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Kava traditions: how one drink connects people across cultures

A group of college-aged kids sitting in a kava circle and passing around drinks.
Emma Feuz
A kava mix

Parties on a college campus are pretty easy to come by, and they’re usually all the same. Dimly lit apartments filled to the brim with college kids drinking out of red solo cups are the stereotypical standards, but if you’re with Mason Fiefia, parties might also feature a kava bucket.

“Kava is a Polynesian drink that's been around for almost 3000 years. It's something that connects us as Polynesians together,” Fiefia said.

There are no restrictions on kava in Utah. It can be found in stores as well as kava bars, but it starts as a root. This root is dug up, ground up, and then strained much like tea or coffee. Fiefia has Tongan heritage and started mixing at 18. He said his straining methods have changed over the years as not all methods give the same results.

“What's funny is a lot of people have used pantyhose, hopefully new, and old T-shirts. Some people poured it straight into the bucket and stirred it up like Nesquik. I don't recommend that,” Fiefia said. “But the different processes produce different effects.”

Once strained, people at the mix sit in a circle. Two claps begin a new round and your drink is handed to you. Take a swig, and Mofi Takafua said most find the taste a little hard to swallow.

“Tastes like dirt. That's honestly what it tastes like,” Takafua said. “It tastes like dirt straight up.”

But he said he doesn’t drink kava for the taste.

“It relaxes you like your mind and body and just makes you feel good,” Takafua said. “You know you're not stressing about things that are going on in your life.”

Takafua said when he mixes with friends and family, it’s almost a type of therapy for him.

“We're able to bond more and be able to just enjoy each other's company, really, the conversation and especially the music,” Takafua said.

Fiefia said kava connects him back to his Tongan heritage.

“It connects us back to our roots. Tongans have a very strong belief that we are connected back to fonuá, or our land, and by us drinking a root which comes from the land, we are connecting ourselves once more with that heritage with that land,” Fiefia said.

But not all Polynesian cultures include kava the same way in their traditions. Fiefia said the drink itself varies between cultures.

“For Tongans, we like our kava strong. Fijians tend to like their kava a little bit more smoother. Samoans, I'm not sure I've never mixed Samoans, so when I do, I'll let you know,” Fiefia said.

But kava isn’t just for Polynesians. Fiefia has made it his goal to introduce anyone who has an interest in kava to the tradition.

“The beauty of it as Polynesians and Tongans is we welcome everybody in,” Fiefia said. “It’s kind of like the founga faka-Tongá which is the Tongan way.”

Emma Feuz is a senior at Utah State University majoring in broadcast journalism with minors in sociology and political science. She grew up in Evanston, Wyoming where, just like Utah State, the sagebrush also grows. Emma found her love of writing at an early age and slowly discovered her interest in all things audio and visual throughout her years in school. She is excited to put those passions to use at UPR. When school isn't taking up her time, Emma loves longboarding, cheering on the Denver Broncos, and cleaning the sink at Angies.