It's a cola drink with a kava lactone additive, which it is claimed, produces the calming effect of kava without the muddy taste. Sean Dorney went to the factory on the outskirts of Port Vila, to see the drink being made and speak to the people who are hoping they can create a brand new international market for what could be described as the alternative to high energy drink, the anti-energy drink.
Presenter, Sean Dorney
Cameron McLeod, Marketing Manager Unique Exports
James Armitage, Lava Kava developer
Vanuatu MP, Philip Boedoro
Vanuatu Beverage Manager, Chabod Jean Yves.
DORNEY: Vanuatu kava is the most potent in the Pacific. It is definitely an acquired taste.
McLEOD: ["Cameron McLeod - MARKETING MANAGER UNIQUE EXPORTS"]
For those who aren't used to it or don't like the taste or who are new to the taste of kava it's a little intimidating and it's not pleasant.
DORNEY: Cameron McLeod is the Marketing Manager for a Vanuatu based company called Unique Exports.
McLEOD: It's not wine. You don't drink it for its aroma or taste.
FX: [Soft drink factory production run]
DORNEY: But now there is a new way to get the kava effect - out of a soft drink bottle.
ARMITAGE: I developed a water based kava extract about 18 months ago. No one has managed to do it previously.
DORNEY: James Armitage developed the product.
ARMITAGE: And so we decided to approach Vanuatu Beverage and try it out primarily with the cola. The kava cola has turned out to be a really good hit locally.
DORNEY: James Armitage and his colleague, Cameron McLeod, have lived in Vanuatu for years and they witnessed the collapse of the country's kava export industry. Kava pills were banned by the European Union more than a decade ago because of side effects like liver damage now attributed to former extraction methods where not only the kava root but also the stems of the plant were used in the manufacturing process. Cameron McLeod:
McLEOD: The E.U. ban on kava really took the wind out of the local kava economy. That's probably understating it. It really, really smashed it.
DORNEY: James Armitage claims his extraction method avoids the previous pitfalls.
ARMITAGE: Most people until now have been using alcohol extraction and that's been the cause of liver problems as you may know in the past. So it's just something through trial and error. I've been playing around with kava for 20 years. We just hit it. Found the holy grail so to speak.
DORNEY: He showed me a small plastic packet of the extracted kava ingredient.
ARMITAGE: This is the dried kava lactone extract. This is what we use in our beverage products. A match head, a piece that size would probably be enough to make you want to sit under the nearest coconut tree for about an hour. It really is quite strong. It's the pure lactone. It's the active ingredient of kava.
DORNEY: Inside the factory the food technologist for Vanuatu Beverages explained how it is mixed.
FEMALE VOICE: The lava kola syrup is mixed with the water in the flow mix metre. From there they mix together and it goes to the carbo cooler which cools the product.
DORNEY: So how much goes in?
FEMALE VOICE: It's got 15 ml in a bottle of 330 ml.
McLEOD: The future for kava is in a value added product, specifically one where you can taste kava and get the effect of kava without that muddy, horrible taste that's normally associated with it.
DORNEY: James Armitage says the Kava Cola achieves that.
ARMITAGE: The taste is actually quite refreshing. There's no muddy taste. You don't want to spit afterwards which is quite unusual. As you know yourself you go to a kava bar and everybody's spitting. You don't have that feeling, you don't have the stomach bloating associated with drinking large volumes of kava and, you know, four or five of these bottles of kava and a lot of people are pretty zonked.
DORNEY: They are sourcing their kava from one island in Vanuatu, Maewo, and the local Member of Parliament, Philip Boedoro, says the move into soft drink has been a real boon to his people.
BoeDORO: People back home, like the communities, are very happy. They're very happy with what we are doing and they can see, you know, the funds, the cash flowing back to their community.
DORNEY: The company producing the Lava Cola is pleased with sales even though the drink has been on the market for only a matter of months. The Vanuatu Beverage Manager, Chabod Jean Yves.
YVES: Not feeling the taste of the kava which is sometimes very difficult to drink. (Laughs) So we believe the product is OK for those who doesn't like the taste of kava but they like the effect of the kava and everything.
McLEOD: A good friend of mine who I do drink kava with quite often explains it in that it's similar to a very mild, liquid valium. I guess just a very relaxing feeling. It's all go, go, go in the West at the moment. We'd like to think that the anti-energy drink and market is there and it's ready to be tapped and that lava cola is certainly primed now with the advent of Van Bev coming on board to really get into that market and hopefully boost Vanuatu.
DORNEY: His colleague, James Armitage, the product developer, belives their kava soft drink has worldwide potential.
ARMITAGE: The U.S. The U.S. is probably the biggest market. There are a couple of other companies out there doing something similar. They're only using dried kava powder for their extract. They're not using anything near as potent as what we're using here. And we're hoping that we can value add the kava here and produce it here and export the syrup to overseas. But the United States is a monster market.
DORNEY: In the short term, though, the next target markets for their kava soft drink - Lava Cola - are nearby Fiji and New Caledonia. This is Sean Dorney for Pacific Beat.