Many people thoroughly rely on and enjoy their daily cup of tea – or three – but may not give much consideration to the shelf life or correct storage, assuming that tea will last indefinitely. Tea leaves and loose leaf tea appear pretty harmless, but does tea go bad, and how long do different kinds of tea last?
Although the myriad different kinds of tea all originate from the same plant, the varied processes used to prepare them create different flavors, colors, aromas, and as a result, different shelf lives.
Although tea is unlikely to go bad – unless contaminated by water or other substances, in which case you will get moldy tea – it does lose flavor and aroma over time. As a rule of thumb, most teas will have a two-year shelf life when stored properly – although green tea has a shorter life, and pu-erh tea can last considerably longer.
Shelf Life Of Tea
Loose leaf tea is inclined to lose quality faster than tea bags and other sealed tea products because it more easily absorbs moisture and odor – particularly if not stored correctly.
How long is tea good for? Each color or type of tea has been fermented and processed differently, providing varying shelf lives. All teas should be safe to consume far beyond the dates given below, but after these periods will lose quality.
- Black Tea and varieties e.g. English Breakfast, Earl Grey – Black tea is purposely oxidized and fully fermented as part of processing, so will last longer on the shelf. You can expect good quality if stored correctly for up to 18 months for loose leaf, and around two years for bags.
- Green Tea – This is an unfermented variety so has a shorter shelf life. The catechins that remain intact in green tea are what makes it so healthy, so it’s best consumed within one year of production to get all the health benefits. However, you can expect all forms to keep for up to 18 months before losing flavor.
- Yellow Tea – Because it is lightly fermented, yellow tea will store for 18-24 months.
- Oolong Tea – This semi-fermented tea will last around two years in tea bags. Loose leaf will last around 18 months stored correctly.
- White Tea/Pu-erh Tea – The exception to other teas, white tea only increases in quality as it ages. In fact, the saying associated with this highly-valued tea is, “One year tea, three year medicine, seven year treasure.” Aged white teas may already be five or six years old when you purchase them. If you’re lucky enough to own white tea that is decades old, you’re in possession of a prized commodity.
- Matcha Tea – Because this tea comes in powder form, it absorbs moisture and odors more readily. You can store it correctly for up to a year unopened before it starts to lose flavor. Once opened, you should use it within two months for best quality.
- Flavored Teas – Because of the addition of other ingredients, these teas have a shorter shelf life. Expect to use them within a year when stored correctly.
- Iced Tea – Commercially produced and bottled iced tea will last around 18-24 months before opening if stored properly. Once open, consume with seven to ten days if refrigerated, or two days if kept at room temperature.
- Home-made Iced Tea/Brewed Tea – Once brewed, liquid tea can start to develop bacterial growth. Keep it for two days maximum at room temperature, or three days stored in the fridge.
How To Tell If Tea Is Bad
Teas contain essential oils can become rancid if exposed to moisture. This is highly unlikely, however, as tea starts out extremely dry. The bigger problem is that both loose leaf and bag tea can get “tired.”
Here’s how to tell if your tea is too old to fully enjoy.
- Smell the raw product – if there’s little to no distinctive tea flavor, the natural oils have likely evaporated and your tea will lack flavor and quality.
- Brew a cup – if you brew and steep your tea for around three to five minutes and still find the aroma is weak and the flavor undetectable, your tea is too old.
- If the tea leaves have been contaminated with moisture or other substances, it will be clearly dusty or moldy. It may smell “old” and “musty.” In this case, throw the tea out.
If your tea leaves are merely tired, they can still be used – you will likely need to use two or three bags in the place of one to extract enough flavor to enjoy.
SEE ALSO: Best Tea Kettles
Can Expired Tea Make You Sick?
Tired or expired tea won’t make you sick. It will, however, be tasteless and have no fragrance, so really not pleasant to consume. If you don’t want to waste the remaining expired tea, try using a few extra bags or leaves in the tea pot.
If the tea has not been stored in an air-tight container, it might also taste like the rest of the cupboard.
The exception to this is iced tea, particularly if homemade. If this sits too long at room temperature before consumption, bacteria can grow – including the nasty E. coli. Consuming rancid iced tea can potentially give you food poisoning.
Storing Tea To Make It Last
Tea should always be sealed in an airtight container that is not light permeable and kept cool – the ideal temperature is between 60-80F. If you have many flavors of tea, they should be kept in their own airtight containers. This applies to tea packages that are still sealed or already opened.
We don’t recommend refrigerating tea – it will not extend the shelf life, and may in fact lead to moisture build-up, increasing the risk of bacteria and moldy tea. When tea leaves are refrigerated, opening the container leads to moisture build-up on the leaves.
Make an exception for matcha tea. Once opened, it’s better to store matcha tea in the fridge or freezer in an airtight container.
Oxidation from air exposure impacts all teas, even those that undergo oxidation in the curing process. An easy way to reduce air exposure is to layer tea, shake it down into the container, and layer more on top.
The fuller your tea container, the less air your loose tea will be exposed to once you seal the container.