It's 7:42 p.m. on a wet Wednesday in early November, and I—perched atop a Carrboro barstool, holding a Styrofoam cup full of what appears to be macerated Soylent Green—feel like a human-size gummy bear.
My body is relaxed but contained and controlled, with none of the wiggly looseness that typically accompanies a strong cocktail. It's as though I am encased in a clear candy sheath. But my mind is playing by different rules. It's racing, and I can't focus. As I try to write in a notebook, I can barely form a coherent thought, let alone finish a sentence.
The sensation seems strange, but I've been told it's totally normal. These are the effects of krush, one of a few specialty beverages available at Carrboro's Krave, the first "kava bar" in the Triangle and one of but a few in North Carolina.
If you don't know what kava is, the staff at Krave will happily, dutifully and fully educate you. During an earlier visit, I ended up on the receiving end of an extended lecture about the origins and uses of kava. It is, I was told, a tea made from a root in the black pepper family, while kratom (or kratum or ketum, as Krave calls it) comes from an evergreen plant. Krave gets its product from Fiji, says the bartender. The effects of the drinks have neither the incapacitating abilities of alcohol nor the mellowing punch of pot. Rather, it's a happy, restful medium between the two. Krush, which I am sipping, puts kava and kratom in one kup.
Kava and kratom lurk in legal gray areas. In July, the FDA released an Import Alert on kratom, warning that "there does not appear to be a history of use or other evidence of safety establishing that kratom will reasonably be expected to be safe as a dietary ingredient." Studies indicate toxicity in multiple organ systems with significant kratom consumption. The DEA lists kratom as a "Drug and Chemical of Concern," and another consumer advisory from 2002 indicated that kava-containing dietary supplements could cause severe liver damage. Still, except in Indiana, where kratom has been banned, both are fully permitted in America.
Undeterred by the specter of potential legal fights, Krave opened on Carrboro's Main Street in March to offer a social alcohol alternative. Indeed, there is no alcohol on the menu; aside from kava and kratom tea (served sweet with a little milk), you can choose from more than 30 selections of mate, a high-caffeine tea that's a traditional drink in South America, or sodas and coffee.
My non-poison of choice, krush, is meant to make me simultaneously calm and alert, the bartender promises. She asks if I've eaten (yes) and if I've had any alcohol (no), as both of these factors change the beverage's effects. I supply the proper answers, and she presents me with a small Styrofoam cup, which she's inverted several times. She supplies a larger Styrofoam cup of water. Do you need an ABC permit for real glasses, I wonder?
Still, I peel off the lid and peer into the cup to find a green-brown sludge, ostensibly ladled from some South Pacific swamp. The bartender warns me that, because the beverage is almost all plant matter, it won't taste great, and that my lips will go numb. They do, but worse, the back of my throat constricts, like the way it might in the days before a bad cold. It's uncomfortable, so I drink slowly. The krush tastes like lukewarm dirt water, and I feel foolish for having to force this $13 concoction down my gullet.
After a few minutes, though, the odd mix of calm and hyper-aware energy does start to set in. After finishing the cup, I swirl water around to collect the remaining residue as instructed.
When I start to settle down from the krush, or at least when I feel capable of recording my experiences in my notebook, I order the much cheaper and much more pleasant mate, a thick mixture of loose tea in hot water. Mate is traditionally served in a gourd, with a special straw called a bombilla, designed to act as a filter that keeps the tea leaves out of your mouth. But this, too, arrives in a Styrofoam coffee cup with a thick plastic straw protruding from the lid's hole. I end up with vegetation in my teeth—which, at least by now, shouldn't be green with krush, too, I hope.
The beverages at Krave are mostly meant to relax you, but I just can't get there in this environment. The décor is best described as "celestial tiki." A print of a leering tiki cup with green liquid splashing from its top and onto an outstretched tongue hangs on one wall. A large TV is mounted at the end of a bar, playing footage of people in wetsuits, sitting patiently on their surfboards and riding small waves. Most of the illumination comes from fluorescent ceiling lights, where the bulbs have been partially obscured by sheets of plastic covered with night-sky dioramas.
In the back, a larger lounge is meant to accommodate groups with clusters of small couches that face one another. Animated projections twist and burst over most of one wall, opposite a large mural of a lotus. It's dark, meaning you can suffer beneath fluorescents or here in this artificial dusk.
And Krave's patrons ... well, they aren't quite your average barflies. In my two trips, attendance maxes out around a dozen people, and most everyone knows everyone else, bartender included. The crowd mostly consists of men of mixed ages, though a few women eventually arrive. For a place meant to mellow your mind, my fellow patrons are surprisingly loud. One young man shouts about his Bojangles' Chicken Supreme meal, which he has brought from Durham, while an older man yells about Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky and a cigar in 2015. Perhaps Styrofoam cups make better earmuffs.
Two more men sit at the bar. One has a rectangular silver vaporizer that's as big as my hand and which includes the emblem of a blue-and-yellow Grateful Dead dancing bear. He pulls from it and then bends his face close to the bar top, almost kissing it. The vapor floats in a thin cloud over the bar's slick brown surface. He and his buddy guffaw with delight at this trick, which he repeats several times.
Many bars have started to ban indoor use of vaporizers and e-cigs outright, treating them much the same as cigarettes. The opposite seems to be the appeal of Krave, a spot for self-proclaimed "alt" types unsatisfied with the normal offerings of Open Eye Cafe or Orange County Social Club.
Speaking of which, I need to remember that $13 can buy me a mighty fine cocktail or two, even if they stop short of making me feel like a gummy bear.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Krushed out"