How Long Does Tea Last?
Introduction - A Classic Whodunit
There is very little that is worse for a tea lover than steeping their favorite tea the way they have always done, just to realize upon first sip that something is not quite right. The wonderful aroma and taste that they have grown to love has now changed into something different. The characteristics of the tea are all wrong, but the preparation was perfect. "What has happened?" they cry out, "What dastardly person has corrupted my tea?" Luckily, we don't need cunning of Sherlock or wits of Batman to uncover this culprit. This dastardly wrongdoer has a moniker and it is: staleness.
Like most other dry food goods, tea, unfortunately, can go stale over time. The length of time in which it takes for a tea to go stale relies on the type of tea and how the tea is stored.
Generally speaking, the shelf life of different tea types, when stored properly, is as follows:
With that said, there are nuances, clauses, and opinions to consider for each tea type. (You know, all the small print!) These points will be touched on a bit later.
Tea Storage - Shielding from Villainy
Let's talk about tea storage, first!
Tea storage plays an important part in dictating how long a tea will remain fresh before going stale. And staleness does not work alone. Tea drinkers beware for our villain has henchmen who go by the names of: sunlight, heat, moisture, air, and odor.
Light and Heat
Sunlight and heat can break down the chemicals within tea and cause the tea to lose its flavor and aroma. They accelerate the enzyme activity that leads to browning and staleness. Sunlight can also bleach teas, causing the characteristics you once loved to fade almost completely. And heat can increase the chance of your tea gaining more moisture.
Moisture increases the chance of tea growing mold. Moisture can ruin a lot of tea, very quickly. If tea is ever subjected to unnecessary moisture, it should be brewed and consumed immediately, as there is little to no chance of recovering a tea after moisture ravishes it.
Air, like heat and sunlight, can cause the tea to lose its aroma by aiding the chemicals in the tea in breaking down and escaping. Air also increases the chance of other aromas flowing into your tea. Pu-erh, is the exception to this rule, and escapes this henchman's wrath, as to age Pu-erh well, it requires some ventilation. It should be noted, however, that pu-erh will take on odors from other things just like any other tea and should be stored away from anything odorous.
That leads us to our last henchman: Odor. Strong odors will change the aroma and flavor of a tea almost effortlessly. Tea leaves have the ability to easily take on odors from other things. This trait is very useful when blending teas or trying to create a floral tea like Jasmine, however, when it comes to maintaining a tea's shelf life, this trait becomes a burden.
With good storage, you can keep these five horsemen of the teapocalypse away from your teas. We have seen that with our teas, an air-tight container (with an oxygen absorber or two!), stored in a dark, cool, and dry place away from anything odorous is ideal storage for ensuring that teas stay their best for as long as stated in the graph above.
Lifespan of Teas - Who Will be the Last Tea Standing?
Let's delve a bit deeper into the reasoning behind different longevities for different tea types.
When we talk about white tea, we are talking about white tea that comes from Fuding - the birthplace of the tea type. As you will notice in the graph above, ordinarily, the less processed the tea, the shorter shelf life it has. Some suggest that the lighter teas may last only as long as about six months without their characteristics changing. We have experienced, however, that most Fuding white teas can last for up to eighteen months.
The outlying hero and exception for white teas is aged white tea. Normally, white teas are processed simply by being picked and then allowed to air dry. Aged white teas, however, are air-dried and then allowed to age via fermentation. This fermentation process is typically done for Pu-erh and it is what allows the tea to improve with age, like a fine wine. Aged white tea is a wonderful rarity (or rariTea!); typically only found in the villages of Fuding.
There are many opinions on how long certain green teas will last. Our experience is that seasonal green teas will last about six months. Moreover, while Taiwanese and Chinese green teas (which are pan-fried) may last for half a year to a year, Japanese green teas (which are steamed) will last longer.
Different oolong teas are allowed to oxidize at different rates. We have seen that in most cases, the more the oolong has been allowed to oxidize, the longer that oolong will last. With that said, roasted oolong teas are a bit different. As the name suggests, roasted oolong tea are oolongs that have been thoroughly roasted after being allowed to partially oxidize. We have seen certain roasted oolongs, like Da Hong Pao, last up to five years.
Black tea (Red tea)
There are several steps that must be taken to create a black tea. Oxidation, however, is one of the most important steps; it is what gives the tea its quality. From smooth and silky Gong Fu tea to deep and smoky Xiao Zhong (Lapsang Souchong), you'll find that your black teas will last longer than the other types due to their oxidation.
Pu-erh is a tea that gets better with age. (There are some excellent pu-erh teas that are decades old!) As stated before, Pu-erh is one tea that should not be stored in an air-tight container. This is because of the cultures and bacteria (similar to those in wine and cheese) it contains that require oxygen to thrive. Like a rare and beautiful orchid, this tea needs air and a bit a moisture to mature.
Final Words - Case Closed
A question that many tea drinkers ask is if anything can be done to increase the life of their favorite teas. Good storage, as mentioned before, is crucial to keeping teas from losing their characteristics before they are meant to. Storing teas well will help keep them as fresh as they can be for as long as their shelf life allows. Though it may not increase the shelf-life, it will prevent the shelf-life from decreasing. For many, this 'the best offense is a good defense' plan works marvelously and allows adequate time to drink tea before it goes stale.
Refrigerating or freezing tea is another method of increasing the longevity of tea. This 'take charge' method may prove difficult to the average tea consumer, as a lot of conditions must be ensured for proper storage. However, storing green teas in this manner is done frequently in China with great success. We have seen, for instance, that green tea farmers will store their freshly air-dried leaves in tea-dedicated freezers, and then prior to shipping, they will remove the tea and begin the pan-frying stage of preparation. They explain that this method works much better for preserving the characteristics of the tea than pan-frying the entire harvest and then storing.
The summation of this story is that the more processed the tea, the longer it will retain its characteristics, with a few noteworthy exceptions. That being said, understanding a tea's true shelf life takes experimentation. For some teas, the time it takes for the tea to get from farm to the market is considerable. Taking note of farm-to-market times is important when considering the tea's shelf life. However, unless, the company directly states or you know the owner of the company, how long it takes for tea to get from the farm to your cupboard is hard to perceive.
As tea lovers, many of us buy more tea than we can drink. Although there is nothing wrong with a little indulgence, it is important to be mindful of your teas. By storing properly and keeping in mind your teas' shelf lives, you will ensure that your teas last as long as they can. Just try to drink them often! And remember, as one very wise, purple dinosaur once said, "Sharing is caring." Be sure to share your love for tea, and in doing so, you might just be able indulge and make sure you drink your teas up before they lose their character.
We believe that the key lesson from this article is that if you take care of your teas, your teas will return the kindness with aroma and flavor.