The number of tea varieties is overwhelming. If you’re like me, you often buy 3 or 4 small containers to test things out. Some teas turn out great, others not so much.
And there are those tea containers that get lost in storage for months only to resurface past the date on the label. Does tea go bad?
If you’re not sure if you can use those old (or “expired”) tea bags or leaves, this article is for you. In it, you will learn more about storage, shelf life, and going bad of tea.
How To Store Tea
Tea should sit in a dry and dark place, away from sources of heat, light, and air. The pantry is the perfect place, but a cupboard in the kitchen is usually a more practical one.
Once you open the package or container, make sure it’s always sealed tightly. Constant air circulation speeds up the aging process, and we don’t want that.
As you can tell already, storing tea is similar to storing coffee beans or ground coffee.
If your tea comes in a paper packaging that cannot be sealed tightly, consider transferring the bags or leaves into a dedicated resealable container.
You can either buy one or buy tea that comes in one. Some of those containers are beautifully designed and can be an excellent and functional piece of kitchen decor.
If you expect to use all of the tea bags or loose-leaf tea within a month or two, you can leave the tea in the original packaging. An airtight container won’t make that much of a difference over such a short period.
How Long Does Tea Last
Most teas come with a best-by date on the package. That date indicates how long the tea leaves should retain freshness. It has nothing to do with safety.
Tea doesn’t really go bad without the presence of water, but most types degrade in quality over time.
Therefore, the date on the label is more of an indicator of how long you can expect to experience the full flavor that tea has to offer. It will still be safe to use after that date.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to say how long past the date on the label the tea will still taste good. It’s different for every tea type.
Generally, the more “processed” the leaves, the better it retains quality. That means that the most popular kind of tea, which is black tea (Earl Grey, English Breakfast, and so on) lasts in good quality the longest.
Oolong, which is between black and green tea in terms of processing, lasts a bit shorter. And green tea, the least processed one of the three, lasts even shorter.
Please note that besides the type, tea’s quality matters too. A good quality green tea can last longer than poor quality black tea.
In short, both tea leaves and tea bags retain good quality for about 6 to 12 months past the best-by date.
Another type of tea is Pu-erh (or red) tea. It’s a fermented tea that, contrary to other types, improves in quality and taste over time. Provided that it’s a quality one.
Don’t expect a cheap package of Pu-erh to become who-knows-how-great after a few years of storage.
|Tea bags (unpened or opened)||Best by + 6 – 12 months|
|Loose leaf tea (unopened or opened)||Best by + 6 – 12 months|
How To Tell If Tea Is Bad?
Tea doesn’t really go bad unless water or any other liquid gets to it. If that happens, there will be mold, and it’s obvious that you should discard the tea. If everything is okay with the bags or leaves, you can use them.
The fact that tea is safe to use doesn’t mean it will taste good.
As I mentioned earlier, most teas gradually degrade in quality. Your Earl Grey that sits in the cupboard for half a decade won’t be as good as it was when you brewed your first cup.
If the tea brewed with old tea bags or leaves tastes stale or the flavor doesn’t quite hit the spot, it’s time to get rid of it.
It’s not bad in a way it’s unsafe to drink (spoiled), but it’s past its prime. And that is good enough reason to throw it out. There’s no point in brewing an unpalatable cup of tea.
Last but not least, if your brewed tea sits on the counter for more than a day, get rid of it. It might be still okay to drink (or not, see photo above), but it’ll taste bad anyway.
There’s one type of tea that might include some floating stuff inside the bottle and still be fine – kombucha. Here’s my article on the product: Does kombucha go bad?.