When worldwide demand for the stress-busting Polynesian drink called kava exploded a few years ago, retired Big Island firefighter Clifford Souza and his son, Colin, decided to put down roots.
For over a century, European physicians have been prescribing the mildly narcotic plant for anxiety, menstrual pain and muscle aches. Dignitaries like Queen Elizabeth and Pope John Paul II have been served it while visiting Fiji.
But it was only in the late 1990s that the U.S. mainland health food crowd cottoned on to its therapeutic properties after publications like the Wall Street Journal described it as a natural alternative to Valium
When I tried this I thought, wow! said Souza. It's something legal that's relaxing.
Back then, the main sources of supply were remote South Pacific islands like Pentecost and Tonga, but the demise of Hawaii's sugar plantations led local farmers to seek out promising crops like kava.
Big Island kava growers have had their ups and downs in the four years since the Waiakea Uka resident and his son began planting the medicinal relative of the black pepper plant. Competition from low-wage South Pacific countries like Vanuatu soon put a dent in prices.
When we started the price was $9 a pound for wet (unprocessed) kava root, but it dropped to where it is now a dollar a pound, Souza said.
The biggest customer for kava, Germany, had a huge demand that neophyte Hawaii growers had a tough time filling.
If you don't have 20 tons of dry root or 100,000 pounds of wet root, they're not interested, Souza said. A run for (German pharmaceutical companies) is 10 tons of dry root at a time
Faced with these realities, Souza decided to gear his Uka Kava products to the local market about a year and a half ago.
I'm the only guy here who does kava juice, Souza said, noting that a number of Big Island growers produce powdered kava. I have to keep coming up with new ideas for products.
Souza's Hang Loose Kava Passion Juice with its funny blissed-out gecko logo is a big seller at $3 for an 8-ounce bottle.
One of his customers, the Island Beltway Service gas station in Honokaa, sells two cases, or 48 bottles, a month, Souza said. One local massage therapist offers his clients a muscle-relaxing cup of Hang Loose Kava Juice before commencing with his lomi lomi routine.
The mainstays of Souza's business are the one-ounce dropper bottles of 30 percent Kava extract and Hawaiian kava tincture. Three droppers-ful on the tongue deliver a dose of tranquility, Souza said.
With its muddy flavor, kava is an acquired taste. Kava Web sites offer recipes that promise to improve the taste of the earthy brew.
One calls for adding a teaspoon of cinnamon to six teaspoons of kava powder in a fine mesh strainer bag, which is then dipped into two cups of ice cold water and one cup of room temperature water. Another recipe simply prescribes a few drops of vanilla extract.
The secret to unleashing powdered kava's potency, Souza said, is to lomi (massage) the strainer bag and its contents for two or three minutes.
Souza, keen to spread the word that kava is a safe alternative to alcohol, gave a demonstration to students at University of Hawaii at Hilo in January.
A lot of people get violent with alcohol, and it damages the brain and the liver. Kava doesn't do that, Souza said. Almost everybody's stressed out from work or something, and they need something to relax.
Moderation is important, he stresses. Drinking gallons of kava can give the imbiber scaly skin, Souza said.
Uka Kava products are sold at various Big Island health food stores, including Abundant Life and Island Naturals in Hilo, as well as Longs Drugs downtown.
Souza can be reached at email@example.com or www.mauikava.com