A kava bar is coming to Massachusetts, but how safe is the unregulated drink?

WORCESTER – A new kind of bar is coming to Massachusetts. The state’s first kava bar, Root Awakening, is set to open in Worcester in April.

“I’ve been drinking kava since about 2016,” owner Greg Gately told WBZ-TV. “Muddy water is what we call it [kava] because it tastes like earth.”

What is kava?

Kava is a root plant that originated in the South Pacific Islands. It is a legal supplement known for its relaxing and socializing effects when consumed.

“Kava relaxes the mind and body and brings people together,” Gately said.

The plant has been growing in popularity across the country, with the most bars popping up in Florida and California.

Gately brought the first kava bar to New England in 2022 when he opened the original Root Awakening location in Nashua, New Hampshire.

He says kava offered an alternative to booze and was inspired to open the area’s first kava bar after losing his brother to alcohol.

“I strongly believe he’s watching me and watching every step I take and rooting for me,” Gately said. “People who don’t want to drink in traditional bars with alcohol, have a place.”

How is kava traditionally served?

In Root Awakening, kava is served as a drink. They also have kombucha on tap.

“You can actually go out, have fun, get a different feeling. It’s not drunk or high. It’s rooted in us. That’s the feeling you get when you drink kava,” he explained.

To make the drink, Gately’s “kava-tenders” take a plant, crush it, strain it through cheesecloth, and then dissolve it in water. It is then served with a side of pineapple.

“All the magic is underground, so we don’t use the leaves or the stems or anything like that,” explained the owner. “Then we add the pineapple on the side. It looks nice, but it also serves a purpose which will be your hunter.”

Is kava safe to consume?

But as kava’s popularity grows, so does it health problems.

The plant is not regulated by the FDA as a supplement, and the agency issued a warning about possible liver toxicity surrounding kava more than 20 years ago.

“There are 50 to 100 documented cases of liver failure or liver injury from kava,” said Dr. Seth Jones, a toxicologist at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center.

Dr. Jones says the problem may not be the plant itself, but a lack of federal regulations.

“These may be contaminants from production in other countries that are causing these liver injuries,” he told WBZ.

Although the plant is not regulated, Gately says his supply comes from a facility in California that is monitored by the federal agency.

“Every kava we have here goes through a strict process to make sure it meets the highest quality standards,” he explained.

Gately also says that none of his customers have ever gotten sick from his drinks.

“Since we’ve been open, about two years, we’ve never had any complaints,” he added.

What are the health benefits?

If anything, Gately says his drinks have helped his customers.

“What he has done with their stress and anxiety has changed their lives,” he stressed. “We’ve even taken people off medication.”

“My argument would be that we actually have very good treatments for anxiety and depression,” Dr. Jones added. “And I would encourage people, if they are experiencing these symptoms, to talk to their doctors.”

However, Gately stands by his product holistically and says bringing it to Worcester is a full-circle moment for him.

Gately graduated from Becker College in Worcester, where he also met his wife. He says this project is looking forward to coming home.

“Worcester has been very welcoming and I’m happy to be back in my second home,” he said.

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