Kava makes a comeback around the world

For thousands of years, the people of Polynesia have been cultivating and drinking kava, the beverage often referred to as the wine of the Pacific.

From Vanuatu to Hawaii, each island has refined their product for taste and the desired effects.

Despite a short market boom in the 1990s, kava has generally been resigned to Polynesian ceremonies. But recently, kava has been making a comeback, especially in America and New Zealand.

So what is kava?

The drink itself is made from the roots of the Piper methysticum shrub. The plant's roots are pounded into a fine powder, mixed with water and drained through cloth.

The calming effects of kava come from the active ingredients called kavalactones. It acts as a mild sedative and has been identified as a natural alternative treatment for anxiety, depression and insomnia.

In western medicine, it's captured the interest of global supplement companies, who extract it using ethanol or acetone and then press it into pills.

For many Pacific Islanders who practice the traditional ceremonial consumption of kava, its use in Western medicine neglects the central element of the healing process.

"I believe it's the talanoa, or discussion which accompanies the kava, which is probably more therapeutic than the kava itself," says Dr Apo Aporosa, research fellow at the University of Waikato.

"I often wonder whether kava pill-poppers are missing out on the full experience as they are not part of traditionally influenced kava settings where they can genuinely connect with others and talk through issues and problems.

"We can do this as kava's effects leave you clear-headed unlike alcohol for instance."

The first kava wave happened in the late '80s as companies across the world, particularly in Germany, began to import the plant on a large scale. It soon became extremely popular in Europe.

This boom was brought to an abrupt halt in the early 2000s after several cases of liver toxicity in Germany were linked to kava consumption.

In 2007, a World Health Organisation study refuted this, concluding that liver toxicity due to kava consumption was extremely rare.

It claimed that poor health - along with drinking kava produced using sub-standard cultivation practices - were behind the toxicity increase, as companies raced to meet booming market demands.

Despite this revelation - and Germany lifting its ban on kava extracts in 2014 - the market has yet to return to its former glory.

The stigma of kava still remains in New Zealand and Australia, which enforces a partial ban.

Troy Wihonga holds a kava club from his house in Hamilton, where people of all cultures and ages gather to drink it and talk.

"It's not just what's in the kava that's important, it's what's happening around the kava bowl," he says.

"It's what we call the talanoa, or the conversation. The conversation is by far one of the most important mental health medicines that we have."

There is a feeling amongst the members of this kava club, that kava - an essential token of cultural identity for Pacific peoples - is consistently portrayed as analogous to alcohol.

"Most of the stuff that's running through the media is a lot of comparing it to alcohol or a narcotic - that really hurts us as Polynesians."

This club is creating a "cultural classroom" where Pacific peoples can come together to engage in conversation without the destructive influence of alcohol.