Tea is one of the most affordable luxuries in the world. Learning how to store your loose leaf tea properly will help you get your full value out of each sip, even months after buying. It is easy to forget, but real people across 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 tea storage 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 Tea in a Dry Environment
Keep your teas dry and away from excess moisture. Dampness and humidity can dramatically reduce the tea’s lifespan, and could even cause mold to form.
Store Tea away from Strong Smells
Tea will absorb the aroma of anything stored nearby, which is why we always recommend keeping your loose leaf tea away from strong smells. This may mean that that kitchen cabinet is not your ideal choice for protecting fine looseleaf tea, especially spice cabinets and pantries. Cupboards or bookshelves in living rooms or studies are good candidates, as are clean linen closets away from bathrooms.
Try and keep your teas organized according to a system that makes sense to you. An unorganized pile of tea bags is not ideal storage. Without organization, you won’t know what you have, or when you purchased 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.
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 greener oolong teas like Hand Picked Tieguanyin 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.
Keep your tea away from sunlight
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. 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.
Vacuum Seal for Longer Life
If your 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.
Can You Store Green Tea in the Refrigerator or Freezer?
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. Seize the moment: drink your tea and thoroughly enjoy 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. On the other hand, most aged oolongs reflect the amount of years they’ve been processed and aged by their original tea master, refiring and reprocessing every year. We generally recommend drinking black tea, white tea and darker oolong teas within two years, unless it is a specifically aged white tea designed to grow over time.
Since shelf life is not as much of an issue issue, you just need to be sure to store your black teas, oolongs and white teas in a way that protects them degradation and keeps them organized enough for you to find and enjoy.
Keep your tea away from sunlight
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 away from Smells and Damp
Keep the tea sealed away from 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 sheng pu’er, or a fishy shu pu’er is not likely to yield good results, even given 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.
Allow Proper Air Flow
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, airtight pouches are fine. 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.
Avoid Strong Smells
Keep pu’er away from smells. Pu’er is a sensitive, growing thing. Any smells you expose it to will be absorbed, and ultimately affect the flavor.
Keep a relatively stable humidity. Keep pu’er away from extremely wet or extremely 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. Open cakes of pu’er can be wrapped in more paper or cloth if the rice paper wrappers are torn or loose.
Protect your 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. New leaf will be exposed to air, and the tea will be easy to access any time you want to enjoy with friends. However, if you plan to move your tea around often, leaves can be broken over time. The original cake or brick form protects the tea 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. Remember, you purchased your tea for your own enjoyment.
It is extremely fun to start a pu’er logbook 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.