Bar review: No booze, but kratom, kava, kombucha at Mad Hatters

Published August 4 2016
Updated August 4 2016

In more than six years of writing this column, I've been to nearly every kind of bar one can imagine. Biker bars, cocktail lounges, dives, sports bars, breweries, distilleries, hotel bars, major chains, hidden secrets, hip restaurants, not-hip restaurants, comedy clubs and everything in between.

Mad Hatters doesn't fit into any of these categories. It doesn't even serve alcohol.

Mad Hatters Ethnobotanical Tea Bar started out as a cocktail bar, though. Previously a rough-and-tumble biker joint called Mac Daddys, new owners Judah and Levi Love transformed it into the Broken Tusk, a colorful neighborhood lounge in a somewhat drab part of town that served full liquor in a friendly environment.

After some initial success with the Broken Tusk, the Loves made the surprising decision to abandon their liquor license and completely change the format to that of a kava bar, an emerging genre specializing in a root from the South Pacific that has been consumed by islanders for hundreds of years due to its mild sedating and anxiety-alleviating effects.

While many kava bars follow the default island/tiki theme, Mad Hatters has gone a different route, themed throughout in an Alice's Adventures in Wonderland motif (hence the name). The Hatter, if you recall, made an appearance in the chapter A Mad Tea-Party.

A "mad tea party" is one way to describe the scene at Mad Hatters. From the borderline-psychedelic murals to groups sharing hookahs on the bamboo- and palm-lined patio, Mad Hatters has a vibe entirely distinct from any booze-based watering hole I've visited. It's closer to a slightly strange coffee shop than the beer-and-booze spot it was just a couple of years ago.

There are four primary products served at Mad Hatters. The first, of course, is tea. There is a wide variety of loose-leaf teas from which to choose, as well as several "special" teas, including teas made from herbs with purported aphrodisiac qualities, as well as caffeine-rich yerba mate.

Then there is a selection of kombucha varieties on tap from St. Petersburg's Mother Kombucha — the Lavender Mojito is my favorite. Kombucha is a semi-tart, fermented tea that contains only tiny amounts of alcohol — low enough to be considered effectively non-alcoholic.

The two most popular items at Mad Hatters are unquestionably kava and kratom.

Kava is a member of the pepper family, and it's traditionally consumed in a wholly unappetizing concoction that looks and tastes remarkably like rain water from a mud puddle. Its pepper qualities are evident upon drinking, as a mild numbing effect takes place on the tongue and in the throat. Many people claim to like the stuff, but I'm not a fan. At Mad Hatters, you can order kava in a wide variety of flavor-masking drinks, from lemonades to lattes, with varying degrees of success. I tried the Dirty Lemonade and found it to be as pleasant as I could have hoped for, with the kava mostly evident as a result of its numbing effect.

Kratom is a tea that has long been used in Southeast Asia for its pain-relieving qualities. In Thailand, where it is now illegal, it was used to treat opiate withdrawal. In low doses, it acts as a mild stimulant, while in higher doses, it has a more relaxing effect. Kratom is served at Mad Hatters with a variety of flavoring syrups, which help to offset the profoundly bitter flavor of the kratom. The kratom cocktails I sampled were all quite tasty, but it helps if you already like bitter teas.

Although kratom may be legal (largely due to a lack of current regulation), it has also proven to be habit-forming, so treat it as you would any other addictive substance. Just because it's readily available doesn't mean you shouldn't approach it responsibly.

Though the effects of kava and kratom could be considered mildly inebriating, it's not the same kind of effect — or of the same magnitude — that you'd experience from drinking a few pints. So the vibe at Mad Hatters is quieter and more laid-back than what you'd find in a bar serving alcohol. Despite consumption of products that are ostensibly popular for offering legal highs, the crowd at Mad Hatters seems happy, relaxed and, well, pretty normal.

Kava and kratom will certainly not be everyone's cup of tea, but for those interested in such things, Mad Hatters offers an environment and product range that seems hard to top. It's even open 24 hours, if you can believe it. It's certainly an interesting change of pace, and quite unlike any other place I've visited in my bar-hopping travels. Adventurous drinkers and nondrinkers alike should give it a try.

—; @WordsWithJG