Nick Chlebeck's new kava bar at 420 North Higgins can't technically serve you kava. While Chlebeck and Kava Kulture's employees can sell you a 1 tablespoon bag of the powdered psychoactive root, they can't open the bag, and they can only imply that most people consume the FDA-approved "dietary supplement" by mixing it with four to eight ounces of water, which the shop just so happens to serve, separately, at the bar.
The cloak-and-dagger routine isn't a sales gimmick, but the result of the Missoula County Health Department preventing Chlebeck from selling kava as food for human consumption.
Kava isn't banned in the U.S., but the FDA has approved it for sale only as a dietary supplement, not as a medicine or food additive.
City-county health department spokesperson Alisha Johnson says that since the department adopted the FDA regulations, it's bound to follow them, including kava's placement in the FDA's Poisonous Plant Database. Chlebeck, a Bozeman restaurateur, says it took him 10 months to open the bar due to negotiations with the county. He says he had to halt construction in the meantime, and even temporarily take kava off Kava Kulture's menu in order to get the proper food permits. Kava Kulture opened Aug. 22.
The present compromise was reached after consulting lawyers and the FDA. Chlebeck got a quasi-functioning kava bar, and he isn't complaining.
"It seems unfair, but they're just doing their jobs," he says.
Johnson says the health department cleared Chlebeck to operate Kava Kulture on Oct. 13 last year, so long as kava was sold packaged, and not prepared.
European studies on kava-induced liver toxicity led to an FDA warning in 2002, which Chlebeck says the county is citing, despite volumes of new contradictory evidence. Johnson says that's an issue to take up with the federal government, not the county.
"We can't ignore [a regulation] that's in place," she says.
Kava has been used ceremonially among various Pacific Island cultures for 3,000 years. The Samoan version of the ceremony is featured on the back of the quarter coin for the territory of American Samoa.
According to Chlebeck, "kava tastes like shit." Chlebeck plans to begin selling concentrated tinctures alongside virgin cocktails, should customers wish to take the edge off.
Kava Kulture sells two varieties of the root: one that induces sleep, and another that creates an energized buzz and mellows anxiety. Higher doses result in greater euphoria and sedation, and there's a reverse tolerance effect resulting in a heightened response from less usage over time.
Chlebeck says the evidence of liver damage from kava consumption is circumstantial and overblown, especially considering the legality of alcohol and its effect on the liver. And while he's not opposed to the bars visible through Kava Kulture's windows in nearly every direction, he says he's glad to be selling a product not known to produce violence.
"There's never a fight at a kava bar," Chlebeck says.