Every day, millions of people around the world drink tea.
I find it curious that in spite of the huge numbers of people who partake of this beverage religiously, not many can answer this question: does tea expire?
Do you know the answer?
Well, I do. And I have taken the time to craft a detailed article that will attack this question from multiple angles. Let’s begin.
Tea vs Time
2016 saw Americans drink approximately 84 billion servings of tea – that translates to over 3.8 billion gallons of tea. 80% of this staggering total was black tea, while green tea took 16% – the remaining percentage was shared by oolong, white, and dark tea.
In layman’s terms, what I am saying is this: tea is popular. Every day, 158 million Americans drink tea. But why is it that so few of us can confidently answer this simple question: does tea expire?
The real question people are asking is: “Will I get sick from drinking tea that has exceeded its sell-by date?” I will give a succinct response: No.
You won’t get sick. But don’t expect the tea to taste great. Unless it’s fermented tea, it will lose its flavor the longer it lasts. It will taste stale. You will have to steep it for a little longer.
Fermented teas such as Pu-erh are exempt from this rule. Like wine, they taste better with age. In some instances, raw Pu-erh can last up to 50 years without any loss of quality.
The taste of unfermented tea begins to show changes within months after purchase – even in an airtight environment. How long it lasts before becoming completely stale depends on the type. Green tea, for instance, is more susceptible to loss of flavor with the passing of time. It also loses its health benefits the longer it lasts.
If you want your tea to last as long as possible, store it an airtight environment to protect it from air, moisture, heat, odor, and light.
Oxidation plays a role in determining how long your tea will last before it loses its flavor. There are two types of oxidation: that which occurs during the production process and that which occurs spontaneously when tea is exposed to air. The first type makes tea last longer; the second type makes it lose its flavor.
Oxidation which occurs during tea production leads to the radical alteration of the chemical composition, flavor, and appearance of a tea leaf.
Oxidation breaks cell walls, leading to natural oxidation reactions. When the oxidation reactions are allowed to occur to completion, we get fully oxidized tea – most black teas fall into this category.
One can also stop the oxidation reactions from completing – by using heat. This is partially oxidized tea. A good example is oolong tea.
Oxidized teas, such as black teas, have longer shelf lives than unoxidized teas such as herbal/green teas and white teas.
When tea is oxidized, it darkens – hence the name, black tea. Ripened Pu-erh is fully oxidized.
Green tea is unoxidized. But if you store it for extended periods of time, green tea may also darken due to spontaneous oxidation – that’s why you should store tea in an airtight environment.
Contact between tea and oxygen will cause this spontaneous oxidation. As a result, the tea begins to change color, begins to smell old, and it becomes stale-tasting.
How Long Does Iced Tea Last?
Did you know that 80% of the tea consumed in America is iced tea? Given this popularity, I think this is a crucial question, and I will do my best to give a well-considered answer.
Bottled iced tea will come with a sell by date. Most brands give instructions on how long the product will last after you open the bottle – it’s usually seven to ten days if you store it in a fridge, and two to three days if it’s unrefrigerated.
Bottled iced tea is typically good for the first 12 months after the manufacture date (if you don’t open the bottle). Canned iced tea can give you 18 months.
When the iced tea goes bad, you will notice a wine-like smell, and it might even become moldy.
How Long Does Loose Leaf Tea Last?
Fresh loose leaf tea is flavorful. But if it lasts too long, coming into contact with air, it undergoes spontaneous oxidation, and becomes bitter and without flavor.
The trick is to store it properly. If you do this, the tea will give you a full year of use, and maybe longer than that. But for the best taste, use it within three months. After that, there is a gradual but marked deterioration in quality.
Store your loose leaf tea in a 100% dry, 100% odorless container that has an airtight seal. The best containers for the job are:
- Stainless steel tins because they absorb odors, block out most sunlight, and are durable.
- And darkly colored glass because it is easy to clean, blocks sunlight, and does not absorb odors – but keep them out of direct sunlight.
The worst storage containers for loose leaf tea are:
- Plastic because it absorbs odors.
- Clear glass because it does not block sunlight.
- Leaky containers because they let in air which oxidizes the tea, moisture which causes molding, and odors which the tea absorbs.
- And paper bags – if you bought it in a paper bag, transfer the tea to a better container.
How Long Does Teavana Tea Last?
If the package has a sell-by date, that is how long your tea will last. Otherwise, use the criteria I have outlined in other parts of this article. For instance, if it’s unopened, a year after the manufacture date is right.
Adhere to the same storage conditions that I have enumerated for loose-leaf tea.
It is my hope that the article has shed some light on this simple yet fascinating question. The answer, as is the case for all good questions, is complicated.
The answer to the question, “Does tea expire” is “yes” and “it depends”. Yes, if it is regular tea. The latter, if you are talking about Pu-erh tea.
And don’t forget what you have learned about proper storage of tea. Keep it away from direct sunlight, odors, moisture, and air.