Good Tea and Good Times at Bantha Tea Bar

Bantha Tea Bar, usually just called “Bantha,” is a café on Penn Avenue, but people don’t only come to get a coffee and set up their laptop. On any given day, there’s chatter across the mosaic floors about relationship drama, job searches, or the heated games of chess that happen in a few of the booths. What’s remarkable about it is that it’s a sort of community environment that can’t be manufactured. It has to be cultivated. Steeped, if you will, like good tea.

Everyone I asked to describe Bantha Tea Bar called it a “second home.” Along with tea, soup, and baked goods, the Garfield business houses an experimental guitar night, an “open improvisation lab” for musicians to create experimental soundscapes, art shows, poetry readings, soccer game watch parties, support group meetings, birthday parties…

Owner and founder Jack Ball worked to make Bantha what it is after a dark period in his life brought him to Pittsburgh. Prior to owning Bantha, Ball worked in the music industry at a number of record labels. “I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and right after, the record label I was at asked me to resign. So, I lost my insurance while I was sick. Then, that year, both my mom and my dad died, and my wife left me—twice—and the final time, she moved out to Gibsonia, outside of Pittsburgh,” he remembered. He found himself coming to Pittsburgh with his son and reconnected with an old friend. That friend was Brett Boye, who worked in the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination art gallery in Garfield.

“A bar-like atmosphere but with tea”

Ball and Boye had known each other since nursery school in their hometown of Wyckoff, New Jersey. “Brett and I stayed in touch over the years through high school and college. He went to Temple, I went to Kutztown, so we’d meet in the middle at Lehigh,” Ball said. “Then, when I lived in Philadelphia, we were in a punk band called Sponge God and toured the whole country, so we were close. So when I stayed with him in Pittsburgh at this low point, he said ‘Why don’t you just stay here and figure it out?’”

The space that is now Bantha was a storage room for Irma Freeman where Boye practiced with his band and kept music gear. But while Ball was working as an assistant at Irma Freeman, he wondered if he and Boye could do something with it. “I like tea, so I thought we could open a tea place. And we were trying to find an alternative to beer and liquor. Pittsburgh is a beer-shot city, and there are a lot of sober people who want to go somewhere. I was getting older and tired of drinking and going out to bars. I thought there should be a place that’s a bar-like atmosphere, but with tea.”

Ball sources the tea from Cutting Root Farm & Apothecary and with his team has created signature blends. One is Phlegm No More, which is echinacea, wild cherry, elecampane, mullein, coltsfoot, pleurisy root, licorice and peppermint. There’s also Goddess, a lifesaver for feminine monthly issues that has hawthorne and gotu kola in it. If you’re ordering in, you also get each in a custom mug by Laura Jean Mclaughlin, a ceramicist whose studio is down the block (about whom TABLE wrote a profile!) “We’re very receptive to what customers want. We brought in matcha and rooibos at requests from customers, after I did my own research,” Ball said. His personal favorite is the black tea Scottish breakfast, which he drinks “every morning without fail.”

“The watering hole of Garfield”

Bantha is also the only business in Pittsburgh serving kava. Kava is a crushed up root from the South Pacific many non-drinkers turn to for the social culture of a bar. It also offers a light buzz sans the alcohol. The subculture around kava draws bohemians, crunchy-granola hippie types, and health-conscious corporate folks alike. Bantha serves several different kinds, including a few drinks named after regulars. The canned Leilo soda with one shot of high-octane mixture (a higher-concentration blend of the root) is a Terry, two shots of high-octane is a James, three is an Emily, and four is a Mika.

Serving kava and kratom (another plant-based mild stimulant) is part of what has brought the eclectic mix of people that come to Bantha to it. Kava is extremely popular in Florida and New York at places like Brooklyn’s Misfit Kava or Miami Kava & Coffee. So, transplants to Pittsburgh looking for a place to get it often come to Bantha.

“Being a regular here is great because you can walk in at any time and there’ll likely be someone you know already sitting down,” James Coulson, a web developer for whom the “James” triple shot kava drink is named, said. “I’ve had some of the most interesting conversations of my life and have met some truly incredible people here. And the tea is alright, too!” He added, jokingly. Coulson said talking about Bantha felt like “writing a love letter.”

Tom Ndiaye, an artist and youth librarian Bantha regular said that Bantha is “the watering hole of Garfield.” He continued: “I grew up as a third-culture kid. I’ve never stayed in the same place for more than five years at a time. I’ve never felt any real sense of community. Bantha, however, feels like the first place and time in my life that I’ve felt plugged into a community.”

“People can find friendships here easily because we’re all here for the same thing: Good tea!”

The specialty products like kava and kratom mean that Ball does need staff members that have some knowledge of herbs and their uses. Osha Bretenski, who has worked for Ball since 2021, is in training to be a reflexologist, so knows about herbs’ effects on the body. She also works as a nature guide in Ohiopyle and enjoys getting to work with plants. “I started working here because I loved coming here,” she said. “It feels like somewhere everybody accepts you.”

One of the senior baristas, Morinda Rivera-Hoelzle, is completing a degree in biology. They focus their research on indigenous communities’ relationship to nature, and also lived in Hawai’i, one of the places where kava originates. If you walk in and hear Latin funk music blasting while the tea is pouring, Rivera-Hoelzle is usually behind the bar. “Bantha is an amazing third space that doesn’t cost a crazy amount of money to be in. Brett and Jack are such generous people and important staples of Bloomfield,” they said. “People can find friendships here easily because we’re all here for the same thing: Good tea!”

Story by Emma Riva / Photo courtesy of Bantha Tea Bar 

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