My first sip of kava made one thing crystal clear: You don’t drink it for the flavor.

I has settled into a seat at the Root Kava Bar near Boulder’s University of Colorado campus and ordered a Twice—a double pour of kava served in a “shell” (actually a coconut-shaped stainless steel bowl). As the late afternoon happy hour crowd filtered in, I ignored the advice of the kava-tender, who recommended I down the concoction rapidly and chase it with the accompanying piece of skewered fresh pineapple.

Instead, I slowly drank the cool, cloudy liquid as if it were tea; sipping kava intensifies its flavor, which the side of fresh pineapple is meant to counteract. The initial eye-popping funky taste was followed by a slight numbness on my tongue. A regular sitting one stool over at the bar tipped his shell in my direction and said: “You’ll get used to the taste.”

Kava is a legal, traditional South Pacific Island plant. Its roots and stems are typically soaked in water, then the liquid is strained and consumed for wellness purposes (think: temporary stress and anxiety relief and mental focus without motor impairment). Unlike CBD—cannabis’ non-psychoactive cousin—kava produces noticeable effects that vary depending on the individual. And as with other potent beverages, there are nuances to be explored. Aficionados talk about the subtle differences in taste and effect of roots from Vanuatu, Hawaii, and Fiji. Root Kava Bar regulars told me that those who use kava often require smaller doses each time to gain the same results. However, if you’re expecting the punch of craft spirits or legal THC, kava won’t wow you.

Kava served in a shell. Photo courtesy of Root Kava

Root Kava Bar is part of Colorado’s burgeoning kava culture that includes Boulder’s Tonic Herban Lounge, Denver’s Kava Sutra, and Colorado Springs’ Ohana Kava Bar.

The Root serves kava in Once (single), Twice (double), and Thrice (triple) pours. For a more dramatic effect, the signature Dirty Badger option includes carbon-dioxide-extracted kava that’s four times stronger. Priced from $4 to $12, kava at the Root Kava Bar is no more expensive—and often less costly—than a craft cocktail.

The Root Kava Bar, which is for 18-year-old patrons and older, feels a lot like Boulder’s myriad tasting rooms pouring everything from cider to hard seltzer to local spirits. The difference is that even when the bar is full late at night, the atmosphere is relatively chill and absent of drunken guests. Plus, you can get your kava to-go.

It’s also a sanctuary for the ever-increasing sober cocktail crowd, which includes many college athletes. For them, the Root’s menu includes kombucha, teas, CBD drinks, an adaptogenic coffee alternative from Boulder brand Rasa, and other herbal infusions, including another famous botanical called “kratom” (kray-tom). Drinks featuring that Southeast Asian leaf come in three strains—white, green, and red—and vary in effect from mildly stimulating to reportedly pain relieving. Kratom has a much lighter, barklike flavor and is available blended with fruits like pomegranate and strawberry.

The bar is also stocked with board games, a ping-pong table, and hula hoops, and has live music on select evenings. A video screen runs a snowboard adventure video, and the soundtrack is devoted largely to mellow hip-hop tunes.

After enjoying a double kava and a kratom “bomb shot” combining all three strains, I left the bar feeling refreshed and uplifted, though far from euphoric; I had no qualms about getting behind the wheel to head home. I’ll return another time at midnight for a nightcap when single kava shells are only $1 each.

The Root Kava Bar is open daily from 1 p.m.–1 a.m.; 1641 28th St., Boulder, 303-856-3851

John Lehndorff
John Lehndorff
John Lehndorff is a Colorado food journalism veteran. He hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU.