Over the past decade, the popularity of kava and kratom in Tampa Bay and Central Florida has soared. There are at least 30 such bars in the Tampa Bay region alone, says Drew Apted, owner of Dharma Kava Lounge in Largo.
The venue is billed as the first kava bar in the Northern Pinellas region and celebrates 10 years this November. It’s described as Tampa Bay’s first kava music venue that takes “great pride in our proprietary recipes, which we make with only the finest, lab-tested kava and exotic teas on the planet.”
“Tampa Bay is the kava capital of, essentially, the world,” Apted asserts. “There are more kava bars per square mile than even the islands of Polynesia.”
Kava is a drink or extract made from the root of the Piper methysticum plant, a crop typically found in the South Pacific islands. These cultures have long consumed kava drinks for social, ceremonial and medical purposes. Recreationally, effects of the tea include mild euphoria, muscle relaxation and sedation.
As for kratom, also served as a drink or extract, it comes from a tropical plant, related to coffee trees, grown mostly in Southeast Asia. In small doses, people use it to boost their energy or improve their mood. In larger amounts, it can have an opiate-like effect, helping with pain, and it is also used recreationally.
David Romanello, the manager at Speakeasy Kava — which has one location in Largo and another in downtown St. Petersburg — agrees with Apted’s assessment. Speakeasy’s website says they “pride ourselves on consistently brewing some of the best ethnobotanical teas in Pinellas County and we’re happy to be able to provide a unique space where every individual can feel like they belong.”
“St. Pete is literally the mecca of kava bars in the world,” Romanello says. “There are more existing kava bars in one existing peninsula than the rest of the world has. Just go on Google Maps and you can count where they are.”
The kava and kratom bars serving these teas — and often coffee, kombucha and other drinks — offer non-alcoholic alternatives for those looking to connect with others outside traditional bars and nightclubs.
They’re also generally known as inclusive and accepting spaces welcoming of LGBTQ+ people. Many of these bars serve as comfortable gathering spots for the queer community, filling their schedules with events that are inclusive year-round.
In Central Florida, Winter Park’s Kava Cove Lounge recently held an after party following Come Out with Pride 2023 in Orlando. In Pinellas County, Mad Hatters Ethnobotanical Tea Bar hosts a weekly Burning Man-inspired event, Wonderflow, with fire spinning, art and vendors.
Kaylee Kerin was introduced to kava and kratom through a girlfriend several years ago. Mad Hatters was the first bar she ever went to locally in 2021 for a “flow night,” she says.
“It was cool. It was interesting, and everybody seemed to be inviting and welcoming,” Kerin explains. “There didn’t seem to be any feeling of ‘Am I okay here?’ I just felt like, ‘I’m with my people.’ I had been trying to figure out, ‘Where do people like me hang out?’”
Speakeasy also became a regular hangout spot for her.
“It’s not necessarily all queer people, but everybody was cool with me and I felt safe,” she notes. “And the [kava and kratom] community is often very queer focused … It’s about who you are. Your reputation. Whether you’re gay, straight, bi, trans, whatever. It’s inconsequential and that’s the beauty of it. It’s truly just a space where we’re all people.”
Of course, like bars serving alcohol, not all of these spaces are LGBTQ+-friendly. Kavasutra Kava Bar, a nationwide chain with locations in Florida, including Orlando, has a history of writing offensive social media posts.
In a 2021 Instagram post slamming those choosing to wear masks earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, the bar’s staff threw in transphobic insults, according to Miami New Times. More recent Facebook posts have linked family-friendly drag shows to pedophilia and have shown support for Gov. Ron DeSantis, who championed the state’s recent wave of anti-LGBTQ+ laws.
Spaces like Dharma are a clear alternative. Apted opened the location in Nov. 2014 when he was just 20 years old, after he quit drinking alcohol, “with the fullest intent to create something that resembled a regular alcohol bar or venue but without the pressure or the booze.” He says that “I wanted it to feel slightly familiar or comfortable to people.”
While many of his customers are simply looking for an atmosphere that’s different from traditional bars, many are now sober from alcohol or drugs and want to socialize in a bar-type setting.
“We serve a decent amount of people in recovery or who just started their recovery journey,” he says. “That’s a big part of this place.”
Apted adds, “Sharing a similar experience gives people the opportunity to not only know they’re not alone, but there are other people like them. People with the same struggles, the same journey, and they somehow made it into this same safe space.”
Dharma’s owner was a neuropsychology major at the University of South Florida when he was turned on to kava for the first time. He had planned to open a hookah lounge while completing his studies but decided to open a kava bar instead.
He never looked back and never finished his degree.
“Dharma became my certificate of completion,” Apted says. “I grew up into an adult working behind this bar.” Knowing his own experiences, he also intentionally created a space to serve the LGBTQ+ community.
“Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of spaces where I was safe in my identity or open and out,” he explains. “As a bisexual man, when I was younger the only place to meet other gay men was liquor bars and then I quit drinking … The hurdle I faced from the very beginning was trying to get gay people out of the bars. A lot of what we do as gay adults is all alcohol all the time. I always wanted to show people there was an alternative.”
Now, many of Apted’s regulars identify across the LGBTQ+ spectrum.
When he first opened, there weren’t any other queer spaces nearby — other than his neighbor in the same plaza, the LGBTQ+ hotspot Quench Lounge — so from the beginning, a Pride flag has greeted customers at the front of the bar.
“It’s right there when you walk in so you know what you’re getting yourself into,” he notes.
Mad Hatters, which is trans-owned, also opened in unincorporated Pinellas County in 2014.
Two years earlier, owners Judah and Levi Love — longtime bartenders at the LGBTQ+-inclusive dive bar Emerald — left to open their own venture. They purchased Mac Daddy’s Liquor Lounge, a biker bar, and transformed it into a The Broken Tusk. It was jam-packed with LGBTQ+ events.
By the time they opened the bar, they had already quit drinking alcohol and discovered kava and kratom. They soon realized they no longer wanted to serve alcohol, creating the concept for Mad Hatters.
“This is something we feel very passionate about and we are really excited to be able to educate others on how plants can be beneficial for everything from depression to insomnia to social anxiety, hypertension, high blood pressure and more,” they told Watermark at the time.
Mad Hatters manager and friend of the owners David Baptista recalls being surprised when they announced the change.
“Levi sat me and another good friend down — they had gone sober and we had not, yet — and said, ‘We’re not doing anything healthy for anybody,’” Baptista says. “I told him he was crazy. ‘We know you’re sober now, but it’s crazy.’ But I was wrong. It worked.”
The former Georgie’s Alibi bartender stopped drinking alcohol not long after that and now touts the benefits of kava and kratom, especially for those looking for a non-alcoholic alternative to the bar scene.
Addiction is prevalent among members of the LGBTQ+ community. An estimated 20-30% of members abuse substances compared to just 9% among the general population, according to the Addiction Center.
The organization has served as resource for those who are struggling with substance use disorders and co-occurring behavioral and mental health disorders since 2014. It notes that “kava is generally considered to be non-addictive; however, it can be habit forming and lead to the development of a tolerance.”
Substance abuse is “common because of the oppression we hid over the years in alcohol bars,” Baptista says. “Those were our safe spaces for a long time. In the early 90s, after coming out, I wouldn’t dare go anywhere else but a gay bar and it’s so ingrained in our culture.”
Kava bars provide more options for people, he notes. “The beauty of this is you still get that community, that social interaction. Just come in and have a hot tea, have a kombucha.”
He adds of alcohol, “Kava’s actually what helped me quit drinking.”
From the beginning, Mad Hatters has welcomed everyone through its doors with an emphasis on the LGBTQ+ community.
“That’s something we’ve always prided ourselves on. Anyone is welcome, all walks of life, as long as you are vibing and not hurting anybody, not bringing anybody down,” Baptista notes. “I’ve seen trans women who were nervous to come in, you could tell they were stealth, and it’s like, ‘Oh no, baby girl, come in.’ Just to see the joy on someone’s face that they can be who they are, that’s everything.”
Baptista says it’s also been “extremely rewarding” to know Mad Hatters has also played a role in changing people’s minds about the LGBTQ+ community. Bartenders there once received a letter from a former customer who hadn’t been there in years.
“He was extremely homophobic,” Baptista says. “He didn’t understand trans rights and in his letter, he told us, ‘You educated me.’ He moved away, got a good job and became an ally. It’s important to have a conversation. There’s a difference between ignorance and hate.”
Romanello, an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, says the Speakeasy staff is dedicated to inclusivity, equal rights and activism as well, noting that the bar tends to attract customers who feel the same way.
“We’ll have in-depth conversations about issues of the world. We might have some differences, but we all come together in the same space and have really open discussions,” he says. “We all come from a leftist political ideology and when we all have conversations about current events at the bar, we all come to certain educational points.
“We often talk about the LGBTQIA+ community and possible issues coming up in Congress,” he continues. “We’re all very passionate about seeing equal rights for everybody because we’re all human.”
Many kava and kratom bars offer a similar vibe.
“We all come from such different walks of life. You can walk into any kava bar up to any group of people and ask what their stories are and they’ll all say something different,” Romanello explains. “We are such a diverse group of people. We all have the same struggles and are just trying to get by in daily life. We all have reasons for being in the community. That’s part of what makes it so welcoming.”
In Central Florida, Kava Cove Lounge Manager Adam Kelley says they’re one of the most LGBTQ+-inclusive bars in the region. It’s billed as “a place where people can come drink some kava, relax and socialize.”
“We’re known as, arguably, maybe the friendliest one in town,” he says. “Those of us in the community have nicknamed Kava Cove as ‘Homo Cove,’ just to kind of be cheeky about it.”
Christmas lights displayed underneath the bar have permanently been changed to rainbow colors.
“So, instantly when you walk in the lights, even if subconsciously, tell you, hey, you’re in a safe space,” Kelley says. “And we have our flag up, too.”
He recalls one day at the bar when he surveyed the diverse clientele enjoying their drinks and chatting.
“I stood behind the bar in awe,” he says. “There were two guys who work in a bank that came in every day in suits and ties to get kava. On the other end were four Rollins College students and on another end was an aging hippie named Mark. Not only were they all occupying the same space at the same time, they were all conversing.”
And, of course, it’s welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community.
“I think it’s amazing that we have this community,” Kelley says. “I’m almost 48 years old. I grew up in the 80s and 90s where you couldn’t openly come out and there weren’t a lot of places that were friendly to us. To see that leap to where we are now, where it’s not anything you need to be concerned about, is amazing.”
Dharma Kava Lounge is located at 13328 66th St. N. in Largo while Speakeasy Kava has two locations, one at 12514 Starkey Rd. in Largo and another at 2101 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg. Mad Hatter’s Kava Bar can be found in St. Petersburg at 4685 28th St. N. In Central Florida, Kava Cove Lounge is located at 2020 W. Fairbanks Ave. #100 in Winter Park.