Kava Growing Specifications
Not enough water, or too much, and the yield will suffer at best, or the crop will be lost entirely, at worst. Although it varies with conditions such as relative humidity and altitude, 200 cm (78 inches) of rainfall per year is typically thought to be about perfect, with a minimum of about 100 cm (39 inches) and a maximum around 300 cm, or 188 inches.
The soil must be well draining enough that it never gets saturated, yet holds onto moisture well enough that it stays perpetually at least slightly damp, which is no small feat considering this tropical nation gets up into the 30s (°C) for much of summer (35 °C is about 95 °F), and also experiences absolute deluges from time to time.
Speaking of temperature, if the environment around a kava plant drops below about 20 °C (68 °F) for any considerable length of time, there is a good chance that plant will die. This alone restricts kava to the relatively constant warmth of tropical climes, along with a select few subtropical regions with suitably stable microclimates.
Slightly acidic soil is also required, with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5 essential. In Vanuatu and Fiji kava cuttings once planted are typically surrounded by a specially prepared mixture of organic compost and other natural fertilisers which helps to feed these nutrient-demanding plants, as well as to help maintain the optimal balance of acidity needed for them to thrive. Indigenous growers don’t normally walk around with pH metres or test kits, but they’ve learnt how to read subtle changes in leaf colour and texture, among other things, and how to respond in their pattern of care for the plants.
The human responses which are necessary to maximise the quality of kava root able to be cultivated and eventually obtained from these plants has been carefully crafted over eons. Indeed, there has always been and always will be a demand for the highest quality vanuatu and Fiji Kava drink, but as with fine wines, global tastes tend to shift over time – a “heady” kava root powder is perhaps more popular in a particular community, but the upcoming trend might see a “heavier” variety dominating the scene.
Equally important to good soil, sun, and water, is clean air with a high partial pressure of CO2, which means that kava can only be grown between sea-level and a maximum altitude of 800 m (2625’). On some of the lower lying plateaus of this volcanically active region, such as the slopes of Ambae, there are stories of legendary growers who have been known to brush an occasional fine mist of volcanic ash from the leaves to ensure their kava plants flourish.
Another tricky factor for a country (Vanuatu, as well as Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, and the wider tropical South Pacific region…) which gets hit with some of the most powerful cyclones on record, is that kava is wind sensitive. The leaves and stalks rip away easily, with kava fields left barren after a nasty storm, for any plantations that aren’t carefully located in perfectly sheltered areas – an easy mistake for amateurs and foreign cultivators looking to get a piece of this precious cultural treasure.
Before we talk about drying though, let’s talk about one part of the plant that may or not be in your kava powder: The root bark and rhizome peelings contribute quite a bit to the taste and aromatic profile of kava, although the majority of people would refer to those flavours as “bitter” and “earthy”. Producers in most kava growing regions undertake the time-consuming task of peeling the roots, as they feel this refinement improves palatability and increases the perceived smoothness, providing a better “mouth feel”. Taste cannot be disputed though; you like what you like, and it isn’t up to someone else to tell you what tastes you should or should not enjoy, even though most producers who do put the effort in to peel the roots do so because they believe that the end result is more sophisticated and results in an improvement in quality whereby the subtler notes are able to come through. If you are a fan of the more earthy tones, Fiji remains the only country whereby the majority of kava exports are composed of unpeeled product. The Fiji Kava drink is definitely more earthy.
For the most part, there is no serious debate about the fact that fresher equals better, at least when it comes to the overwhelming majority of foods and drinks, and even “aged products” must be aged correctly to maximise quality – kava is no different. Many serious afficionados will tell you that they prefer a freshly prepared “green” kava made from recently harvested roots, and yet all over the world where kava is consumed, a huge amount of it is made from sun- and air-dried plants, not freshly harvested green kava. There are many reasons for this, such as the ability to transport more product, much easier, if it has dried out to become much smaller and lighter – the overwhelming majority of most plants’ constitution is of course simply water – and the fact that it’s the cheapest and easiest thing to do to preserve the roots if you don’t intend to consume the kava right there on the spot.
All good kava roots will need a thorough cleaning after being freshly pulled from the ground, but there isn’t an easy way to sterilise kava without also degrading some of those wonderful kavalactones or losing some of the precious volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which impart some of the delightful character that can only be found in fresh roots. The superior pasteurisation method involves removing the moisture in a sterile environment under tightly controlled conditions rapidly enough and at a low enough temperature that those glorious aromatic notes of freshness are not lost, whilst carefully conducting continuous microbial analysis to ensure that the pasteurisation process is exactingly effective, without losing the character of freshness. The problem with this method is not only the increased difficulty in trekking fresh bundles of kava through the jungle compared to lighter, more compact bags of dried kava, but the mind-bogglingly huge monetary and technological investment in the processing facility itself.
For the most part, the methods to lock in the flavour and character of a fresh green kava are not available to the majority of producers, and to none that we are aware of in Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, or even Hawaii. Being one of the main industries for the small developing nation of Vanuatu, kava contributes a much larger portion to GDP than it does in other countries, and as such, the kava processing capabilities in Vanuatu also are far beyond those anywhere else in the world. The technological advancement in this industry is somewhat of a contrast between the simplicity of Vanuatu on the whole, and it is the only nation on earth that has seen such serious investment in terms of processing technology for this niche but increasingly important market.
Not only has Vanuatu historically been the global heart of kava cultivation, but it remains so today; There are believed to be many more cultivars of noble kava growing in Vanuatu than in all other kava growing nations of the world combined. Not only is Vanuatu a huge exporter of kava, but this sparsely populated nation consumes far more kava than it ships overseas. Indeed, on some stretches of roads there are so many nakamals (local kava bars and kava shops where people can buy kava by the shell and socialise with other guests while they drink, or buy it by the bottle for take-away) that there could be many dozens of unique kava selling establishments on just a small stretch of roadway no more than a few blocks long. The region of Chapuis on the northern island of Espiritu Santo, just up from the bustling township of Luganville, is one such destination – definitely worth a closer look for the real kava enthusiasts of the world, and only a 5-minute drive from the most sophisticated kava producing facility in the world – the home of Root & Pestle.