All tea deteriorates over time. It is after all a plant and they don’t last forever. Even dried tea leaves can still break down, decompose or even develop dangerous mold and mildew if not stored properly.
Tea is very sensitive to light, humidity, temperature changes and absorbs the odor in its surroundings easily.
Sometimes it takes a little more than “store in a cool, dry place” to keep your tea in the best condition over time. That’s true if it comes as loose tea or in a tea bag.
You’ve spent a lot of effort planing your tea time, now spend some time making sure your next tea will be just as fresh and full of flavor as the last sitting.
How long tea may last depends on the type of tea you’re storing. In general, the less oxidized the leaf, the faster it will lose flavor when exposed to air. If you’re not sure what that means, you might start with reading What Is Tea? Basically, oxidation (also known as the fermentation process) is the underlying process that gives green, black, and oolong teas their individual characteristics. Black tea is highly oxidized, where as green tea is often un-oxidized.
The rule of thumb for keeping tea fresh can be listed as follows:
- Black tea: 2 years
- Green tea: 1 year
- Oolong tea: 1-2 years (although some rare, expensive oolongs do last several years)
- Pu-erh tea: varies
(It actually needs some air exposure, which makes it improve with age.) Some excellent pu-erh teas are 30-50 years old.
- White tea: 1 year
Of course every tea is different, so try to learn about the characteristics of your favorite tea to help you design the best expiration period. For instance, some green teas may lose flavor very quickly, while other slightly oxidized green teas can last for 6 months to a year. Black and Oolong teas are oxidized longer than green teas and can last for 2 years or more.
The next consideration is what to store your tea in. Tea containers come in many forms and materials. You might purchase a box of tea for everyday drinking and leave it in the paper box if you know you’ll go through the contents fairly quickly. This maybe fine for those inexpensive teas. But for your favorite savory tea, it’s not such a good idea.
Some people enjoy using decorative wooden boxes. While they are attractive, they’re not the best choice for storing tea. Even if they are packaged tea bags kept in paper wraps, or even processed plastic wrapper, the wood may not provide enough protection. Tightly sealed vacuum plastic wrapped tea bags would be ok for a wooden box though. Check the labels and discover how your favorite tea is wrapped and see if it meets the standard of vacuum packed and air tight. If so, then you’re decorative box would be a lovely addition to your table. Of course wood is never good for loose tea.
Humidity also affects the wood itself allowing it to expand and contract over time. This eventually wears on the seal of any wooden box and allows both air and moisture into the container. The humidity would also allow the scent or characteristics of the wood to seep into the tea leaves. Much like wooden casks are used to flavor whiskey.
It would be a false sense of security to think that tin, porcelain, glass or ceramic containers don’t have their issues as well. Some metal lids can stretch and expand over time and use, making their seal less air tight.
Any ceramic, glass or porcelain container must first be made well to create a smooth seal between the lid and the container. But even then the smallest of imperfections can create gaps that allow both air and moisture into the container.
The best design for tea containers is through the use of an air tight rubber insert around the rim of the seal, with a buckle-lock to tightly seal and fasten the lid closed. These air-tight containers are attractive and you can find this design in a variety of sizes, shapes and decorations to suit your table.
Tin canisters that include an air-tight insert with a lid also provide double protection for your favorite tea. Tin maybe light weight, but it is one metal that can stand up to the test of time and use. Today’s tin products are also very attractive and can add to the elegance of your table.
Cool, Dark and Dry
The next consideration is where to place your container when not in use. If your container is made of glass or has a glass lid, you’ll want to consider storing it in a dark location. Light too can damage your tea, especially if its loose tea. You don’t want to leave it on a table, or shelf where sunlight may hit it during the day. A dark pantry or cabinet would do nicely.
Find a dry place for your container. Keep your storage location away from the stove or above the coffee/tea maker. The heat and moisture from these appliances can adversely affect your storage space. Especially considering they add heat to that moister.
Temperature is also an enemy of tea, no matter which form it comes in. Too cold can create condensation inside a container. Too hot can wilt the leaves of your tea and if any moister is in the container, mold can develop.
When people say keep in a “cool” location, what do they mean by cool? I typically turn to pharmaceutical standards for defining what “cool” is.
The temperature standards:
- Cold – Any temperature not exceeding 8oC / 46oF. A refrigerator is a cold place in which the temperature is maintained thermostatically between 2o-8oC / 36o-46oF.
- Cool – Any temperature between 8o-20oC / 46o-68oF.
- Room Temperature – Any controlled temperature between 20o-25oC / 68o-77oF.
Some tea manufacturers recommend storing their tea in an air tight container and in the refrigerator. I don’t recommend this for any tea in general, unless it is especially instructed. Even in an air tight container, tea can be affected by odors and condensation within the fridge and ruin your tea.
You don’t have to throw out the stale tea. As long as it has not developed mold or mildew, you can still use it for young children or the elderly. Because of its low caffeine content it makes an excellent beverage for these two groups.
To restore stale tea to a consumable beverage:
- Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil (this keeps any oil from the sheet getting into the tea)
- Spread tea leaves evenly on aluminum foil.
- Pre-heat oven to 375F.
- Bake for approximately 90 seconds.
- Tea is done roasting when the “kuki” (stalks) have slightly expanded, and easily powders when pressed between the fingers.
- Cool tea leaves on the aluminum foil after roasting.
This method adds a slight roasted flavor to the tea and is best when served as a hot beverage.
Old tea also makes a nice potpourri. I guess I’ll have to share my homemade potpourri next. So stay tuned for that.