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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 23, 2006

Cultural gathering place to close

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

Kava brewer Galu Aga, left, prepares kava by hand while Hale Noa owner Jason Keoni Verity samples the Polynesian beverage. Supply problems and the rising cost of doing business are forcing Verity to shut down Hale Noa, but he hopes to keep the "kava culture" alive.

ANDREW SHIMABUKU | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Owner Jason Keoni Verity at Hale Noa, where bowls of tongue-numbing kava were served and Hawaiian language was spoken.

ANDREW SHIMABUKU | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawai'i's first kava bar, a cozy enclave for Hawaiian language and culture, will shut its doors after the last bowl is scooped from a kanoa container sometime this week.

Hale Noa owner Jason Keoni Verity, 36, is hopeful that the bar can return in a different form possibly as a nonprofit or attached to some other concept with the intent of keeping "kava culture" alive.

Known interchangeably by its Hawaiian name 'awa, kava is the earthy Polynesian drink extracted from roots and root stumps of the Piper methysticum, or intoxicating pepper shrub. When imbibed, the bitter and tongue-numbing liquid is believed to relax the body while sharpening the mind.

At a private gathering held earlier this week, Hale Noa regulars lamented the closure of the 'awa bar, which had a six-year run on Kapahulu Avenue.

Hale Noa was a venue for a variety of local musicians, from veterans like Ernie Cruz Jr. and Barry Flanagan to the young women from Girlas, which is releasing its first album next month.

One of the Girlas, Candy Yasuda, said Hale Noa served as a home base for the group's members. Yasuda even met her husband there.

"Many of my songs were written within these walls," said Yasuda, 24, as she scanned the candle-lit interior.

Kalama Chock and Kaliko Palmeira, both 24, look like most guys who hit town's traditional bars.

Chock, a "part-time teacher and full-time student," sometimes goes to standard bars but at Hale Noa, he said, "you can actually have a good conversation." A Hawaiian language major, Chock said Hale Noa's passing will leave a void. "We found out we could talk Hawaiian in here," he said, shaking his head. "You can't just talk Hawaiian in any old place."

Palmeira, a producer and musician who attended the Hawaiian immersion school 'Anuenue, praised Verity's foresight.

"It's a great concept," Palmeira said. "To be able to sell 'awa and incorporate culture at the same time."

Laiana Wong, 49, an acting associate professor of Hawaiian language at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, said, "To be able to come here and run into people who can speak Hawaiian and have an opportunity to network with them, that's pretty invaluable."

Verity, a former Hawaiian language major at the UH-Manoa campus, said he has been taken to task by some who believe 'awa was used in olden Hawai'i only during ceremonies. But such criticism is baseless, he said, since literature refers to everyday use.

Verity said several issues are prompting Hale Noa's closure. Among them are glitches tied to a hoped-for kava supply from Vanuatu, a chain of islands in the southwest Pacific near Fiji where kava is believed to have originated.

Also, the cost of everything from electricity to insurance has gone up, Verity said. In plain English, gross revenues have increased but overhead has gone up even faster, he said.

In addition, questions about whether kava is healthful didn't help the business.

Hale Noa was forced to go out of state for kava in 2002 when published reports surfaced detailing potential health concerns tied to kava consumption, Verity said.

While there was no drop in Hale Noa's clientele, Verity said, local farmers immediately began taking their fields out of kava production.

Several European countries have barred kava, and the U.S. Federal Drug Administration issued a warning that there may be a link between herbal supplements containing kava and liver damage.

Dr. Landis Lum, an associate clinical professor of family medicine at UH-Manoa and a family practice doctor at Kaiser Kailua, said information about the attributes and possible dangers of kava continues to be mixed.

A 2005 study published by the Cochrane Database concluded kava extract can effectively treat anxiety and appears "relatively safe" for the short term, Lum said. But the study also suggested there needs to be further studies to clarify "existing uncertainties."

Verity said top concerns have to do with kava consumed in nontraditional ways, such as in concentrated tablets or mixed with other ingredients.

"We've been drinking kava in the Pacific for 3,000 years," he said.

Lum, however, pointed out that the Cochrane study noted one case in which a man who had brewed kava tea ended up in the hospital with vertigo.

Yasuda, the musician, noted that Verity made a point of educating new customers about the dos and don'ts of kava.

Verity also had kava rules. Among them: No 'awa drinking after alcohol consumption and no 'awa drinking for anyone under age 20.

With Hale Noa's departure, there is still at least one other place to get kava by the bowl over a counter but the experience is different.

Three years ago, former Hale Noa customer Marcus Marcos opened the Diamond Head Cove Health Bar on Monsarrat Avenue, just a few blocks from Hale Noa. While he serves kava, Marcos' main business is in healthful local food products, such as smoothies and salads. One smoothie blends kava with apple bananas, coconut milk and maple syrup.

"Keoni doesn't believe in altering anything, which is great," Marcos said, adding that he's remained a fan of Hale Noa and is disappointed it is closing.

"It's filled a unique niche," he said.

Cruz, who has sipped kava and performed in the two venues, said he likes both establishments.

"This one is a Hawaiian 'awa bar that's what makes this place different," Cruz said, as he got ready to perform at Hale Noa on a Sunday night. "The other place is a salad bar that serves 'awa."

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com.