Did you know that just like any other food, tea can expire? In fact, depending on the tea, some can get ruined in under and hour while others can last for years!
So how do you answer the question, Did my tea go bad?
The following explains the differences in tea, tea leaves vs. tea bags, and how long you can expect your favorite type to last.
Most Popular Types of Tea
Tea is an aromatic beverage that is made by pouring very hot or boiling water over tea leaves, which are derived from a plant or shrub called Camellia sinensis. This plant produces different types of teas.
The following tea types are all produced from Camellia sinensis:
- Green tea
- Yellow tea
- Oolong tea
- White tea
- Black tea
- Dark tea (including pu-erh tea)
While this single plant can produce different varietals, they are also processed differently to reach different levels of oxidation.
Tea was first used as far back as 2737 BC. It was first used as a type of medicinal beverage because of its health benefits, but later became a daily drink enjoyed by many. That’s when the cultivation and processing of tea really began to take place.
Tea Leaves vs. Tea Bags
Tea lovers get as passionate about tea as wine lovers do about wine. And this is one question that will spur a heated debate among tea drinkers. Which is better: tea leaves or tea bags?
Tea leaves, often referred to as loose leaf tea, are usually sold in a bag and are “loose,” meaning that they do not come in a pouch. The best way to use this type of tea is in a reusable loose tea steeper. This device, also called a tea infuser, is used to place your tea leaves in, before steeping them in hot water to make the tea.
Many people claim that loose-leaf tea offers the best flavor when it comes to hot tea, especially when kept fresh. The loose leaves can open up and release a richer flavor of the tea, producing a more vibrant beverage.
Tea bags are a more modern invention pioneered by tea merchants. The first tea bag patents date back from 1903.
The first modern tea bags were hand-sewn and appeared commercially around 1904. They were popularized, however, a few years later by Thomas Sullivan, a tea and coffee importer from New York. Some believe he invented them on his own…
The popular legend suggests that Thoma Sullivan created tea bags accidentally when he was wrapping his loose leaf tea in silk pouches for his customers. They did not realize they were supposed to open the pouches before brewing, so they steeped the entire bag.
And just like that, the tea bag was born! (Or at least popularized!)
Some people prefer tea bags for the convenience. Plus, many people don’t like it if little bits of tea leaf get in their drink, which is common with loose tea leaves.
While both loose leaf tea and tea bag tea can differ in quality, loose leaf tea generally has better quality. That is mostly because tea bags usually contain fannings and dust, which are the small particles left over in tea production. The “better” tea parts are used for loose leaf tea.
The short answer is that loose leaf tea usually tastes better than tea bag tea. Tea needs space to open and release its aromatic flavors. That is why not all teas can be packaged in tea bags.
Certain teas, like rolled oolong teas or Chinese dang cong teas, do not work if packaged in tea bags.
Overall, loose leaf teas have more space to open and release their flavor. While there are some low-quality loose leaf teas, they are generally tastier.
With all that high quality and better taste comes a higher price tag. Not all loose leaf tea is going to have a high price tag, but it will usually be priced higher for the same amount of its tea bag counterparts. However, a high price tag does not always mean better quality tea.
Does Tea Expire?
Tea does, most definitely, expire. In most cases, this occurs due to storage conditions, or when the tea leaves come into contact with heat, water or mold.
While packaged teas do provide a “best by” date on their packages, if the tea is properly stored, it will likely be safe to use even after that date.
If the tea has not come into contact with any mold or unwanted pests, then it should be just fine to use.
How Long Does Tea Last?
The shelf life of tea depends on the type of tea. Well, it really comes down to how oxidized it is.
Low Oxidized Teas
Green tea and low-oxidized versions of oolong and white teas do not have a very long shelf life. Under most circumstances, low-oxidized tea lasts for about 6 months. Of course, only if the tea storage conditions are right.
Green tea is a little more finicky than the other types of teas. That is because it has delicate leaves. It not only loses its color and scent quicker than other teas if improperly stored, but it also loses its flavor.
Oolong and white teas are more likely to make it to 6 months (and maybe a bit longer).
A brand new package placed in hot temperatures, like direct sunlight on a hot day, can have an altered taste and scent in under an hour!
*By the way, green tea goes GREAT with this easy Vietnamese honeycomb cake.
Highly Oxidized Teas
Highly Oxidized teas can last quite a bit longer. Black tea, for example, can last 2-3 years if properly stored.
Highly oxidized oolong and white tea can last months longer than the 6 months their low-oxidized counterpart can last. Sometimes making it to the 1-year point.
How to Store Tea to Prolong Shelf Life
The key to extending the life of your tea is by providing proper storage, in an airtight container. Store tea in a cool place so that it is not exposed to too much moisture. A sealed container in a nonhumid environment is your best bet!
When it comes to storage time, make sure the seal on your glass jars or other container is secure, since oxygen is the major culprit behind ruining tea.
It is also important to keep your tea stored in a dark, cool place to ensure a longer shelf life and fresh tea. If it’s kept at or below room temperature, and away from high temperatures, it should be good for a long time.
Some brands provide waxed storage bags in their original packaging that can help with tea shelf life as well.
That’s enough about tea! Go put your feet up and enjoy that delicious cup of tea!
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As a mom of three little eaters, I am excited to share my love of cooking, smoking, and baking with you. My love of food started when I went to college in Berkeley, and has followed me ever since! When I am not “momming,” writing, or cooking, you can find me reading, traveling, or hiking.