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Building Community Through Kava

New & Noteworthy

By Mat Weir

Kava: a green shrub grown in the Pacific Islands. Most scholars believe it originated in New Guinea before spreading across the rest of Oceania and the Hawaiian Islands. It’s been used by these cultures for ceremonial, spiritual and recreational use for at least 1500 years–with some estimates going back 3,000 years. 

It is consumed in a variety of ways with one of the most popular as a drink to be shared with others. 

But be prepared because most people will quickly become friends of anyone they split a tanoa (a large wooden bowl of kava) with. That’s because  this little plant produces feelings of happiness, relaxation, and wanting to share a conversation with neighbor.

And since 2018, Santa Cruzans have been enjoying this ancient drink at MeloMelo Kava Bar located at 1101 Pacific Avenue. 

“Our mission statement is to introduce people to kava and build community,” explains General Manager, J.J. McCabe. 

“And build community by introducing people to kava. They go hand in hand.” 

It’s a mission they’ve achieved first by their welcoming space. Patrons are greeted with friendly smiles and warm, mood lighting. The space blossoms with MeloMelo’s green wall, covered from floor to ceiling with a colorful pallet of different living plants and vines.

“It’s a comfy, homey environment,” says Assistant Manager and Special Operations Coordinator, Helena Stark. “It’s a lot of people’s living room.”

However, before anyone can enjoy kava’s benefits, first they need to learn how to bula. 

In the Fijian culture, bula means “to long life and good health.” When it comes to kava, the bula is a time honored ritual taken before drinking. 

“We call ourselves ‘bula tenders’ when we’re behind the bar,” laughs Stark. 

The bula is performed only when everyone has their shell (traditionally–as with at MeloMelo–kava is served in coconut shells or wooden cups). Everyone claps their hands once, shouts “Bula!” then chugs the drink before clapping two more times. This not only reminds the drinker of kava’s history and cultural significance, it’s also a great way to break the ice with fellow patrons. 

“That’s the cool thing about kava,” explains McCabe. “As a GABA agonist and Noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor, it makes you feel pretty good and less socially anxious.” 

For those of us who didn’t do so well in science class, as a mild sedative kava makes the drinker more relaxed and uplifts their mood. Basically, GABA agonists make ya gab. 

But McCabe says that’s not all. 

“It’s anti-inflammatory, a pain killer, a mild muscle relaxer and has anesthetic properties so you might feel a little numbness on the tongue,” he explains. 

“It is psychoactive but it’s not inebriating, so people don’t act out of character or do stupid things.” 

It’s for this reason that some choose to pick up the shell when they decide to put down the bottle of booze, temporarily or permanently. There’s been a growing, non-alcoholic scene that’s rooted itself at MeloMelo as an alternative, “third” space separate from bars and nightclubs. 

In fact, both McCabe and Stark separately started their kava journeys as patrons who had freshly decided to kick the booze. 

“I grew up in Santa Cruz and when I was 18 I was running around downtown,” reminisces Stark. “And I really wish I had a space like this to hangout at because it would’ve gotten me out of a lot of trouble.” 

McCabe says newcomers need to drink several shells to feel kava’s effects. However, the more one drinks over time the quicker their brain becomes receptive to the drink. Once someone drinks kava regularly, the uplifting effect begins almost immediately with the day’s first drink. 

“Although it’s not entirely accurate we call it ‘reverse tolerance’ as shorthand,” he states. “When a new person comes in I tell them, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to let you leave without feeling the full experience.’’ 

Ok, but the one thing on everyone’s mind is most likely, “How does it taste?”

To put it bluntly, it’s an acquired taste. Kava is very, very, very earthy in flavor but after a couple shells one grows to like the murky drink, or–at least–doesn't mind the taste. However, don’t turn away from the tanoa just yet because that earthy flavor comes specifically from the dried kava. Fresh–or green–kava (which must be freezed immediately after being harvested) has a much lighter, crisper and refreshing taste especially with MeloMelo’s recipe that adds hints of cucumber. 

For now the green kava is only served on weekends but they’re working with growers and suppliers to change that. 

“Our goal is to only serve [fresh kava] by the beginning of June,” proclaims McCabe. 

“We’re still tinkering with the recipe a little but we’re happy with it and we find our customers are too.” 

At any given time of day kava enthusiasts gather around the bar–or lounge about on one of MeloMelo’s many comfy couches and cushions. Shouts of “bula!” and thunderous claps burst in the air swirled by laughing and endless conversations. Some of the more introverted patrons sit reading, studying or just taking in the vibes. 

During the week the bar has a number of different discounts and deals like Tidal Tuesday, when High Tides (a 10oz shell normally priced at $10) are only $6. Then there's Whirlpool Wednesdays when High Tides are discounted to a shocking $3 at 10pm–but only for 10 minutes.

“It gets a little wild in here,” McCabe laughs about Whirlpool Wednesdays. “It’s high energy and tends to be a younger crowd.” 

MeloMelo hosts a variety of different, reoccurring events from their Monday Open Mic nights to monthly First Fridays featuring new, rotating artists every time. On weekends MeloMelo normally has DJs or live music to get the party going. There’s also a monthly drag show on the third Sunday of every month. 

“We recently started calling it ‘Fresh Served’ and it’s the only [monthly] 18 and up show because all the other drag shows are at bars,” declares Stark. 

Then there’s the WhirlProm–which takes place this year on May 21st–and is exactly what it sounds like: a chance for kava drinkers to dress up and enjoy a kitschy good time as adults in a prom setting. 

“We set up a photobooth and do the whole thing,” explains McCabe. “I heard from a lot of people who loved it because either they didn’t go to prom in high school or they did and their experience was horrible.” 

On May 30th MeloMelo is debuting a new, all vinyl DJ night with bula tender Jewel Markham behind the decks. They plan on making it monthly event with different themed records each time. 

As part of the local community, MeloMelo routinely has different benefit fundraisers for an array of issues they stand for. Past benefits were thrown for the Trevor Project (a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention for LGBTQ+ individuals), the survivors of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire as well as last year’s Maui fires, and most recently, MECA–the Middle Eastern Children’s Alliance which is currently aiding Palestinian children. 

“Between both locations (Santa Cruz and Oakland) we raised around $2,000,” Stark says of their last MECA benefit. 

“We are a Palestinian-owned business so that’s an issue near and dear to our hearts.”

For those who don’t want to partake in the kava, MeloMelo also offers a number of different, non-alcoholic kombuchas. While some of them are purchased from an outside distributor, MeloMelo’s hemp kombuchas are made in-house at a kitchen they rent in Oakland. The flavors and recipes are constantly evolving but a couple recurring brews are the Egyptian Dream (a kombucha-flavor-forward blend with floral notes), Appalachian Mist (spiced with cinnamon undertones giving the drink a root beer flavor) and Orange Julius. 

“That tastes exactly as it sounds,” admits Stark. “It’s like a kombucha Sunny D. It’s really tasty!”

Although MeloMelo closed their Berkeley location last year after nines years on University Ave., they’re currently looking to open a new third location. A few of the proposed options are San Jose, Monterey and even Los Angeles.  

But for now, these bula tenders are doing what they do best: building connection and community one shell at a time.