You wouldn’t leave uncorked wine out for weeks and expect it to be drinkable—so why would you expect improperly stored tea to taste fresh after the same amount of time? This comparison, which Brian Keating draws in his recent book, How to Make Tea: The Science Behind the Leaf, was enough to stop me in my tracks: Why don’t I give the same care to storing tea as I do other volatile ingredients, like wine and spices?
Like wine, tea goes flat over time—leading to what Brian referred to as “dead tea” when I spoke with him over the phone. But with care, you can extend the shelf life of your teas by years:
“As a rule of thumb,” Brian told me, “tea has an average shelf life of two years—if properly stored.” But, as with most rules, there are exceptions, and some teas last much longer (or shorter) than others. For example, oolong and pu-erh tea are wrapped tightly in their own leaves so that they become a “self-protecting unit that holds its own oils and flavors” and can last up to four or even five years. Matcha tea, on the other hand, is extremely unstable. Because it’s a powder, Brian says, “It absorbs moistures and odors” in the same way baking powder might—and even when perfectly stored, it only lasts about a year before a loss of flavor becomes noticeable. For reference, black tea, like English breakfast, lasts for about two years.
Brian adds that, stored properly, loose leaf and packaged tea have roughly the same shelf lives, but that some packaged teas come with a “sell-by” date stamped on them, which is worth following for the freshest tea. Otherwise, Brian will write the month and year that he bought the tea—an easy way to determine both how quickly you’re going through it and a benchmark for freshness, he notes.
Brian stresses that the most important thing you can do to extend the life of your loose leaf tea is to pack it in an airtight container and do your best to protect it from changes in temperature—anything between 60° F and 80° F is safe. He suggests placing it in a cool, dark place like a pantry (windows are not a good place to keep tea because they can warm up the containers which can speed the deterioration of the tea) and keep it away from pungent things, like other teas and cooking areas, as teas can absorb smells.
While he recommends stainless steel, plastic, ceramic, and opaque, light-blocking glass containers, he says that any steel or ceramic container with a tight-fitting lid is best. If your loose-leaf tea did not come in one of these containers, it’s imperative that you re-pack it into one unless you plan on drinking it immediately.
If your tea does not come in individually-wrapped (with aluminum or some other air-proof packaging), treat it as loose leaf tea and place it in a light-blocking container with a tight-fitting lid. Otherwise, as long as the seals of the tea bags haven’t been broken, you can even leave them out in a bowl on your countertop—they’re safe! You can even place multiple packaged teas into the same container without fear of their fragrance absorbing into another tea.
Brian adds that you should never store tea in the freezer or refrigerator—there’s more moisture and condensation in there that can accelerate the degradation process, and the variation of temperature from being taken out and put back in the refrigerator isn’t good for it, either.
When tea goes flat, it doesn’t change flavor so much as it simply loses it (and it isn’t harmful, either!). If your tea is weaker than you remember it, simply add more tea bags to your pot. Brian laughs before adding, “but if you have tea for that long, then you must not be a real tea fan.”
What are some of your favorite tea rituals? Are you an avid collector or an occasional sipper? Tell us in the comments below!