Story by Blade Stabwell
Photo by Kyle Rothenborg
Pacific Islanders have been drinking kava— a.k.a. kava kava, or ‘awa in Hawaiian—for hundreds of years. The root of the kava plant, Piper methysticum, is ground into a powder and mixed with water. The resulting beverage is mildly—very mildly—narcotic; it eases anxiety, loosens inhibitions, induces a sense of well-being, lubricates conversation and helps people fall asleep. By most accounts it’s safe and nonaddicting. Problem is, to many an uninitiated palate, it tastes like dirt.
Enter Brian Brooks and Dustin Schoedel, originally from New York City and Pittsburgh respectively. The former Pearl Harbor naval officers-turned-Honolulu businessmen have sought to sweeten kava’s earthy flavor. The pair import raw kava root from Vanuatu, which has some of the Pacific’s strongest, and ship it to Minnesota where it’s ground up and mixed with water, cane sugar, orange juice concentrate, citric acid, ascorbic acid, pectin and beta carotene. They’ve christened their creation RZO— pronounced “RIZZ-o”—for no particular reason. “The name means nothing—it’s not an acronym or anything,” explains Schoedel. “We just wanted a brand.” Brooks and Schoedel are well aware of kava’s cultural and ceremonial importance in Pacific societies (Brooks first sampled it on a 2008 trip to Vanuatu). But their interest is anything but cultural—it’s pure business. “We’re doing this is because we don’t want to work a 9-to-5 job for the rest of our lives,” says Schoedel.
While others have long mixed kava with juice, vanilla, soy milk or cocoa to mask its flavor, Brooks and Schoedel think their formula will be a winner: RZO tastes like Orange Crush. Schoedel says it’s selling well, and anecdotal evidence backs that up: One Honolulu store was out, while another had only two cans—until this writer bought them.
“Oh, I looove this drink!” the cashier gushed unprompted.
RZO is available Islandwide; Brooks and Schoedel plan to expand to the Mainland within a year. You can find it at health food stores and at Don Quijote, in bullet-shaped 10.5-ounce cans whose design reminds one of energy drinks. Their contents, though, have quite the opposite effect. After consuming a can or three, it’s probably wise to heed the cautionary label advising against driving or operating heavy equipment. But there’s no warning against laughing, talking with friends, singing and drifting off to sleep under tropical skies.