi, fried mochi and mochi crunch. Effectiveness of the flavor-masking: varying.


Each island has at least one major supplier. Kava is sold in powder form or as a readymade drink prepared in a similar fashion to tea (just make sure to shake it, as the sediment in this suspension beverage settles to the bottom). Find it year-round at a handful of local establishments on O‘ahu, including Sam’s Kitchen, Fiji Kava and Diamond Head Cove Health Bar.