By Mackenzie Smith for RNZ

A kava bar in Auckland's downtown is hoping to win hearts and minds over the drink, especially among Pākehā, as the Pacific's favourite bitter elixir makes gains in international markets.

The drink - an earthy-tasting ground root which numbs muscles and has been used to treat anxiety and stress - has been used widely across the Pacific and among its diaspora for centuries.

But in the West, commercial traction has been held back by a lack of education around Pacific culture and limited research into its effects, experts say. Although legal in New Zealand, kava imports been restricted in many Western jurisdictions, including parts of Australia.

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"There's some misconceptions with it, people think it's alcoholic or they don't know what to make of it," said Todd Henry, the owner of Four Shells Kava Bar, which opened this week.

The business is new and kava experts said they were unsure how successful it would be in convincing first-time drinkers - likely a key market for a city-side bar outside of Auckland's more Pacific-populated outer suburbs. Mr Henry said it was the first kava bar to set up shop downtown.

'Anau Mesui Henry, says kava is the perfect remedy to the stress of the city's fast-paced working culture. Photo / Mackenzie Smith
'Anau Mesui Henry, says kava is the perfect remedy to the stress of the city's fast-paced working culture. Photo / Mackenzie Smith

Still, while the kava bar appears to be one of the first commercial tests of kava in New Zealand, across the ditch there has already been a sea change.

In December, Australian company Fiji Kava became the first kava producer to list on a global stock exchange, raising nearly $US4 million in its debut on the Australian Stock Exchange.

The Australian government has also committed to lifting restrictions on kava exports from Vanuatu as part of its 'step up' in the region.

Tucked away in a snazzy new retail hub in Auckland's city centre, Four Shells is an unlikely spot for a drink mostly served in the Pacific's living rooms and meeting houses. But Mr Henry said he wanted to use the location to change perceptions of the drink.

"There's going to be a lot of educational stuff that we will have to do around kava ... so it's bringing it to a new space and telling people what it is, what it does, and why we're doing it," he said.

"There's some misconceptions with it, people think it's alcoholic or they don't know what to make of it," said Todd Henry, the owner of Four Shells Kava Bar. Photo / Mackenzie Smith

Before opening, an online crowdfunding campaign for $NZ5,000 on Kickstarter was dashed by low uptake.

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Mr Henry said the planned expansion of the business would be delayed by the unsuccessful raise but that he was confident sales at the bar would help them push ahead eventually.

Mr Henry's wife, 'Anau Mesui Henry, said kava was the perfect remedy to the stress of the city's fast-paced working culture.

"In this kava lounge, we're creating a space that we slow time and we actually connect."

Still, on a rainy weekday, the bar attracted more window shoppers than customers.

Its first customer of the day, John Minty, said awareness of kava was growing, even among Pākehā, although he added a commercial bar was "an interesting gamble".

"Quite often kava is very much a ceremonial thing and something you do with family at home," he said.

Despite a slower commercial uptake than Australia, experts say the drink is slowly but surely becoming a business opportunity in New Zealand, aided by a growing awareness of Pacific culture.

"I think a lot of the young urban professionals I think are starting to develop a taste for kava, not necessarily just Pacific, or Melanesians, but a lot of other Pākehā, other cultures are getting into the kava which is great," said Pakilau Manase Lua, a Tongan community leader.

Apo Aporosa, a development manager at Waikato University who studies the effects of kava, said the drink had been held back by myths that it was dangerous, coupled with kava bars in the US which appropriated the drink by mixing it with drugs like alcohol and kratom, a natural opioid.

But he said in an email that bars like Four Shells could play an important role in educating people about the drink and Pacific culture.

"That's what we need, people who have greater cultural awareness and people who are connecting on a meaningful level, so its win-win."