It’s just past three at Noble Kava Boone, a spacious lounge nestled under an apartment complex, next to a vape shop, just a ten minute walk from Appalachian State University's campus. Despite the low lighting, the place is bright with sunlight filtered in from the floor to ceiling windows. The walls are decorated with souvenirs from the pacific islands, masks, small statues, an ancient weapon used to pop the heads off of enemies during battle. A crowd of regulars collects around the bar, ages ranging between 20s to 40s, all masked and (somewhat) socially distanced. It’s happy hour meaning 1 dollar off low tides (a single) and 2 dollars off high tides (a double) and the patrons call out their orders in quick succession to Kya, the blue and pink haired bartender.
“Let me get a low reg, Kya and I’ll start a tab.”
“I’ll buy you a shot, dude. What do you want?”
“What’s the special? Ew, samoan? I’ll take a high regular.”
Kya waves over another regular to ask if they too will be joining in a shot and after some hemming and hawing and expectant looks for the crowd, they laugh in concession and place their order. From behind the bar, a few employees filter out and pour their own drinks. An opaque brown liquid is handed out in plastic cups, as opposed to the usual white ceramic shells that have been abandoned due to health concerns. There’s a final check to make sure everyone has been included and received their drinks. Then, everyone raises their drinks together and cries out a mix of different toasts.
There’s a moment of silence as everyone chugs their drinks, followed by grunts, groans and sputtering, comments on the particular taste of today’s batch of kava, an acrid, muddy liquid on the best of days. Usually, patrons are given fruits as chasers but that too has been abandoned due to current health risks so customers are left to their own devices with waters and sodas to wash the flavor down.
“God, that’s strong!”
“Who made that batch?”
“Erin, I think?”
With the shot complete, the crowd disperses. The bartender goes to tend to the other customers, patiently waiting their turns. The other employees head back to do paperwork in the office or continue the arduous process of making Noble Kava’s niche products. Some of the regulars go back to their phones or books or the homework they’ve been diligently working at in the same spot for hours. Others fall back into their small groups to continue their previous conversations, plans for upcoming D&D campaigns, intimate discussions about mental health, passionate political debate with the unabashed loudness that can only happen when one knows they're in safe company and later the little ritual will repeat itself, over and over again.
Noble Kava was one of the pioneers of the kava bar in the states, opening in 2014. They sell two specialty products, kava and kratom, exotic teas that are explained to every newcomer with what regulars and staff both refer to as “The Schpiel”, the informative speech staff is required to give whenever a new customers comes in. It’s a definite necessity considering kava and kratom aren’t native to the states and have only developed a presence and culture within the last two decades.
Kava is a root drink native to the Pacific Islands, made by mixing the dried, ground root with water and squeezing it through a mesh bag, though in some cultures, virgin girls chew the root and spit it out as saliva actually makes its effects stronger. Kava has been used in Vanuatu specifically for hundreds of years, both socially and spiritually, for its relaxing, sociable but clear headed buzz. Noble Kava veterans refer to being unde the effects of Kava as being “rooted”. Patrons under its effects are often talkative, chill and friendly. Conversations between friends and strangers alike happen with ease.
One of the more unique traits of kava is it’s reverse tolerance, meaning it takes 3-5 days of consumption to feel its full effects. (Technically speaking, it is possible for a person to gain a full kava tolerance in one night but the sheer volume of kava one would have to consume would be hard on even the strongest of stomachs.) For this reason, every new customer gets a free shot, providing they sit through The Schpiel, are over 18 and are not pregnant or breastfeeding. Kava also has a variety of medical uses including treating insomnia, anxiety and depression, something the regulars will vehemently attest to as, on top of leftism and nerdy interests, mental health struggles are one of the many things kava bar regulars have in common.
Since its birth, Noble Kava has brought kindred spirits together and formed an intimate community so deeply woven into many people’s lives that the products have become a secondary appeal. For that reason, simply offering pickup orders and deliveries during Covid-19 restrictions was not enough to fill Noble Kava’s previous role in the community. Quarantine not only meant that regulars were not able to frequent their favorite watering hole, but for many, quarantine meant total social isolation from their most important social group. Steps were taken to fill this gap: newsletters, photo contests, a minecraft server but the loss was most certainly felt by all.
Karl is one of the Kava bar’s bartenders, a soft spoken, nordic, gentle giant of a man, skilled musician and dungeon master. He describes the kava bar’s core clientele as both “eclectic” with a sardonic raise of a brow, tinted with fondness. It’s one of his favorite parts about working for Noble Kava, as well as the lack of corporate interference and overhead. “ Everyone who’s working there and is making decisions about policies and stuff has boots on the ground and knows how things work.” He also enjoys the communal nature of the kava bar, the relationships between it’s clientele that earn them the name “kava fam”, the kind of relationship that breeds affidavits for friends, free rides and couches to sleep on, offers for babysitting, discounts on trades.
As we were talking Meagan, another one of the regulars, passes by on her way inside and asks “Do you guys want any apples? For free?”
Karl responds “Yes. What kind of apples?”
“I got four varieties that I hand picked myself!” she says, proudly.
“Oh, then I don’t want them anymore.”
“Fuck off!” Megean says with a familial bite and the three of us fall into laughter.
Karl later says “I probably wouldn’t have a social circle outside of it… I just like looking [at] the way the different customers take care of each other.”
The community nature of Noble Kava is both the core of what makes the place unique, and the first thing that has suffered in the age of covid. As Karl says “Because we're so community based, we’ve got, like, our events and the community focus of the whole deal. It’s like, how do you still do that sort of thing and provide that- that sense of togetherness when people aren’t even allowed to come in the door?”
On March 17th, Governor Roy Cooper issued an official order regarding covid, including that all bars, restaurants and cafes close by 5pm that day and could only continue carry out options. The final hours of Noble Kava’s operations on that day were almost mournful, filled with panicked discussions of how people would stay connected. Many people were added to Discord servers and invited to Role20 (an online tabletop gaming program) Dungeons and Dragons games that day.
Not staying open was not an option, financially or socially. Aside from leaving several dedicated employees without worth, Noble Kava is the only place within miles to get kava or brewed kratom and considering these products were integral to many people’s treatment of mental health issues and general wellbeing, they had a social function to fulfill. Noble Kava had never offered delivery but within two days they reopened with delivery and a pickup window. The beginnings of quarantine were plagued with uncertainty. “It was chaotic,” according to Jackson Grotophorst, Noble Kava’s manager for 5 years.
Jackson is a tall, willowy brunette, and up and coming streamer when he’s not working to keep the kava bar afloat in uncertain times. He’s soft spoken, presence vacillating between warm and melancholic. At times, the weight of managing a business so crucial to so many lives, entangled with ever changing politics and petty personal squabbles at only 26 can be seen on his shoulders. His role in the kava bar community has changed over the years as he’s risen through the ranks, but he’s worked hard not to become alienated from those that are, technically, below him.
“...I try not to put myself above anyone, Like, I want to be among everyone and just, we all have our roles to play.” However, he does understand his integral role to the function of Noble Kava. “I’m at the core of this place and I feel, not important, but valued.”
After quarantine restrictions, Noble Kava managed to re-open, however, under strict guidelines. First, they opened just their bar seating with a max of 10 people inside at a time, meaning the front porch and back parking lot were always filled with loitering customers. After that, they slowly expanded their seating over a period three months until the entire space was finally available. Customers are required to wear masks and social distance, they no longer offer cut fruit as kava chasers and all shots are served in plastic cups to cut down on contamination from dishes.
“We’re reopened but we still can’t do events. It still feels kind of like we’re stuck… so honestly, that livelihood of the community is what’s gone.”
However, despite changes and sacrifices, this time of struggle has not been entirely bleak. “Everybody has, like, lost their job or… they have a friend or family that's been affected by covid… I think it allowed everyone in the community to band together.” Fears, frustrations and hardships have manifested within the community through altruism, a trait that Jackson sees as fundamental to the kava bar culture past, present and future. “They, like, bring fresh food in when people maybe don’t have money to buy food...I’ve seen people get flat tires and then [other customers] will just drop what they’re doing and go help that person. People have called the bar and asked for a ride somewhere. People go get them. I’ve seen people that, like, have family issues and like four people are there to console them.”
Financially, while pickup and delivery orders have kept them afloat, Noble Kava has struggled due to the inability to maintain their most popular events. At one point, one of Noble Kava’s busiest nights was Wednesday night study hall. Students would pack into every available nook and cranny of the lounge with their books and laptops in order to get the buy one get one free kratom deal offered to anyone who was studying. At their much smaller old location, during final’s week, students would sit on the floor, standing in packed corners or outside on the porch if they arrived too late to get a seat. A popular combination for those wanting to buckle down and get work done has always been a white vein kratom, mixed with a grapefruit San Pellegrino, both to cut the bitter taste of kratom and because citrus perpetuates and strengthens the alkaloids that give kratom its potency. This was popular because of kratom’s various effects that have both medical and recreational benefits.
Kratom is a southeast asian tea leaf sold both in a brewed tea form and in bulk powder which can be consumed by the spoonful in what kratom users refer to as a “toss and wash”. Kratom has been the subject of much controversy in the USA, existing in an ever changing legal grey area, criminalized in some states, legal in others and under constant scrutiny from the federal government. Advocates proselytize it’s medicinal qualities, being helpful in the treatment of chronic pain as a replacement for opioid painkillers, as a means to ease opioid withdrawals and as a treatment for insomnia, anxiety and depression among other things. However, critics characterize kratom as a dangerous new opioid drug craze. Back in 2016, looming legislation that threatened to criminalize kratom covered the kava bar in a blanket of anxiety that manifested in many signed petitions, letters to congress people and online debates. Leading up to the day it was to be decided, the kava bar discounted kratom drastically in order to lessen the amount of product they'd have to turn into the police. However, at this time, kratom remains legal in NC, sold in bulk powder form in most smoke and vape shops. There was a time where, due to FDA fears, employees weren’t allowed to directly state the effects of kratom and instead prompted newcomers to either do a quick google search or ask one of the regulars, who were always excited to share their experiences, though policies have since relaxed. They carry three strains: Red, which is relaxing, great for pain and somewhat sedative, White, energizing, focusing and MaengDa, the most potent strain that starts off energizing and becomes more relaxing throughout the 4-5 hour period where kratom’s effects can be most strongly felt.
There were other event nights as well. Mondays were customer appreciation night, previously lady;s night, where customers could get up to three $2 kava shots. Tea party Tuesdays offered half off loose leaf teas. Local musicians regarded their Friday night live music nights as one of the best ways for amatuer musicians to get precious stage time. On Thursdays, Noble Kava hosted one of the most popular open mic nights in Boone where all types of performers, singers, musicians, comedians, poets, of various skill levels could perform for an invested and endlessly forgiving crowd. Performers got buy one get one kava shots, which is where an infamous drink, featured for a time on their menu for mostly shock value, was born: Ray’s Level Wrecker. The drink included two high specials, two scoops of Quick Kava Premium, a powdered instant kava that a customer could get by asking for their shot “dirty” and chocolate syrup, all poured into the aforementioned Ray’s big wooden bowl. These nights were essential parts of the soul of Noble Kava, oftentimes being the thing that first attracted people who later became dedicated regulars, allowing Noble Kava to extend well past just a business and into a community.
The social importance of Noble Kava is the result of endless personal stories that have led individuals to find friendship, community and family within the establishment. Xel, another bartender, attests to the kava bar being a support system, citing it as one of the main reasons she was able to get through her struggles in the past year. “It’s no longer just a bartender client kind of relationship. If one of us is going down, all of us is going down together. There’s no question about how much everyone cares about each other here and that’s, like, always going to be a special place in my heart.”
Xel is a petite, proud filipiono girl, one of the admittedly very members of the kava bar community that are POC, blunt, energetic and endlessly affectionate, a thespian, enjoying her last few weeks in Boone before moving back to NYC. As she talks, she sips from a comically large boot shaped cup filled with pink slushy. She describes coping with quarantine, partly, by building a blanket fort in the unused kava bar lounger and stocking it with nerf guns. Pictures of the fort and the staff boasting their nerf guns were sent out in the monthly newsletters. “Aside from worrying about how much I’d be making everyday [in tips] there was a blanket fort. That made it easier.”
George is one of the kava bar’s regulars, a quintessential punk in a torn denim vest and camo pants, his usual spiked mohawk hanging down in the rainy weather, with a deep love of country music and wrestling (ask him, he’ll tell you about it). One of the main things that first got him into the kava bar family was Noble Kava’s most popular event before covid, Thursday Open Mic Night, where George often performed stand up. He describes the clientele as “...the highest concentration of anarchists I’ve ever seen in a single space, especially in the rural south.” To George, the kava bar attracts strange people by its very nature.
“It’s a very niche thing isn’t it?...Everyone knows what a bar is. Everyone knows alcohol… Not many people are like ‘I don’t know what this strange root water is and I’m just gonna imbibe that now. It’s a very specific crowd that’s just like ‘I’m gonna drink dirt water now.’” George shares mental health as one of the things he has in common with many kava bar patrons and a reason he kept coming back, citing kava as the reason he was able to get off pharmaceutical antidepressants.
George also remembers the kava from it’s old location before it’s strategic move in 2017. The old location was located on king street, much smaller, dark and smokey from when patrons were allowed to vape inside. “Some people call this an opium den. This is not an opium den. The old location was very much an opium den… This is a lot brighter.” However, despite the aesthetic change, it seems little about the spirit of the kava bar has changed. Many of the regulars bore through the months without the kava bar while they moved in between 2016 and 2017 to become regulars of the new location. The clientele and philosophy remains relatively the same and the kava and kratom is just as strong as ever. “People are gonna come and go,” George says. “The people this place attracts are gonna be very much consistent.”
With such an important community at stake, Noble Kava has and continues to adapt in order to keep people engaged. Weekly Instagram trivia questions, the newly restated customer appreciation night and an upcoming costume contest to replace their usual halloween party are all in the works. It seems that, despite the circumstances, Noble Kava is determined to stay.
It’s almost three at Noble Kava and the place is far busier than it should be for this early in the afternoon. The place is buzzing with excitement. Previous employee and longtime Noble kava family member, Deon, is on the way here after proposing to his longtime girlfriend, Amber, who doesn’t know that her friends have gathered to shower them in congratulations. Jackson is tasked with playing “Thousand Years” over the speaker system when they walk in. Each time the doors open, all eyes shoot towards it, only to turn away in disappointment when it isn’t the happy couple.
Finally, the two walk in and a collective “Congratulations!” rings out through the bar. Deon buys a round for everyone. Hugs and well wishes and tears are abundant and, in several unrelated simultaneous conversations, you can hear a common refrain.
“This makes this whole year worth it.”
It’s 2’ o’clock at Noble Kava and some of the regulars are wearing black, though not everyone because “He wouldn’t have cared.” They’ve just returned, mostly by carpool, from the funeral or Roby Lesesn, long time regular, passed at 22 years old. Suicide, it seems, but no one says the word. The mostly atheist or agnostic clientele laugh at the pomp and circumstance of the very christian service. They didn’t know him like we know him but it’s fine as tomorrow night, there will be a private memorial held at the kava bar.
The air is thick with the forced laughter of people in mourning trying to honor the memory of someone known for his smile. Familiar faces that haven’t been in for a while stop in, wearing pained smiles, exchanging weighted hugs. It’s as warm as it is celebratory as it is sad.
“He would want us to laugh.”
The bartender takes a final look and confirms everyone has their shots. A drink is lifted in the air and the room quiets.