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You are intentional and conscientious with your tea choices. You invest your hard-earned dollars into high quality, fresh, loose leaf tea tea, not just for the superior taste, but also for the many health benefits that tea promises. It makes sense that you want to store your tea just as thoughtfully.
So what are the rules for storing loose leaf tea?
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Loose Leaf Tea Storage 101
Technically, teas of every kind are dried plant materials, so they won't spoil in the same way milk or meat or vegetables do when they're past their prime. There is nothing unsafe about drinking old loose leaf tea (unless it contains mold), so if you happen to drink tea that is past its shelf date, the worst thing that can happen is that the flavor is stale and flat. However, old or improperly stored tea leaves will eventually lose their fragrance, flavor, and many of the nutrients, antioxidants, and other healing compounds that deliver the healing benefits, so you aren't going to get all the positive benefits when you drink old or improperly stored tea.
In order to keep your tea leaves fresh, flavorful, and healthy, here are the most important things to protect your tea leaves from:
Tea leaves of all kinds are simply dried botanicals, which are very good at absorbing moisture from the surrounding environment. It is critical that your tea leaves are not exposed to any moisture, because moisture can lead to mold growth. To avoid exposing the loose tea to moisture, don't let it sit out uncovered, and make sure that your tea spoons and scoops, or even your fingers, are completely dry before dipping into the tea. If you happen to discover mold in your tea, discard it right away.
A telltale sign of mold include an obvious fuzzy white growth, but if the leaves begin to feel soft rather than dry, do a quick check to make sure no mold is growing. Soft, pliable tea leaves indicate an exposure to moisture.
Sunlight will heat up the tea leaves, causing them to lose potency, aroma, flavor, and nutrients. Sunlight will also fade the color of the tea, so definitely do not store your tea in the windowsill or on a surface that is exposed to sunlight streaming in from the window or skylight. Intense artificial light will also degrade your tea leaves, so move your tea to a cupboard if your kitchen is brightly lit or is exposed to sunlight.
Like light, heat speeds up oxidation, and will degrade the tea by "cooking" the volatile oils, and potentially destroying heat-sensitive antioxidants and vitamins. Don't store your tea next to the stove for obvious reasons, or above the refrigerator, which can actually get pretty warm.
You know that wonderful fragrance when you open up your tea container and all those wonderful aromas come pouring out? Those gorgeous smells wafting out of your tea are now in the atmosphere, and not where they need to be: in your cup! Exposure to air also exposes the tea to oxygen, which literally oxidizes your tea, causing it to lose freshness, flavor, and aroma.
Dried botanicals like tea leaves absorb odors like a sponge. You might love the smell of garlic or fresh coffee or frying bacon, but not in your teacup, right? Tea absorbs all types of odors: foods, fragrances, spices. Tea even absorbs the odors of other teas, especially teas that are high in volatile oils, such as peppermint, lavender, and spices; this includes flavored teas, too.
How Should Loose Leaf Tea Be Stored?
Now that you know the factors that can ruin your tea, you know that whatever type of storage you use has to protect the tea from moisture, light, heat, air, and odors. There are so many types of containers to choose from. Glass, metal, and ceramic are the most popular choices, just make sure the container is airtight, and will keep out moisture and odors. You can easily avoid exposing your tea to heat by storing the tea away from heat sources. If you use clear containers, keep them out of the light by storing it in a cupboard, drawer, or somewhere that won't be in direct light.
Should I Refrigerate Loose Leaf Tea?
The answer to this is: NO. Although the tea will be protected from light and heat inside your fridge, it will not be protected from moisture or odors at all. Loose leaf tea actually holds up best at room temperature. Remember, tea isn't a fresh perishable like lettuce or berries, so it really doesn't need the cold temperatures to keep it fresh. Likewise, you don't want to store the tea in the freezer either, where you run the risk of freezer burn.
Can Loose Leaf Tea Be Stored In Plastic Containers?
You should avoid storing your tea in plastic containers for a few reasons. One: plastic absorbs odors. The tea will absorb the odors of anything that was previously stored in the container. Plastic isn't the best barrier against odors, either. Another reason to avoid plastic containers is that certain botanicals contain high amounts of aromatic oils. Lavender, chamomile, and the spices used in chai, are all highly aromatic. The trouble is that these essential oils act as solvents to the plastic, and will literally melt the plastic. This means you will get microplastic particles in your tea. (Click here to read more about microplastics and tea.)
How Long Can Loose Leaf Tea Be Stored In Paper Bags?
Many tea companies (us included) sell bulk tea in paper bags. These bags are not intended for long term storage. The paper bags used for bulk loose leaf tea are typically lined with either plastic, or PLA (a plant-based type of plastic, which is the type of bags we use), which acts as a short-term barrier against air, odors, etc, but it is not meant for storage longer than 30-60 days or so. If you haven't used up your tea within 30 days, transfer any remaining tea to a safe, airtight container to keep it fresh.
I drink a lot of tea, and buy it in bulk. As soon as I get home, I transfer my tea from the bag into glass jars with a tight lid. The only time I skip this step is when I know I am going to use the tea up right away.
How Long Will Loose Leaf Tea Last?
When properly stored, your loose leaf tea will be fresh, flavorful, and potent anywhere from one to three years, depending on the type of tea and what you are using it for. I am a freshness fanatic when it comes to the tea that I sell, but in truth, as long as the tea smells good, looks good, and tastes good, it is good. Loose leaf tea has a longer shelf life than tea bags, as the leaves and botanicals aren't finely shredded, and are able to retain more nutrients and antioxidants in their natural form. Black and oolong teas will stay fresher longer than green and white teas, because they are more fully oxidized. And puehr tea (also called puer, puerh, and pu-erh) is made with fermented tea leaves, and, like fine wine, when properly stored, is believed to improve with age.
Regarding herbal teas: the more highly aromatic the tea is, the faster you should drink it up. Teas with peppermint, spearmint, chamomile, rosemary, and lavender, all contain volatile oils which will fade away after a while. It won't be bad to drink, it simply won't be all that exciting after a year or more. However, herbal teas made with bark, roots, and dried berries can last two to three years.
How Can I Tell If My Tea Is Still Fresh?
Here is a fun word to add to your vocabulary and impress your friends with at parties: Organoleptic. It sounds like a crazy long scientific term, but all it means is that you use your sensory organs of sight, smell, taste, and mouthfeel to determine the quality of a product. Does it look fresh or drab? Are the colors vibrant or dull? Is there a definitive aroma or does it smell flat? Are the flavors true and distinct or does it taste off, metallic, or simply old? Your sense organs are connected to the world's most powerful computer: your brain, which has evolved since the dawn of time to ensure your survival. One of the things the brain can do is determine if something is good to eat or not! So use your senses, give it a sniff, and try it out.
Check Out These Loose Leaf Tea Storage Ideas
Loose leaf tea tins are easy to use, lightweight, and will keep out light, air, moisture, and odors.
Glass containers are my favorite way to store tea. Glass is easy to clean, and is perfect for keeping out odors and moisture. The downsides of glass: it is breakable, and you will need to keep the tea away from light.
Mason jars are popular, and can be used for all types of storage.
Violet glass jars are something special. Violet glass is a unique type of glass that has been proven to increase the shelf life and stability of natural products for a long time, due to its ability to block light and increase the vibration of whatever is being stored. Violet glass is not cheap, however, but if you are ready to invest in the best, you won't find anything better than this type of glass jar.
Ceramic, like glass, is ideal for storing dry goods like tea. Ceramic is preferable to glass because it protects your items from exposure to light.