Tea is one of the most affordable luxuries in the world. Learning how to properly store your fine tea will help you get your full value out of each sip even months after buying. It is easy to forget, but real, individual people in China are picking your tea by hand, carefully processing it and making sure that it is packed and sealed to survive the long journey to your teacup. This guide is here to help you extend the care put into each leaf all the way up to the moment you take your first sip.
Let’s start with some general rules that apply to storing all teas, regardless of type or processing technique:
-Store your teas in a dry environment. Dampness and humidity can dramatically reduce the tea’s lifespan, and could even cause mold to form.
-Store your teas away from strong smells. This may mean that that kitchen cabinet is not your idea choice for protecting fine looseleaf tea. Cupboards or bookshelves in living rooms or studies are good candidates.
-Keep your tea organized. An unorganized pile of tea bags is not ideal storage. Without organization you don’t know what you have, or when you got it. An organized tea shelf helps you quickly identify your options and make choices based both on your taste preferences of the day, and on what is freshest.
-Keep notes. This is related to staying organized. When you buy a tea, make sure to write down the harvest season if that information is available from the vendor. Teas do have shelf lives, even when properly stored, so being aware of the amount of time you have to drink a tea can be very helpful.
How to Store Green Tea and Green Oolong Teas
Green teas, and green oolong teas have the shortest shelf life of all. They taste best within four months of picking. While they do not ‘spoil’ when kept longer than four months, they do begin to fade in flavor. Following a few basic tips will help you keep your green teas, and green oolongs fresh for as long as possible:
-Always keep the tea sealed in an airtight container that blocks out all light. Glass jars are not acceptable for tea storage because sunlight over time damages the leaves.
-If the tea is sealed in a pouch, make sure that there is as little air as possible when you close the pouch. If you have a vacuum sealer, vacuum-sealed foil bags of tea have the longest shelf life.
-Keep the tea in a dark cool place, like a shelf or drawer out of the sunlight. Sunlight will create heat, subtly changing the teas flavor.
-If you have a vacuum-sealer, you can feel free to thoroughly seal your tea in a moisture-free environment, and store it in the refrigerator on a colder setting, or the freezer. This is a contentious point in the tea community, because improperly-sealed tea stored in a freezer will be damaged. However, all Chinese tea vendors store their green teas and Tieguanyin vacuum sealed in large freezers. If you have the resources, feel free to do the same. This will extend the freshness of the tea from four months to about a year.
-Drink your tea! If you are lucky enough to get green teas and green oolongs fresh within a month or two of picking, then by all means, drink the tea. Green teas, even fine ones, should not go in the “save for the right occasion” pile. The tea will make the occasion. Sieze the moment, drink and enjoy thoroughly the way the tea wants to be enjoyed.
How to Store White Tea, Black Tea, and Dark Oolongs
While green tea has a definite shelf life, white tea, black tea, and darker oolongs like Big Red Robe and Dancong can be kept for a much longer period of time. Many in the tea world actually prefer the taste of aged white tea, aged black tea, and aged oolong. There is a belief that the aging process mellows the tea and lets the flavors get richer. Since shelf life is not an issue, we just need to be sure to store our black teas, oolongs and white teas in a way that protects them from the outside environment:
-Use an airtight container that blocks out all light. As with green teas, sunlight and airflow will degrade the tea’s quality over time. Clear glass jars are not an acceptable storage method.
-Keep the tea sealed away from light and humidity. Drawers and shelves out of the way of the kitchen smells and basement humidity work best.
-Keep notes on your tea. You can find out for yourself if you like black teas better after eight months to a year if you write down your impressions and keep your notes with the tea for later comparison. Your notes will help you form your own informed personal preferences.
How to Store Pu’er Tea
Pu’er is another world entirely. People make and lose fortunes investing in pu’er, and betting on this unique tea’s slow fermentation process. Most pu’er does in fact become more complex over time. Astringency mellows out, darker and richer flavors come through. Textural complexities become more pronounced. Starting with an intriguing young pu’er of high quality with lots of textures and flavors at play will increase your chances of graceful aging. Starting with a bitter and dry pu’er, or a fishy pu’er is not likely to yield good results, given even a long time to age. Follow a few basic guidelines and you will be thrilled with the ever-changing and ever-growing nature of pu’er:
-Do not store pu’er in air-tight containers. If you have only a few ounces, and you plan to drink your tea in eight months or less, than airtight pouches are fine, but for long-term investment, slow airflow is needed to encourage further development of the tea’s character. If the tea is looseleaf in a pouch, just leave the pouch partially open, or transfer the tea to a ceramic non-airtight jar.
-Keep pu’er away from smells. Pu’er is a sensitive, growing thing. Any smells you expose it to will be absorbed, and come out later in the flavor.
-Keep a relatively stable humidity. Keep pu’er away from extremely wet or dry environments. Wet air will cause mold, and dry environments will slow down the tea’s development. Sudden changes in humidity can disrupt the trajectory of a tea’s development.
-Pack it and forget it. For long-term investment, get a big paper or wood box, put your pu’er inside, and forget about it in a closet for a year or two. If it is on the shelf, it is too tempting to drink it all right away. Cakes of pu’er can be wrapped in more paper, or cloth if the rice paper wrappers are torn or loose.
-Protect the tea. For long term storage, it is best to leave your pu’er cakes in cake form. Breaking a cake apart is great if you plan to put it in a jar and drink it over the next two years, as new leaf will be exposed to air, but if you plan to move the tea around often, leaves can be broken over time. The cake form protects the leaves over many years of storage.
-Don’t worry too much! There are a lot of pu’er fanatics out there that might try to convince you that pu’er storage is a matter of life and death. Well… it isn’t. Pu’er was an accidental discovery to start with- cakes of green tea that fermented under the heat and moisture of mule and camel packs on long journeys. One degree of temperature variation or humidity difference is not going to hurt your tea. Just try to store the tea somewhere safe, and enjoy it. You did buy it for your own enjoyment after all.
-Keep notes. It is extremely fun to start a pu’er log for each cake of tea that you have and record the way it changes each year. After several years, you get a full idea of the tea’s trajectory, which will help you understand pu’er aging in general.