Keely Flow left Florida with her partner, Andrew Procyk, in 2010 to open Vanuatu Kava Bar (now rebranded as Sovereign Kava Bar), Western North Carolina’s first kava and kratom bar, in downtown Asheville. Since then, a community has emerged around these two nonalcoholic substances in North Carolina’s beer capital.
“Between all of the tourists, the interesting locals and the overall culture in Asheville, we thought it would be a great new market and audience for our herbal refuge,” Flow says.
The bar’s two featured herbs, kratom and kava, have been used for centuries for ceremonial and recreational purposes by cultures around the world. But in the past 20 years, the U.S. and other Western countries have adopted the two plants as natural ways to alleviate anxiety and depression, help treat opiate addiction and serve as an alternative to alcohol.
Kava is a root beverage from the South Pacific used traditionally in ceremonies to bring a state of relaxation. It has a bitter, earthy and, overall, not-very-pleasant taste, says Flow. “It’s meant to be drunk fast with chasers like pineapple or orange juice in between servings.”
Kratom, an herb native to Southeast Asia, is often sold alongside kava in the U.S. and, like kava, has been embraced by some as a tool for overcoming opioid addiction, Flow says, noting that at low doses, it mimics a stimulant, and at high doses, it has sedative properties.
Traditionally, fresh kratom leaf was chewed to improve productivity and fight fatigue. But in the U.S., it’s often sold in gas stations or smoke shops as a powder or extract. Sovereign Kava employees brew and serve kratom as a tea, both unsweetened and sweetened.
Since opening, Flow’s bar has reinvented itself a few times. In 2012, it moved from its original location on South Lexington Avenue to Eagle Street and eventually changed its name to Noble Kava. In 2015, it briefly moved to Haywood Road in West Asheville, then migrated in 2017 to its current location on Biltmore Avenue. In the past year, it has rebranded itself as Sovereign Kava.
There are about 100 kava bars in the U.S., according to kava product and information website Kalm with Kava. Having broken ground on the concept in WNC a decade ago, Sovereign Kava is today the only kava bar in Asheville. Vintage Kava, which opened briefly in West Asheville in 2017 and now operates in Weaverville, is its only nearby competitor, and Flow says she considers the business a friendly neighbor with an overlapping customer base.
“Even as far back as our property on South Lexington, we’ve had a really great audience,” Flow says. “We couldn’t be more grateful.”
Chris Conzone, 21, started frequenting Sovereign Kava and regularly drinking kratom when she moved to Asheville in late 2017. She appreciates the bar’s laid-back atmosphere. “There’s no alcohol, but that also means there’s no drunk people doing dumb stuff,” she says.
But people are drawn to kava bars for many reasons. “A lot of the people who come here are just looking for a space to fit in,” she says. “But you also get people who are addicted to a substance, who come here like they would go to a regular bar, to get their fill.”
Lon Springer, 35, a network technician and part-time bartender at Sovereign Kava, has been drinking kratom for over 10 years and kava for the past six years. “Many customers are ex-alcoholics or people who are recovering and still want a social scene,” he says, noting that kava and kratom are less inebriating and therefore safer than alcohol. “You’re able to actually have real, interesting and even meaningful conversations with the people around you.”
Although the kava and kratom scene will never rival the beer industry, he says, Sovereign’s roster of regular events — including live music, pingpong tournaments, hip-hop nights and more — holds its own against those of local brewery taprooms. “Especially on certain nights,” he adds, referring to Sovereign Kava’s long-running Wednesday open mic night, voted Western North Carolina’s favorite open mic in the Mountain Xpress Best of WNC 2019.
Flow says that regardless of why people come to the bar, many end up returning for the connections they made there. “I think initially people who come here are curiosity seekers who are looking for a deeper interest in something or have an intrepid sensibility,” she says. “It’s for people who are interested in finding a change of consciousness that is natural and trustworthy.”
But, while kava is not a controlled substance in the U.S., kratom often gets a bad rap due to its dependency-forming properties, and its legal status has been in limbo in recent years. In 2016, both the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the North Carolina government announced their intent to temporarily classify the two main ingredients in kratom as a Schedule I drug, defined as a substance with no currently accepted medical purpose and a high likelihood of abuse.
After widespread backlash from the public, both the DEA and the state overturned their decisions, and North Carolina has now set an age restriction of 18. But as Springer points out, although an age limit was imposed for its purchase and use, no other guidelines were put in place. “Like anything else in the supplement industry, kratom is not regulated. You don’t know what you’re getting,” he says.
In 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a study claiming that 22 of the 25 most prevalent compounds in kratom share structural similarities with controlled analgesics. An FDA report from September 2019 says the agency is “actively evaluating all available scientific information on this issue and continues to warn consumers not to use any products labeled as containing the botanical substance kratom or its psychoactive compounds, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine.”
“Kratom has 40-some alkaloids, and two of these alkaloids are near the same alkaloids that are in morphine, which is the mother of all opiates,” explains Jay Cannon, who works in outreach and business development at Mountainview Recovery, a full-service detox and treatment center for substance abuse in Asheville. “So some people can take it to cure their cravings, and some people get addicted to it.”
Jordan Elkins, an outreach coordinator at Mountainview Recovery, says that although kratom does help relieve withdrawal symptoms, there is no substantial clinical research determining whether kratom is a safe and effective alternative to opioid addiction.
“When someone reports heavy use of kratom to us, it’s often because they’re trying to kick opiates,” he says. “They use it to manage detox symptoms.”
Elkin says both kratom and kava can provide addicts with an option that isn’t as detrimental to their health as other substances. “I do see people who want to quit using, but they are physically withdrawing, so they go to kratom,” says Elkins. “And it’s a lot safer alternative for sure.”
In 2019, the American Kratom Association proposed the Kratom Consumer Protection Act, which can be implemented by individual states to regulate kratom manufacturing, sales and usage, as well as putting forth good and ethical practices. The proposed legislation is pending in North Carolina.
Springer argues that making kratom illegal would plunge many users into withdrawal, forcing them to find more dangerous alternatives. “Sure, some may get clean from all substances,” he says. “But a larger percentage will be put at risk for overdosing.”
As kratom’s legal fate is decided, Springer asserts, kava and kratom bars that uphold high quality standards will continue to be safe havens for their tightknit communities of customers. “Once you start coming for a while, it’s like you’re automatically inducted into that [community],” he says. “You have a family of people that you can lean on or ask for help and support.”