‘Sparkling’ kava on tap: Tongan entrepreneur adds twist to tradition

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Sparkling kava being served at the Reload Bar
Sparkling kava being served at the Reload Bar in Nuku'alofa, Tonga . . . an innovation as a result of the covid pandemic. Image: Tricia Emberson/RNZ

By Iliesa Tora, RNZ Pacific

A Nuku’alofa business has started to sell “sparkling kava” on tap for those interested in tasting the traditional brew.

Tricia Emberson and her family owned Pacific Brewing Tonga business launched the initiative at their Reload Bar in Nuku’alofa last week.

The project has been a two-year ongoing project that is blending tradition with innovation and plan to add flavoured kava drinks in the future.

Emberson said her team has kept the essence of kava while introducing a fresh, modern twist.

She believes turning kava into a drink available for everyone at a local bar is the way to go to meet demands.

She told RNZ Pacific that the lockdowns during the 2020 covid-19 pandemic and the 15 January 2022 Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption and tsunami forced her and her team to look at options to keep their business operations afloat.

They had taken over Pacific Brewing in 2017 with the idea of creating beer in Tonga to tell the story of their Polynesian heritage.

Rebranded Pacific beer
They rebranded their beer using the names of Polynesian mythical gods, which she said “was sort of the trend and of the time”.

The “Sparkling Kava’ product is the result of two years of research and work, with the focus on making the drink available so they can also get the market’s feedback.

“During the covid pandemic it was a very tough time for everybody and we started looking at what other opportunities we could look into,” she said.

“Kava was one of the things that has gone through stages throughout the years where it’s been permitted in overseas countries, where it hasn’t been permitted in some countries.

“And because my background is in exports and knowing to make the business viable, I started looking at what we could do to export up from Tonga.”

Emberson owning Reload Bar provided a good opportunity for them to have the “sparkling kava” on tap for people to taste.

“It’s taken us a while because first of all we were researching the properties of kava and what can we do with kava,” she said.

“And now, through Reload Bar, we’re going to do the market research and we’re doing that because we want the opinions not only of the Tongans but also of foreigners to see if this is something they would drink.”

Longer-term plans
She said that is the first step as they had more plans long-term.

“Of course we have a longer-term plan, where we would look at the viability of exporting,” she said.

“We are looking at flavoring, different flavorings, and also putting it into a bottle or a can.”

Emberson was born in Fiji and returned to Tonga in 1990 to invest in the fisheries sector, setting up Alatini Fisheries.

She said the poplularity of kava now around the globe was a factor they considered.

“The fact that although many tourists had in the past wanted to taste kava but was not able to do so because it was not readily available was another factor in them going the way they have.

“So that was the other reason why we looked at kava because I’ve been doing a lot of traveling through Indonesia I noticed that it was very easy for you to drink coconut or drink this or drink that . . . all the locally available drinks,” she said.

“And I know in Tonga, when you visit, as a tourist you say I’d like to taste kava and it’s not available, so that was one of the things we wanted to meet, the need that is there.”

She added customer feedback and the result of their research on the product now available would form the basis of their next step.

“It’s been good so far,” she revealed when asked how people are responding.

Not enough support
Meanwhile, Emberson said small island countries in the Pacific, like Tonga, needed more support for the private sector.

She revealed this was something she had witnessed over the years since her family started their business operations in 1990.

They have had to shut down their fisheries business because of the high costs of operations and are working hard on keeping their Pacific Brewing and Reload Bar operations going by looking at product options like the sparkling kava and flavoured kava.

“There hasn’t been, as far as I’ve seen, the support of the private sector,” she said.

“I think Fiji is a little bit bit better. But in some of the smaller Pacific islands that support for the private sector is not there.

“That’s been my game since 1990 as an entrepreneur, private enterprise, looking and seeing what I can do to help the country, and it is just difficult.

“I’ve been in Australia and it’s amazing to see the difference in the support of small businesses.”

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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