Kava Glossary: Terminology & Definitions

Illustration of a Polynesian girl explaining kava terminology

Kava is a plant with a lot of cultural nuances. There are many different terms being thrown around in our guides that discuss the different parts of the kava plant, methods of preparation, tools used to harvest or drink kava, and more.

Here, I’ll cover all the different terms and definitions unique to kava.

If there’s anything I missed, please let me know using the comment box at the bottom of the page.

1. Kava Names

The most common name for Piper methysticum is kava or kava kava — but there are many other names for this plant depending on the region.

  • Awa (Hawaiian Islands)
  • Ava (Samoa)
  • Yaqona (Fiji)
  • Sakau (Pohnpei)
  • Malok / Malogu (certain parts of Vanuatu)


2. Kava Varieties

There are hundreds of different cultivars of kava, each with a unique set of kavalactones responsible for its effect profile. Depending on what the ratio of kavalactones are in relation to each other, the effects of the herb can vary widely.

All kava cultivars can be grouped into two main varieties — noble kava and tudei kava. These terms provide insight into the effect profile of the kava in terms of the benefits and side effects.

2.1 Noble kava

Nearly all the kava on the consumer market are noble varieties. These varieties have a higher ratio of kavain and lower levels of DHM to produce little to no side effects and a pleasant effect profile.

2.2 Tudei Kava (two-day)

These varieties are more known for their side-effects than their benefits. They often cause headaches, nausea, which can last up to a few days for some people. Most places that sell kava won’t sell these varieties — however, unethical retailers may mix some of the cheaper Tudei kava in with more expensive Noble kava. This is why it’s important to buy from reputable suppliers only and avoid ordering cheap kava.


3. Kava Culture

3.1 Nakamal

A nakamal is a traditional meeting place for kava consumption in Vanuatu. It’s the traditional form of a kava bar.

Nakamals serve as an important part of a community and acts as a place to socialize and conduct important meetings. There is a lot of symbolism involved with the nakamal, such as having the doors permanently unlocked as a sign of trust.

3.2 Bula

Bula (pronounced boo-lah) is the Fijian word for “life”. It’s used as a greeting in the region and has become the word for “cheers!” in the world of kava.


4. Effects & Types of Kava

Depending on the kavalactone content of a particular kava cultivar, the effects the brew has on the body and mind can be summarized in one of three ways:

4.1 Heady Kava

Kava with heady effects can be described as a feeling that’s more in your head than your body. You feel calm and relaxed mentally, but maintains plenty of energy to move around. Sometimes the effect can even feel energizing.

Heady kava is generally the best for socializing, managing mild anxiety, for promoting creativity or focus at work or school, or while drinking kava during the day.

4.2 Heavy Kava

Kava with a heavy effect profile is the opposite of heady kava. The effects feel stronger on the body than the mind. The body becomes heavy, sinking into the couch or chair you’re sitting in. Muscles relax, you feel comfortable and relaxed. Heavy kavas also make you feel lazy and after a few very tired.

Heavy kava is best for muscle tension and pain, promoting sleep, moderate to severe anxiety, or use in the evenings before bed.

4.3 Balanced Kava

Balanced kava is in the middle of heavy and heady kava. In many cases it’s both — usually starting with heady effects at the beginning which later transition to heavy effects later on.

Balanced kava is good all-purpose kava and can be used in the day or evening.


5. Kava Use & Preparation

5.1 Kava Root Powder

Most of the kava you’ll find online comes as a dried root powder. It’s made by harvesting the roots, allowing it to air dry, and grinding into a fine powder.

Drying the kava first allows the kava to last much longer and resists rotting. This makes it possible to ship kava root around the world where it can be mixed with water and made into a strong kava brew at home.

5.2 Micronized Kava

Micronized kava involves grinding the kava roots into a very fine powder — without any of the large fibers leftover in the final product. Micronized kava is more expensive because of the extra processing time involved but makes it much easier to dissolve the active ingredients into the water. Sometimes micronized kava is referred to as instant kava because of how fast it dissolves in water.

5.3 Kava Steep Tea

There’s some confusion surrounding the term “kava tea”. Most kava is prepared by diffusing the active ingredients into the water — much like a tea. However, with kava, this is done by adding root powder to a muslin bag and mixing it around in a bowl of lukewarm water.

A steep tea refers to the conventional method of making tea using a tea bag or strainer and some hot water.

Steep teas made with kava are a popular option for people looking for a mild, relaxing tea to drink while stressed, or in the evening before bed. Most kava steep teas come as a blend, but you can also use dried chunks of kava root in a strainer on their own for a similar effect.

5.4 Kava Tincture

A tincture is a liquid extract of a plant. Almost all medicinal plants can be made into a tincture.

Kava tinctures usually use an oil or glycerine as the liquid base, but you can also find more traditional alcohol-based tinctures.

Tinctures have a very long shelf life and offer a convenient way of using kava. You can take a few drops of the tincture directly into your mouth or mix it in with another beverage for a quick dose of active kavalactones.

5.5 Kava Capsules

Capsules are another convenient method of using kava. They can be made from whole kava roots, or a kava concentrate (most common). Most kava capsules are made to provide a consistent and standardized dose of active kavalactones in every pill.

5.6 Kava Concentrate

A kava concentrate is an extract involving just the active kavalactones in the plant. Most concentrates will also include fatty acids, sterols, or other resinous componenets of the plant. They provide fast-acting and powerful effects and have a long shelf life.

5.7 Fresh Green Kava

Fresh green kava refers to a kava brew that’s made from recently harvested kava roots. Fresh kava is only available in regions where kava grows, because by the time it’s flown to other parts of the world the roots can no longer be considered fresh.

5.8 Kava Shots

Kava shots provide a quick dose of liquid kava extract. They resemble those 5-hour energy shots offered next to the cashier at gas stations.

This type of kava is hard to find, but there are more and more companies offering different formulations and flavors of kava shots in recent years. It’s one of the easiest ways to use kava while on the go.

5.9 Kava Bar

A kava bar is the Western form of a nakamal. It’s a place where people gather to drink kava, enjoy a few snack foods, and socialize. These bars function a lot like a shisha bar, coffee house, or pub.

5.10 Toss & Wash

The toss and wash method is a simple method of drinking kava. It works by tossing a dose of kava powder into some water, briefly mixing it in, and “tossing” is back (aka, drinking it really fast). This is then followed up with a drink of something to wash away the taste of the kava — usually something fruity.

This method is the simplest way of using kava but isn’t very enjoyable. The flavor of kava is bitter and spicy. Without straining the root kava also has a grainy texture and can be a little bit harsh on the throat.

5.11 AluBall Kava Maker

The AluBall is the invention of Matt Masifilo, the owner of Kavafied. It’s essentially a shaker bottle optimized for brewing kava. They look similar to a protein shaker.

Kava powder is added to a strainer ball inside the bottle. Water is then added and you can vigorously shake the bottle to diffuse the kava into the water.

The AluBall is one of the easiest ways to make kava, especially on the go. I often take my AluBall when going to the beach for the day because it’s resealable and fits in a backpack just like a water bottle. There’s no straining or hand mixing involved.

5.12 Tanoa

A tanoa is a traditional wooden bowl used during kava ceremonies. The construction of the tanoa is a ritual in itself and depending on the culture, there’s a lot of hidden meaning that goes into the creation of the tanoa itself.

Traditional tanoa’s usually only had four legs, but it’s common to find tanoa’s now with upwards of 8 or 12 legs.

5.13 Bilo

A bilo is a traditional coconut cup used to drink kava. It consists of half a cleaned, dried coconut.

This is the most common drinking apparatus for kava on all the pacific islands simply because of how abundant the coconut is in this region.

5.14 Grog

This term comes from Fiji, it refers to a fresh batch of traditional kava brew.


6. Kava Botanical Terms

6.1 Waka

Waka refers to the roots of the kava plant. They provide the highest concentration of kavalactones in the plant and have a slightly different kavalactone distribution than the stump (lawena). Most cultures that drink kava use both the roots (waka) and lawena (stump) together. Some places, such as Fiji, like to separate these two parts of the plant or alter the ratio of waka to lawena before drinking.

6.2 Lawena

Lawena refers to the stump of the kava plant — which is the basal part of the stem that turns into the roots of the plant.

This part of the plant has a lower kavalactone concentration than the roots but has a pleasant flavor. It’s often mixed in with the roots to improve the overall flavor and add smoothness to the drink.

6.3 Makas

This is a term used to describe the kava that’s leftover in the muslin bag after making a cup of kava. They mainly consist of small, coarse fibers that are insoluble in water and provide little value to the overall brew.

6.4 Fresh Kava

Kava that’s been harvested within 72 hours is usually considered green kava or fresh kava. After this point, the leaves start to lose freshness and the flavor becomes gradually worse with time.

If it’s going to be longer than a few days to use the kava, it’s usually dried instead to better preserve its chemical composition. Fresh kava is often thought of as being gentler than dried kava and has a more pleasant taste.

6.5 Dried Kava

Dried kava is the most common form you’ll find kava outside the Pacific islands. It stores much longer, weighs less for shipping, and ultimately costs much less than fresh kava root.


7. Phytochemistry/Pharmacology

7.1 Kavalactones

The kavalactones are the active ingredients in the kava plant. There are 18 separate kavalactones in the herb, but just 6 of them make up 96% of the total content of the plant.

Kavalactones interact with various neurotransmitters in the body to produce their effects — including dopamine, serotonin, GABA, glutamate, and more.

7.2 Antioxidants

An antioxidant is a compound that inhibits a chemical reaction called oxidation. When chemicals oxidize in the body, they form free radicals, which go on to cause damage to our cells, DNA, and various enzymes in the bloodstream.

Many plants (including kava) contain high concentrations of antioxidant molecules that protect the body on a broad level from free radical-induced cellular damage. Many of the health benefits of plants rely on their antioxidant effects.

7.3 Analgesics

Analgesic is another word for painkillers. Other words include anodyne or palliative.

7.4 GABA

GABA stands for gamma-aminobutyric acid. It’s the primary neuroinhibitory compound in the body — which means it’s responsible for reducing electrical activity in the neurons. We need GABA to relax after a stressful situation or fall asleep at night.

Kava owes a lot of its relaxing benefits to its ability to increase the activity of GABA in the central nervous system.

7.5 Chemotype

Chemotypes describe a particular growth pattern of a particular lineage of kava plants. Plants of the same chemotype will tend to produce similar concentrations of kavalactones and other phytochemicals that produce either a heady, heavy, or balanced effect.

Plants with similar chemotypes will have similar effect profiles.

7.6 High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC)

HPLC is a technique used to analyze the chemical composition of different plants.

First, the plant is extracted using a chemical solvent. The solvent is then forced through a column at high pressure. As the solvent leaves the column on the other end, the density of the particles is measured. This technique is used to explore the chemical composition of the individual molecules in the extract based on their density.

HPLC is the primary method of analysis used to identify the kavalactone content (chemocode) of different kava cultivars.


8. Kava Lookalikes & Alternatives

Kava is just one of many plants that share similar relaxing qualities. There are also a few plants that look just like kava, but don’t offer any of the benefits. It’s worth knowing about these similar plants and how they’re different from kava.

8.1 Kawakawa (Piper excelsum)

Kawakawa is a related plant found growing in New Zealand. It’s used medicinally but isn’t a suitable alternative for kava.

8.2 Kratom (Mytragyna speciosa)

Kratom comes from Southeast Asia and shares similar relaxing effects to kava. It acts on the opioid receptors and is better for managing pain, but may have the potential to become addictive.

8.3 Marijuana (Cannabis sativa)

Most people by now have a good understanding of what marijuana is. This herb has similar properties as kava but induces a stronger psychoactive effect. Marijuana is not nearly as reliable for supporting anxiety or sleep as kava.

8.4 CBD (Cannabidiol)

CBD is a specific compound produced in cannabis plants. It has very similar effects as kava but isn’t as strong as kava in terms of the euphoric or relaxant benefits.

Most CBD products are made from hemp plants, rather than marijuana. They’re completely non-psychoactive, which means they won’t make you high.

CBD is used for supporting anxiety and sleep but isn’t as effective as kava for these applications. However, CBD is much better for managing chronic pain and inflammation than kava.

8.5 Damiana (Turnera diffusa)

Damiana is a plant species originating from Mexico and South America. It’s used as a euphoric ane relaxant similar to kava. This herb has a long history of use as an aphrodisiac, mood-enhancer, anxiolytic, and for promoting more restful sleep.

Kava and damiana have a lot of synergy together and make for a great combination. The damiana improves the euphoric effects of kava and improves the flavor of the grog considerably.


9. Kava Popular Culture & Other Kava Terms

9.1 Dr. Vincent Lebot

Vincent Lebot is the co-author of “Kava: the Pacific Elixir” — which is arguably the most influential publication on the subject of kava in history.

9.2 Acetone Test

The acetone test used to determine the difference between noble kava and tudei kava. If acetone is mixed with the kava, noble kava cultivars will turn the liquid a golden color. If it turns dark orange it means the sample is a tudei variety instead.

9.3 Krunk

The intoxicating effects of kava that leave you feeling a little drunk, euphoric, and clumsy — often referred to as the “kava high”. You need to take a very large dose of kava to get to this state.

Did I Miss Anything?

Use the comment section below to add terms I’ve missed to help keep this glossary up to date.

Leave a Comment