So, you got premium loose leaf tea for your birthday present. You treasure the leaves so much that you brew it only on special occasions. Until one day, you realize that it has passed the “best by” date. Does this mean that loose leaf tea goes bad?
Or, you just discovered a new passion as a tea aficionado. Every time you go grocery shopping, you pick up a unique variety of tea to sample.
Your collection builds up much faster than your brewing speed. At some point, you are asking yourself: How long can you keep tea?
Either way, it’s natural to ask similar questions above when you have kept food items for a while in your cupboard. Fear not, in this article, we break down tea’s shelf life, its storage methods, common signs of tea going bad, etc. If this is what you are looking for, read on!
Just a little note, in this article, we address tea obtained from the leaves of Camellia sinensis. For other herbal teas or tisane, let’s reserve this one for another article.
How To Store Tea
Tea comes in endless varieties—from white, green, black, English breakfast, Earl Grey, jasmine, etc. All of them are extracted from Camellia sinensis, with a difference in the oxidation process.
Tea leaves are commonly sold in either loose-leaf or tea bags. Loose leaf tea is usually higher in quality. Meanwhile, tea bags are typically prepared from a mix of small leaves pieces (or fanning) and mini particles from tea barrels to allow for quicker brewing.
Both loose leaf tea and tea bags are dry products. So, storage is simple and straightforward. The aim of tea storage is to keep it dry and least exposed to heat, air, moisture, and odor. Proper storage makes a huge difference in how long your tea lasts.
Keep tea leaves and tea bags in a cool, dry, dark place. Generally, your pantry shelf or kitchen cabinet should do the job. Don’t place it somewhere near the window, stove, or sink.
Loose leaf tea is usually packed in a beautifully-designed tin can or a resealable paper bag. The producer does not do this randomly, but to block the light away and prevent further oxidation. You can keep the tea leaves in its original container after opening.
Meanwhile, tea bags are typically packed in a paper box, which is not well resealable. This is not a concern if you can finish off the box within a few months. However, if you have a large collection of tea bags which may take a while to empty each pack, consider transferring them in an airtight sealed container.
Make sure to keep the lid tightly sealed as the tea leaves easily pick up odors from its surroundings. So, placing the tea close by onions or strong-smelling foods is not a good idea either.
How Can You Tell If Tea Has Gone Bad?
Dried tea keeps well as long as it is dry and minimally exposed to the air, moisture, lights, and heat. Once the tea is wet or damp, it is prone to molds growth. If you spot molds on your tea leaves, it’s already time to let it go.
Another thing to point out is, although loose leaf tea or tea bags might be safe after its recommended date, the quality won’t be as great.
Unless for aged tea, like Puerh tea or aged white tea, tea leaves do not develop their quality with time. Tea leaves degrade in flavor and taste slowly over time—the initial quality of your tea matters, but poor storage speeds up the deterioration process.
You should brew it to test whether the tea is still flavorful enough. If the flavor is weak or the taste is flat, it’s maybe better to get a new pack.
How Long Does Tea Last?
It’s difficult to exactly tell how long tea lasts. The shelf life largely depends on the processing and storage methods. The least processed tea, like green tea (matcha), has a shorter life compared to oolong or black tea. (*)
In general, dried tea leaves maintain their peak quality for up to two years, indicated with a “best by” or “use by” date on the package. Beyond that, as long as the tea is not moldy, it should be safe to use. Remember that the flavor diminishes over time, so better brew your tea while still fresh.
|Teabags (unopened or opened)||Best by date + 6 to 12 months|
|Loose leaf tea (unopened or opened)||Best by date + 6 to 12 months|
|Loose leaf tea (purchase in bulk)||1 to 2 years|
This table is a rough estimate. The actual shelf life depends on the tea variety, initial quality, and storage conditions. In many cases, tea remains fit for consumption beyond these time frames.
Tea is best enjoyed shortly after it’s brewed. However, you can salvage your leftovers brewed tea by keeping it refrigerated in a sealed container for up to 2 to 5 days. Avoid adding sugar, fresh fruit, or milk if you plan to brew the tea ahead of time. The addition of sugar is susceptible to spontaneous fermentation and limits its shelf life to only one day in the fridge.
A recent study showed that pathogenic bacteria can grow on dried tea leaves. However, we can eliminate the risk of getting sick by brewing tea leaves in boiling or hot water (>80 °C or >176 °F) instead of in iced water or cool water (<55 °C or 131 °F). Brewing tea in hot water can successfully inactivate pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella. (*)
An expired tea won’t make you sick, but will only give you a less flavorful tea.
Tea is definitely the most consumed beverage in the world. Dried tea—both loose leaf and tea bags—should be kept in a cool, dry, dark spot. When stored in a humid area or water gets into the container, tea gets moldy and should not be consumed.
The average shelf life of tea is up to two years. It depends mostly on the tea variety, its quality, and its storage conditions. Minimally processed tea, like green tea, tends to have a shorter life.
Beyond its best by date, tea can be used until the spoilage sign is evident. Brewing with hot water is recommended than with cool water. However, its flavor and potency diminish as time went by. So, enjoy your tea while it’s still fresh!
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