Kava Production: The Processing Steps (and Why Each One Matters)
Plant some kava, dig up the roots a few years later, grind them into powder, and you’re done, right?
Well, if only it were so simple…
There are a lot of steps that we’ve covered elsewhere, or intend to cover in the future, such as working with the right farmers, selecting the best cultivars and places to grow them (for a bit of insight into kava growing conditions, check out our blog on Vanuatu kava vs Fiji Kava here), looking after the plants and the fields, timing the harvest, and preparing the roots for delivery to the processing facility, so we’ll skip or gloss over a few steps for now, but there are quite a few others between the time the fresh kava gets delivered to our factory and the time it arrives on your doorstep that you might be interested to know about.
We’ll leave out a few of the less interesting steps that occur within our facilities too, such as the many operational steps of maintaining the factory and plant equipment (we could probably write a blog just on how our teams of engineers, builders, electricians, and technicians keep everything in tune, but it might not be any more exciting than a blog about how our sanitation teams keep every nook and cranny sparklingly clean… although maybe we’ll write about that one day too!), or how things like the business itself operates, and of course we’ll keep a few details under our hat in regard to some clever tricks we’ve figured out along the way that ensure our kava powder is always outstanding, and instead we’ll try to focus just on the main steps most directly related to the overall production of the kava powder itself. It should still be a good learning experience for anyone that hasn’t been directly involved in the industry, and maybe even for a few of those that have…
The Root & Pestle Difference
Many people are astonished by the high quality of our kava powders. They immediately notice the attention to detail, fresh aroma, consistent texture, easy drinking nature, and the pleasantness of effects. We often get asked why our kava powders seem so different, so clean, with such a fresh taste and fragrance, what makes them so easy to prepare, and how they can be so consistent in terms of taste and effects.
While much of the credit must go to our excellent farmer friends, the thing that really allows us to make sure that we can preserve the fruits of their labour and make these special kava powders available to customers worldwide, is our bespoke process deployed to turn freshly harvested plant roots into clean, shelf stable, consistent kava powder that retains so much of the flavour, aroma, and effects of fresh green kava. It has taken us decades of development and large investments to have arrived where we are today. We are confident that our process is second to none in the industry and the resulting powders speak for themselves, but if you want to better understand how we turn freshly harvested Vanuatu kava plants turn into the smooth and creamy powders you enjoy, we’ll outline our process for you step by step:
So, what are the steps?
At some stages in the production process, multiple steps can be occurring at the same time (such as quality control, for example), and sometimes different plant parts are diverted down different production routes (lateral roots and basal roots are washed and chopped by different pieces of equipment, for example), but generally speaking, and roughly in order, the production steps for fresh green kava (which is the only kind we use for Root and Pestle single cultivar kava, unlike the industry norm of using what is known as “village-dried” kava, which we’ll have to cover in another blog, and which undergoes a slightly different production process) are as follows:
- Harvest overview and evaluation
- Delivery assessment
- Separating the plant parts
- Weighing the load
- Removal of undesirable material
- Washing (and rinsing) the roots
- Weighing the accepted material
- Chopping, slicing, and grinding
- Sterilisation: Soaking, rinsing, and drying
- Microbial analysis, and cleaning the machines
- Chemotype Analysis
- Full laboratory analysis
- Weighing, packaging, vacuum sealing, and labelling
- Wrapping and delivery preparation
Let’s get into it!
Harvest overview and evaluation – We’ll let this slip in under the processing steps, even though it takes place off site…
We work with our farmers when it comes to planning their harvests. We like to keep the supply of kava constant (or gradually increasing), rather than intermittent bursts, and we like to make sure that we know how much of which cultivars will be available down the road. It would be no good to us to have equipment in the factory sitting idle because we can’t get our hands on enough kava to process, and it would be just as bad to have fresh kava wilting away, should our production line ever get backed up. Our farmers generally like to offset the timing of their plantings so they can have a reliable steady income which coincides with regular harvests -something that works great here in Vanuatu where the climate is perfect for growing kava all year round, and something which provides a bit of insulation against occasional processing disruptions, which can be caused by anything from pandemics (supply chain problems are something everyone knows about these days) to natural disasters (here in Vanuatu we are no stranger to volcanoes, earthquakes, and cyclones).
When it is time to harvest, we try to lend a hand and have at least one of our in-house kava experts onsite if practical. The farmers appreciate a bit of help, and we like to make sure that the only kava roots that end up destined for our factory are exactly the ones we’ve agreed to accept; It wouldn’t be inconceivable for a farmhand to mistakenly throw in a few roots from a cultivar other than what’s supposed to be in there, and the last thing we’d want is to get a load back to the factory only to find out that there are a few roots of ignoble kava in the batch, such as the fast and easy-growing Tudei, rather than just the specific noble subspecies we were after.
Fortunately, over the years we’ve built excellent long-term and mutually beneficial relationships with our farmers, and we only deal with people we trust and who take great care not only in the growing, but also in the harvesting of their kava plants. Most of our farmers have adopted the strategy of planting fields (or sections of fields) with the same cultivar, which makes harvests easier and mistakes less likely, but some still have the odd Palarasul plant amongst the Melo Melos, for example, and it never hurts to have an extra set of well-experienced eyes in the field, and a few extra helping hands on the ground.
Our small teams of harvest evaluators also help us to keep up to date on how fields are progressing throughout the year. Knowing what’s becoming ready, and how the crop is looking above the soil, helps us to coordinate with our distributors to ensure that they are able to get enough of the good stuff that’s lying in wait beneath the surface when they need it, and it helps us to advise farmers starting fresh plantations as to what is in demand and where the upcoming shortages might be in the future. By keeping involved in the harvests, we can also spot trends in kava growth (or struggles) in a region or soil type (for example), and we can keep an ear to the ground on the inside-track that can give us helpful clues about steps we can take to maintain the long-term growth of the kava industry on the whole.
Most importantly, we can get an accurate idea of exactly what is on the way to the factory. Having the same people evaluating the quantity and quality of an upcoming delivery provides consistency which results in a much more robust and objective report. It’s important to know exactly what’s coming so that production runs smoothly at the factory. If we have multiple lots of incoming bumper crops, we can take steps to make sure that we can manage the extra tonnage, and if the stumpas (the term in Vanuatu used to describe the “root balls” or the main mass of roots at the base of the plants) turn out to be a little smaller than expected, we can schedule an extra harvest elsewhere in advance.
A lot can happen between the time a kava plant is plucked from the ground, transported through a jungle, loaded onto a truck, driven onto a ferry, shipped from one island to another, and made its way from port along the miles of imperfect roads through Espiritu Santo to our factory doors, so we need to make sure it arrives how it left. We make sure it’s fresh, clean, smells good, and looks right. We have a quick but thorough process that ensures that we never get any unhealthy plants, kava that’s been adulterated in any way, or that has picked up any unacceptable residue from contact with anything other than another kava plant of the same type. We have onsite analysts who independently assess the kava, and we confirm that their report matches the report of the harvest evaluation team. Nobody should be tampering with a shipment of anything on the way to its destination, but it’s good peace of mind to ensure that hasn’t happened.
Separating the plant parts
On delivery of fresh single-cultivar kava stumpas, we always make sure that they each arrive with at least 2 or 3 nodes still attached from every stalk, and with a couple of stalks which include their complete uncut branches (intact with leaves). Each delivery must also be accompanied by several whole plants too (including their entire above-ground portions). Having the entire plant makes it much easier to confidently and accurately identify the cultivar, and having just a stalk or 2 on the rest of the root balls makes it much easier to verify that they are all of the same cultivar, right from the outset. The scientists in our kava research lab also like to get a whole plant sample for the sake of completeness.
Whether we’re talking about just the roots, or an entire plant, we still process different root types differently and some separating will need to be done. This is no easy feat, and so far there is no technology better for the task than what’s already been in use for generations; The best way to do it right is by hand with simple tools, such as pry bars and machetes. It takes a lot of work to separate the lateral roots from the rhizome or basal roots, but it needs to be done because the upcoming processes are machine based, and the machines work best when being fed the same starting material.
The lateral roots are long and skinny, and the basal roots are thick and heavy – they are washed, peeled, chopped, and dried using different equipment, and their kavalactone content (click here to read our blog about Chemotyping, if that’s your jam) differs substantially and will need to be measured independently to ensure the final blend will be of the highest quality.
Weighing the load
Everyone, from me to you to the farmers, understands that the roots are the name of the game, and nobody wants to pay for leaves and stems and soil, nor should they. This initial weighing step is used in conjunction with the next weighing step to help our farmers deliver the right amount of the right quality of kava. Here we weigh the roots, as delivered, minus any above ground plant material that remained at delivery. The roots are delivered “clean”, but all things are relative, and there is a bit of variation here. We like to get an idea of how much mud, debris, or stones are still trapped in the root ball, and work with our farmers to reduce this to a minimum for subsequent deliveries.
Removal of undesirable material
Sometimes kava roots arrive to the factory along with discrete amounts of undesirable material somehow woven deeply into the often-tangled mess of roots. This debris could be anything from the root of an invasive weed that may have been growing nearby the kava plant, to small materials that might have hitched a ride somewhere along the journey from harvest to factory. In fact, even in some of the most pristine places on earth, random bits of seriously unwanted stuff can be found in the soil on occasion – Espiritu Santo had a huge American military base in WWII (click here to check out the WWII museum currently in development, and to find out more about Vanuatu’s historical involvement in the war), and there are bits of shrapnel and even unexploded ordnances yet to be unearthed here.
If you can imagine a ball of roots that grows like a giant bird’s nest, surely you can imagine that from time-to-time this unwanted stuff can get trapped in that mess too, and nobody wants to find anything but goodness in their kava powder. We’ve undoubtedly got a production engineer around here somewhere that could tell us a way of how these impurities could cause trouble in their machines too, but let’s just assume that nobody wants these random bits of debris, regardless of what they are, in those root bundles.
Before the kava roots go any further, we make sure that it is in fact only root material that we’ll be dealing with from here on out. A combination of metal detection, automated systems, and comprehensive visual inspection, and subsequent transferral of every single root by hand into a “roots only” zone gets all of the undesirable material out of the production line. In fact, magnetic filtration, automated systems, and visual inspections take place throughout the production line, and especially again at the packaging stage, but it’s pretty rare that anything is missed at this first removal step, and exceedingly rare for something to make its way into kava that has entered the production line, but it’s better to be safe and put the effort in to double check, than to skip inspections and potentially miss something.
Weighing the accepted material
The weight of the roots at this stage is what we pay our farmers for, and the difference between the initial weight and this “debris-removed” weight gives the farmer an idea of how clean their roots were compared to what we seek. Without the double weighing, and incentivising farmers for bringing us their highest quality and cleanest kava, our undesirable material removal step would be a bit more arduous and the washing zones in our factory would be considerably muddier. We know; We didn’t always have every step that we do these days…
Washing (and rinsing) the roots
We said the roots arrive clean, and they do, but now they need to get really clean. Every speck of dirt, no matter how well bonded, is blasted away at high pressure using water that is continuously monitored for things like sterility, correct pH, and appropriate active chlorine levels, and then purified and tested again on-site immediately before use. Not even a fingerprint will remain on the
roots at the completion of this step, let alone a random insect or lump of dirt.
Here we can also determine how much of the thin root bark we’d like to leave on, if any. It contains a decent concentration of kavalactones but can also add a bitterness to the finished product that most people don’t enjoy. We think we get it just right by removing virtually all of the root bark, and our experienced team of taste and experience testers think so too, but from time to time we have certain products that can benefit by a tweaking one way or the other at this step. Fortunately, we have the capability to analyse the chemical content of any part of the plant (including the roots with or without bark) and get an indication of whether we’re better off leaving a tiny bit of it on, or stripping it off entirely, for any given batch.
Once the roots have been pressure washed, they are immersion-rinsed twice in deionised water. This ensures there is no spatter or splash back on the roots, and that they are truly clean. We are now left with what we really want: dazzlingly pure kava roots, and only kava roots.
Chopping, slicing, and grinding.
There are more blades around here than you can shake a stick at. Probably every kind of chopping machine that’s been invented for every type of industry under the sun has been trialled here at one point or another, and the same can be said about the equipment in many other parts of our factory too. Blades that are hard enough to cut through bone in the cattle industry are all but useless here – dull in no time, or chips break off, making the finished product destined for the trash can. Blades designed to slide through the sticky residue of cannabis like a hot knife through butter get gunked up on kavalactone goo before we’ve barely begun.
Equipment originally designed for other industries has failed too; Kava is a different animal. You’d swear we were chopping iron bars with the amount of equipment we’ve broken trying to turn our kava roots into manageable sized pieces. But one way or another, we get it done. Depending on the root size we’re dealing with and the intended process it is destined for, it will be chopped in accordance with whatever method works best, leaving us with chunks which are ready for the next stage.
Sterilisation: Soaking, rinsing, and drying / Microbial analysis and sanitation of equipment
Microbiological contamination can be a big problem in any food or food supplement industry, and kava, being pulled out of the ground, is of course no different. Besides the obvious precautions, like thoroughly cleaning every speck of soil from the roots, we also ensure our kava is totally sanitised and free of impurities, not just outside, but on the inside too. Because we never adulterate our product at any stage, we don’t use any harsh chemicals to kill bacteria, but we do use a special process which includes dehydration. We have to get it just right though – with the wrong settings on our temperature-controlled dehydrators, kavalactones begin to degrade and flavour profiles begin to shift, and never for the better. If the process isn’t done flawlessly, we might not get perfect results, and we won’t settle for suboptimal.
In order to get it right, we carefully sample and analyse our product and our factory processing equipment at every stage, from beginning to end, and once it’s finished production and given the all- clear, we test it again before shipping, just to be sure. So, what exactly are we testing for? Well, you may have heard of some of the more common human pathogens such as E. coli, coliform, yeast, and mould, or microbes which cause illnesses such as listeria and salmonella, and the like, and of course we do test for all of that – most countries have tight restrictions surrounding contaminants that could cause food-borne illness amongst their populace – but we go well and truly beyond the minimums; Our testing protocols are capable of reliably detecting minute amounts of over 100 species of microbes, and nothing leaves our factory that we wouldn’t happily indulge in ourselves.
So how do you go about drying tonnes of kava root, at varying levels of moisture, exactly evenly, whilst get the perfect microbial kill rate, all without affecting taste and without under-drying some and over-drying others? Simple – you don’t! Instead, we find the best way to get around this little challenge is to pre-soak our kava in specially treated antimicrobial water for an exact amount of time, followed by two distinct rinsing and draining processes. We then have kava root chunks that are all similar in moisture content and ready to be sanitised, with perfect results – bacteria doesn’t survive the process, and we are able to keep the temperature below the threshold at which the product begins to degrade. This is a very fine line though – it keeps our microbiology lab very busy making dozens of analyses daily, and our engineering team busy keeping everything perfectly tuned to not lave our kava in a dehydrator one second longer than necessary, but it’s worth it to get a germ-free product that’s still buttery smooth on the tongue. It’s a bit like conducting an orchestra, and as the conditions change during the day, so too do the settings throughout our factory.
Before and after every batch of kava touches any piece of equipment in the processing line, the equipment is completely cleaned, inspected, and sanitised. We only use residue-free disinfectants which are easily rinsed away or removed by evaporation. Sanitation after the dehydration stage is especially important, since any microbial contamination entering the production line after this step has the potential to spread throughout a batch, and if we weren’t vigilant, we could lose an entire day’s product to contamination that we didn’t even know was there.
After our kava root is cleaned, chopped, and sterilised, it’s time to turn it into a uniform powder. Afterall, you’re not going to have any luck extracting kavalactones just by stirring a few roots up under water – the surface area to volume ratio needs to be enormous in order for efficient extraction to take place.
For this process, dedicated machines are used, and the process is automated. We can’t tell you exactly what they are or how they work, but we can tell you that they are very, very expensive. Depending on whether we are making an instant kava powder or a traditional grind kava powder, different routes with fewer or greater numbers of steps are used.
It takes more work to make instant powder, and although it does involve a “micronising” step as part of the process, we don’t want people to have the impression that our instant powder is “only” a micronised traditional powder; We go much further – Micronising grinds the kava powder into very small granules, greatly increasing the surface area to volume ratio, but the real transformation comes in the proprietary steps which allow us to make a product that is on an entirely different level.
These proprietary steps are almost magical in their technological innovation, and they are what make R&P instant kava powder into a super-fine, icing-sugar like powder which forms such a perfect colloidal suspension in water that it is ready to drink with just a few seconds of stirring. We won’t get into the details, but rest assured, it is neither straightforward nor inexpensive for us to create, but we believe it’s worth it. Being so fast to prepare at home and so effortless to drink, it might be easy to overlook how much effort goes into making our instant kava root powders!
After the sterilisation and milling steps, our ground kava powder is held in “safe rooms”, secure rooms with surgical-grade air handling systems, until it is ready for mixing, which is usually the next day, after another round of microbial and chemical testing results are made available from the analytical team to the production team.
Microbial analysis takes place at all stages of production, and to a certain extent, so too does chemical analysis, but it is really after the milling stage that it is most helpful. Here we learn exactly the composition of our roots, and the ideal ratio to blend them to get the perfect finished product. This topic can get a bit deep – if you want to learn more about it, we’ve written an entire blog about it here.
Generally based on the ratio of lateral to basal roots as occurs naturally, which can vary considerably from batch to batch, but informed also by chemotypical analysis of the separate components, we combine our ground powders which were derived from different roots of the same cultivar into one homogenous mixture. Lateral roots are typically a little less abundant than basal roots, and so too our finished product is representative of the relative abundance of each root type in any given cultivar at the harvesting of that batch. This means that although every batch of Root & Pestle is of the utmost quality, just like fine wines can have seasonal variation, so too can there be subtle differences between batches of our kava.
Full laboratory analysis
By this stage, we know what the results will be because we have analysed all of the component powders, but it is also the most critical for us because this is the last chance we’ll have to analyse it again before you drink it, and we need to make sure that you’re getting the very best kava powder that exists. This step also assures us that all of the intermediate steps have gone flawlessly and that there are no surprises in our systems or in your kava.
Here we compile all of the data we have gathered on all components of the production batch so far, and we run new tests with the full suite of analytical capability at our disposal, such as the microbiological analysis and identification of chemical composition that we touched on earlier. We compare all of our data to what is expected of the batch, and we make sure that everything is as it should be; Root & Pestle verify more characteristics of our kava than we are aware any other producer is capable of, and we do it with industry leading sophistication. Ultra High Performance Liquid Chromatography (UHPLC), for example, lets us identify the different levels of kavalactones in every sample with precision and accuracy. It is a clean and significantly better method of determining chemotype and purity of a kava sample than High Pressure Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), which is the older but more typical analytical laboratory method, and HPLC itself still offers considerably more sophistication than many producers have full-time access to, especially on-site.
Perhaps more important than anything done by our science team with their fancy equipment, is that we drink it. That’s right, we make up a bowl of the same kava that we’re about to package for you, and we drink it here at the factory after the workday is done. It is just one of the great privileges of being a part of the team at R&P, but more importantly, it gives you the assurance that the people who made your kava powder are as stoked to get into it as you are. We’ve been doing this a while now, and we know what great kava tastes like. It tastes like R&P single cultivar kava.
Weighing, packaging, vacuum sealing, and labelling
It’s no good buying 1 kilogram and getting only 950 grams. Nobody gets short-changed when they buy from us. We use calibrated precision analytical balances to confirm everyone gets what they are paying for. We make sure it lasts too – we use low-permeability packaging that is proven to be environmentally stable, we purge our kava powder of oxygen and replace it with an inert atmosphere of nitrogen, and then vacuum seal each bag. This ensures that your kava arrives as fresh as the day it was packaged. We put everything you need to know on the label, including the specific batch and production date of your product, and we make sure it conforms to all relevant standards before we apply it to the bag.
Wrapping and delivery preparation
Once the kava is packaged in individual bags and appropriately labelled, we consolidate the retail packages into large 20 kg cartons, which are wrapped and then sorted by cultivar, powder type, production date, and individual package size. Wrapping the cartons makes them easier to move and protects them from environmental harm or potential damage that might occur in shipping. These are loaded into our transport vehicles and prepared for safe storage until they are ready to transport out of the country, by boat or plane.
Generally, our kava is made to order – that is, we have regular orders from distributors that specify exactly how much of which cultivars they want, and we make it happen. Huge amounts of mass are removed during the production process, particularly during the dehydration step, so we slightly overestimate the starting amount required, just to be on the safe side. You see, if a distributor orders 3 tonnes of a particular type of kava, it’s no good being able to supply only 2.9, so we make sure to start with a little more than whatever amount we estimate is needed, ensuring an overall production excess relative to what the specific order requires.
Whilst our kava powder is in the production line, and before it is packaged, we take extreme measures to protect it from contamination. Our security is likely better than a typical bank and we store our cartons in rooms built for purpose. There are multiple sets of doors, so we don’t get random dust blowing in, and we maintain a controlled environment in specialised clean-rooms, which go beyond just temperature and humidity control; They also feature positive air pressure with UV sterilised air handling systems blowing through HEPA or ULPA filters, among other assurances. The kava business is always fast moving and there is always material coming in the factory doors just as packages are heading out.
Being a small country with a modest infrastructure, minor events can cause big setbacks, so we have to be prepared to jump when we can. If we know there is a flight or a ship outbound on a certain day, we’ll be certain to be there with some kava powder. That might be twice in a day, or it might only be twice in a week, but we hate to miss a delivery opportunity, so we keep a fleet of trucks ready to take our cargo to the ports and we keep very close tabs on the movements of our carrier partners.
Vanuatu is beautiful and wonderful, but natural disasters can strike this developing country without warning, which can cause major setbacks; We have to be prepared for anything if we want to get your product dispatched on time, which is why our dispatch and export personnel form an indispensable part of our production system, even though we can’t tell you exactly how they do it.
So that’s basically it – Hopefully now you can visualise how your kava makes its way from the rich volcanic soil of Vanuatu’s scattered islands, through our vast and bustling production facility, and sealed with enduring freshness into the bag that you’ll soon be excited to peel open!
Until next time, from the friendly, kava-growing island-nation of Vanuatu, as they say at the nakamals (the local kava lounges) when they toast with a shell of kava – Malok!