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Does Tea Expire? How to Store Your Tea So It Lasts Longer

Does Tea Expire? How to Store Your Tea So It Lasts Longer

Does Tea Expire? How to Store Your Tea So It Lasts Longer

October 21, 2021

Although loose leaf tea is not perishable, tea does expire. In fact, by the time most tea hits the supermarket shelves, those teas are already old and past their prime. 

What does this mean for tea lovers who want to know how long their teas should last? We talked to the tea farmers themselves to find out how to store tea properly, how soon to drink tea after picking, and which teas actually get better with age.

Freshness matters. Fresh tea tastes sweeter, and fresh teas are more aromatic, more complex, and packed with more antioxidants. That's why everyone goes crazy for fresh spring tea, and that's why so many tea lovers want to make sure their favorite teas do not go bad. 

Luckily, expired tea is something you can avoid if you know what to look for and how to store your tea properly: seek out teas that list their picking date with transparency and keep your tea away from light, heat, and moisture to keep them tasting great.


"Seek out teas that list their picking date, and keep your tea away from light, heat, and moisture."


loose leaf tea stored in resealable bagsloose leaf tea stored in resealable bags
loose leaf tea stored in resealable bags

Can Tea Expire?

To answer this question, it is important to understand what a tea expiration date really means. The expiration date printed on a tea package does not actually tell you if a tea is fresh or not. Instead, the expiration date on a bag of tea only shows how long the seller is willing to take responsibility for consistency and for product safety, not how long the tea actually tastes good.

So, does tea go bad? Not exactly. High quality tea kept dry and sealed is safe to drink indefinitely. In fact, that’s why people crafted tea in the first place - fresh tea leaves can’t last as long as teas that have been crafted into green tea, black tea, oolong tea, and others.

"Best Before" dates - what does a tea expiration date really mean?"Best Before" dates - what does a tea expiration date really mean?

However, while good tea does not go bad, it can go downhill, losing sweetness, complexity, and antioxidants as the leaves undergo a variety of chemical changes - especially if your tea is left out.

Lighter teas like green tea “expire” the fastest, while black teas and roasted oolongs hold their flavor and quality much longer. Some teas like pu’er are finished in a special way that lets them actually get better with age, like wine.

Laoshan green tea vs. Laoshan black tea
fresh picked Laoshan tea leaves

How Long Does Loose Leaf Tea Last?

Before you worry about how long a tea has been in your cupboard, consider how old a tea might be before it even reaches the shelf. Most tea stores do not source teas directly from the farmers growing and making their teas. Instead, teas pass through layers of distributors and importers around the world, and this means teas can easily be over a year old before you even buy them.

On the other hand, teas coming directly from small family farms are more likely to be fresh and flavorful. Direct sourced teas provide clear picking dates, and these teas have a much shorter journey from the farm to your cup. 

In general, your tea should taste great for about one year after it was picked. Different tea styles do have different shelf lives, but if you get a fresh tea and you store it carefully, you can get the most out of your tea while it is still good. 

How Long Does Black Tea Last?

The first black teas came from Wuyishan, China, and became an overnight hit in Europe thanks to their long shelf life. Black teas are fully oxidized - this gives them a longer shelf life than green tea, as well as sweet and malty flavors. 

Because of oxidation, quality black tea can last for two years, and certain aged black teas can be enjoyed even longer. 

  • • Always look for loose leaf black tea with a picking date listed

  • • Drink black tea within two years to enjoy their full flavor and aroma

  • • Expect aged black tea to take on deep woody flavors

Does Oolong Tea Expire?

Green oolongs are meant to be enjoyed within one year, while roasted oolongs can generally last for two years. Some oolongs are actually finished with aging in mind and last for decades, getting better, like wine. It all depends on how the tea was crafted.

  • Greener oolongs are aromatic and hyper seasonal. 
      Make sure to choose teas with clearly listed picking dates

  • • Most roasted oolongs are allowed to rest for a few months after they are crafted.
      Once release, roasted oolongs last for about two years

  • Aged oolong teas are crafted specifically to last decades.
     Look for aged oolongs with a clear age statement

How Long Is Pu’er Tea’s Shelf Life?

Pu’er (普洱) - sometimes spelled pu erh or pu-er - was an accidental discovery that proved some teas can actually become even better with age. Pu’er teas do not expire, and both sheng pu’er and shu pu’er are prized for the complexity they can develop over decades.

Interested in aging your own pu’er? Explore our top picks, and follow these tips:

  • Avoid big factory labels that do not disclose their growers and sources

  • Look for pu’er from small family workshops and biodiverse plots

  • Good in, good out: pu’er with aging potential should also taste great when it is young

Does Green Tea Expire?

Green tea has the shortest shelf life of all teas. Fresh seasonal green tea is sweet - not bitter - and deeply aromatic. It can last for up to a year but, because green tea does “go bad,” it is best to drink green tea within six months.

  • Look for seasonal green tea that lists both picking date and farmer

  • Drink spring harvest in the spring and autumn harvest in the autumn

  • Use older green tea for cold brew or cooking

How Long Does White Tea Last?

White tea is finished to lock in the freshest “tea” flavor possible, and well made white tea lets the natural flavor of the fresh leaves shine for months after picking. For fresher, green flavor, drink white tea within one year of harvest

White tea can also be aged and - if properly stored - white tea does not expire. Instead, well-crafted white tea can develop deeply woody and herbaceous flavors over time.

  • For fresh, sweet, floral flavors, drink white tea within a year of picking

  • After a year of aging, white tea becomes darker and more toasty

  • After many years of aging, white tea becomes cooling and spiced

Does Herbal Tea Expire?

Herbal tea’s shelf life is no different than green tea. Since most herbal teas (also called tisanes) are generally finished through simple drying, they are not ‘heat-fixed’ like black teas. Therefore, herbal teas are best brewed within a year of picking

Some tea farmers - like the He Family in Laoshan and the Zhenyuan Dongsa Cooperative in Qianjiazhai -  are applying experimental tea craft to herbal teas. This additional craft extends the shelf life of our partners’ herbal teas

  • Look for herbal tisanes that say when they were picked

  • Try herbals from farmers that are applying tea finishing techniques to herbal tea

  • Use stale herbal tea for mixed drinks and cooking

How to Store Loose Leaf Tea

So you’ve found some great teas - congratulations! Now you might be wondering about the best way to store loose leaf tea so that it lasts as long as possible. This part’s easy!

Keep your tea away from light, moisture, and heat. Tea goes bad if it is left out.

Fun fact: Tea professionals are so concerned about the way the environment changes a tea that even teaware for tasting is regulated for competition judging to keep everyone on the same playing field.

Learn more about teaware and taste >>

protect loose leaf tea from light, moisture, and heatprotect loose leaf tea from light, moisture, and heat
protect loose leaf tea from light, moisture, and heat

How to Store Green Tea and Green Oolong

Green tea and greener oolong teas are the most delicate and seasonal teas. Proper storage locks in their sweet flavors and aromas. A little effort means better tea for you year-round:

  • Protect tea from air and moisture: Do not let your tea oxidize. Instead, store green tea and greener oolong teas in an airtight container to keep your tea fresh.

  • Protect green teas from light: Do not use glass canisters to store your tea. Light can damage your tea and decrease its shelf life, so choose your material carefully and keep storage containers away from direct sunlight.

  • Protect teas from heat: If it’s too hot for you, it’s too hot for the tea. Heat accelerates chemical changes, so store your tea away from direct heat sources.

  • Enjoy green teas when they are fresh: Drink your most seasonal teas in the season they are picked to get the most out of them. Don’t save them - drink them!

How to Store White Tea, Black Tea, and Dark Oolong

Not all loose leaf teas go bad.

White tea, black tea and roasted oolong tea can last for several years if they are properly stored, and well-made teas can even become deeper and more complex over time. All you need to do is follow the same basic storage guidelines you would with green tea:

  • Moisture is the enemy: Moisture control is very important to aging white tea, black tea and oolong. Keep your teas airtight!

  • Protect teas from light: Glass may be pretty, but if your teas are left in the sun, you will have stale tea!

  • Protect teas from heat and cold: Heat promotes chemical changes and can “overcook” teas, while cold creates conditions for condensation, moisture, and even mold.

  • Enjoy your tea for years: Proper storage means you do not need to worry about your favorite tea going bad.

How to Store Pu'er Tea

When thinking about tea shelf life and the best way to store tea, pu’er tea breaks all the rules. Pu’er is made specifically to age for decades, and unlike other teas, pu’er tea is not sensitive to air or controlled moisture. In fact, pu’er tea requires some air flow and ambient humidity to continue aging. 

Properly stored pu’er tea is an investment that yields deep, complex brews over time.

  • Pu’er likes the same weather you do: Keep your pu’er happy with stable room temperature and comfortable humidity. Aim for 65-74 F and about 40%-65% humidity. 

  • Don’t seal your pu’er: Pu’er needs airflow to keep aging and to protect against mold

  • Protect from strong smells: Keep your pu’er away from spices and the kitchen or it will absorb those smells in the air. Linen closets or office drawers work well.

  • Do not drink moldy pu’er: if you notice white mold spots on your pu’er, throw it away. Pu’er stored with too much humidity and condensation can go bad, so avoid storing your pu’er in basements, bathroom closets, or similarly damp environments. 

How to Tell If Tea Is Still Fresh

It’s easy to tell if you have stale tea. Simply open your bag or canister and smell. 

If you cannot smell anything, then the tea is stale. 

All good tea is aromatic. Most of our sense of taste is tied to smell. If the tea has no aroma left, it has no flavor left, and it’s time to shop for fresh tea.

brewing just-picked spring teas with the He Family in Laoshanbrewing just-picked spring teas with the He Family in Laoshan
brewing just-picked spring teas with the He Family in Laoshan

What to Do With Old Tea

Can you drink expired tea? Of course! 

If the tea was made and stored safely, it is still safe to drink, even if it’s old. 

The best way to use stale tea is to find a recipe that relies more on the tea’s texture as a background note and less on showing off big aromatics.

Our top picks include using the tea in homemade chai, cold brewing big batches of iced tea for summer sipping, or even using the tea in recipes like ochazuke.

Explore the World of Fresh Loose Leaf Tea With Verdant Tea

Fresh tea is flavorful tea, and freshness starts at the farm. Nothing is more important than knowing when your tea was picked, where it was picked and who picked it. Transparent sourcing and direct partnerships with small family farms guarantees that you start with the best.

Once you’ve found the tea you love, you can keep it fresh by protecting against air, moisture, heat and light. Even more important? Make sure that you drink your seasonal teas in the season they were picked. For aged teas like pu’er, simply start with the best and you won’t be disappointed as the tea keeps getting better over the years.

Our partners’ teas are so good that we keep an office in China just so that we can pack their tea up in airtight bags the moment it is harvested and rush air-ship on a weekly basis.

Want to get to know the award-winning farmers and craftspeople like Huang Ruiguang and He Changke and more? Join our farmer-curated CSA-style Tea of the Month club, or try a tasting kit from one of our partner-farmers.

This article has been updated from an older post, originally published January 14th, 2014. 

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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.

 

General Tea Storage

 

. 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.

. Stay ORGANIZED

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.

. 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

 

Green teas and greener oolong teas like Spring Tieguanyin have the shortest shelf life of all.

Because these greener teas have undergone only minimal processing, they are not as well protected from changes in flavor over time. That is why these taste taste best within four to six 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 your 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 and cool place, like a shelf or drawer out of the sunlight. Sunlight will create heat, subtly changing your teas’ flavor.

Keep your tea SEALED FROM THE AIR

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 but are not appropriate for every tea. Long leaves that are not curled and rolled can sometimes get crushed under a vacuum. In these cases, be sure to keep your bags sealed between uses, removing excess air whenever possible.

Keep your tea COLD

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 green Anxi oolong 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 few months 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 + Dark Oolong

 

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 designed to grow over time. However, if you store these teas well, you can feel free to experiment and see how aging changes your teas 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 + 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 WELL SEALED

Unlike pu’er teas, black teas, white teas and darker oolong teas do not need or want an excessive amount of air flow.

Aged Anxi oolong teas does need not be completely sealed from the air; storage in a jar with a piece of cloth underneath the lid usually works well. Most black teas and white teas, however, should be protected from sitting out in the air and the open.

In general, if your tea arrived in resealable bags with food-safe linings, keep using these bags and keep your tea sealed between uses.

. 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 an overly bitter and dry sheng pu’er or a fishy shu pu’er is not likely to yield the best 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. This means that wooden boxes (like cigar boxes) are generally not a recommended choice, because they can impart the aroma of their wood onto all of your teas. Cedar chests and storage areas with mothballs, spices, household cleaners, and other strong smells are also not recommended for this reason.

Stabilize HUMIDITY

Keep a relatively stable humidity.

Keep pu’er away from extremely wet or extremely dry environments. Wet air  – like a basement or a bathroom – will cause mold, and very dry environments – stored with dessicants, etc – 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 your tea is accessible and within reach on the shelf, it is too tempting to drink it all right away. Opened cakes of pu’er can be wrapped in more paper or thin clean 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.

Keep NOTES

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.

 

 

 
 
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