The Everyday Tea Drinker
Guide To Good Taste On A Budget
If you are cold, tea will warm you. If you are too heated, it will cool you. If you are depressed, it will cheer you. If you are excited, it will calm you. ~Gladstone, 1865
I dedicate this page to all who understand the joy of a good cup of tea.
I did a web search on the subject of tea storage and like most searches, what I discovered was a lot of conflicting information. What a surprise. It isn’t that complicated. The rules for storing tea are kind of like the rules in the movie Gremlins. Don’t expose them to light, don’t get them wet and never ever feed them after midnight. Ok maybe the rules are a little different. Mostly you just need to use common sense. The idea is to avoid exposure to heat, light, air, odors, and obviously moisture. Simple isn’t it?
Heat, light, and air will cause the tea to become stale before its time, loosing its flavor. Think of it like crackers. You open the cellophane and leave them on the counter, when you go back to get one later it is no longer an enjoyable experience. Ideally tea should be stored in a cool place in an airtight non-clear container. Clear is ok if you are putting the container in a cabinet as this will block the UV rays. Some people put their tea in the refrigerator or freezer in order to keep it cool. The more I read on this subject, the more I have become convinced this is not a good practice.
Have you ever grabbed some ice cubes out of the freezer and thought to yourself these taste like leftovers? Well that is one of the problems with storing tea in the fridge. Refrigerators are full of odors and tea is an excellent absorber or odors. You may have the tea in a waterproof container but that does not mean it is airtight or odor proof. Also, for this reason, don’t store tea near spices or coffee.
Intentionally adding water to tea leaves creates a wonderful drink. Small unintentional amounts of moisture added to tea leaves can cause it to rot or mold. Try leaving your used tea leaves in a cup and see how long it takes them to turn blue and fuzzy. Not a pretty picture is it? Keeping tea in the refrigerator can cause it to absorb moisture through condensation. Lots of experts will disagree with me here but I don’t think it is worth the risk. Using the cracker analogy again, you wouldn’t store a box of unopened crackers in the refrigerator and expect them to remain fresh so why would you store your tea there?
Even in the pantry an unopened box of crackers will eventually go stale. Tea will do the same. Tea does have a shelf life even when properly stored; so how long will it remain fresh? On various websites I have seen specialty loose-leaf tea blends with ranges from a couple months to a year for green tea and up to two years for most black teas. That’s quite a range. Prepackaged tea has an even longer useful lifespan marked on the box. The Ahmad green tea I like lists a packaging date and a best used by date. The range for their green tea is three years.
Tea Bag Storage
If you believe your prepackaged tea tastes stale after two months, I advise you to buy in very small quantities and stop reading right now. For most of us the short time span is irrelevant unless you live next door to a tea plantation. Think about it, after the tea is picked and processed it is put into a warehouse. Later it is loaded on a truck that takes it to a harbor. There it is loaded on a ship, which makes a long voyage across the ocean. It is then unloaded at another harbor and trucked to the tea company’s warehouse. The company will then further process and blend it according to their standards. After packaging it is sent by truck to a distribution center and finally it arrives at your local store where it sits on the shelf for some time before you buy it.
How long does all this take? For most of us, it takes more than two months, but that is OK. The little secret here is that prepackaged tea remains pretty stable for quite some time if you take care of it. If the tea company tells you their product is good for three years, it will probably be good for a little while longer. They are not likely to chance turning you off to their tea by selling it to you stale.
I just recently discovered some Bigelow tea in the back of my cupboard that I had forgotten about. It had expired long ago according to the date on the box. The teabags were sealed in individual foil wrappers so I thought I would brew it and see how badly it had deteriorated. To my surprise it tasted just like I remembered. It had been kept in a dry airtight environment all that time and survived very well. I am not suggesting this is good practice; just stating tea is more resilient than is often stated.
So how should you store your teabags? I usually leave them in the original box. The majority of the boxes I buy come with the bags sealed in individual foil wrappers. Some come in a recloseable bag. One brand I use has the bags packed in a zip-lock bag. The rest come with the bags either in paper envelopes or loose in the box.
The last category (paper envelopes or loose in box) are the most likely prepackaged teas to go stale once the shrink-wrap is removed from the box. Even then, unless you have too many boxes open at once, you may not have problems if you keep the box closed to minimize the air circulating around the bags. If you have destroyed the lid or have more bags than you can comfortably use in a reasonable amount of time put them in a zip-lock bag, canister, or tea chest. This should increase their useful lifespan. However, note that if you store various unsealed teabags together in the same bag or chest the flavors may mingle.
I have so far been discussing bag teas the average person can find at their local retailer but I am not wholly convinced there is a real lifespan difference with the loose-leaf blends. True the expensive stuff may start out with a better grade of leaf, still the physics of the tea should be the same. Maybe you can tell the difference between one-month-old off the shelf tea and one-year-old tea, I cannot if it is stored properly.
Where the lifespan really is as short as two months it is most likely due to inadequate packaging or improper storage and too much exposure to air. Every time you open the container you expose the entire batch to air and light. Buying in bulk can be a lot less expensive. Buying in smaller quantities is less likely to result in stale tea. What to do? One thought is to buy in bulk and divide the tea into smaller more manageable amounts that are kept sealed in separate containers.
Many brands of loose-leaf tea come in a metal can. Many claim this is perfect and recommend you keep the empty tin for future use. Some teas come in a bag. Keep it sealed as best you can. It will probably start to break down or tear at some point before you have emptied it so you might consider putting it in something else to start with. Besides the tea tins previously mentioned ceramic, glass, and metal canisters will work if you have a good sealing lid. If glass is used it should not be clear. Green or brown glass work well to prevent UV rays from breaking down the tea. I use a stainless steel canister from Wal-mart for my loose-leaf tea.
Avoid plastic unless you are sure it is odor-proof. I’ve read of a good test for this is to seal up the container and leave it a few days. Now open it and smell the insides. If it has an odor don’t use it unless you want your tea tasting like that smell. Some people use zip-lock bags to hold their tea. For short-term storage, I have placed teabags in zip-lock bags without incident. A friend stores his loose leaf Jasmine tea this way without complaint. Others have said that the bags are not odor proof so be aware.
The best advice is to experiment and avoid expensive teas until you have a better idea of what you are doing.
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