Does tea expire? Does tea go bad? What is the expiry date for tea? If tea goes bad, what is the shelf life of tea? These are great but often overlooked question. Some say the shelf-life of tea depends on the packaging material, but that’s not really the full story. Some claim that loose leaf tea doesn’t really go bad, but rather “expires” because they lose aroma or flavor. That’s just wrong. So can tea go bad? Yes, of course! We’ll be addressing this question and other confusion, and hopefully, by the end of the article, you’ll have some idea of how you want to approach this.
One of the reasons that tea storage and tea’s expiry date is interesting and controversial is that tea is a “processed produce”. It’s not quite like fresh veggies or fruits. We’re used to seeing fruits and veggies on the shelf in the produce section with no expiry date on them. You also don’t know when they were harvested. If there are a few rotten ones it’s no big deal, we simply avoid those. No one is gonna make a fuss because the store has a rotten apple or two on the shelf because we understand the nature of produce. But the tea we consume is not quite like that. They’re not fresh leaves, they’re processed. However, they aren’t quite the same as many other processed foods, which often have preservatives added to make sure they don’t go bad before the given expiry date. Sometimes, these dates are carefully calculated in labs after some environmental stress test. This also doesn’t seem to apply to tea. If this isn’t enough cause for confusion, don’t forget that we also talk about aging tea. So how does all this fit together to answer the question does tea expire?
To get to the bottom of this topic, we are going to look at this from 2 angles that could possibly compromise the shelf life of tea. First are the exterior factors, which includes packaging and the environment. The second is the interior factor, which comes from inside the tea leaves themselves.
The big enemies of tea that are solved by good storage are direct sunlight, water, heat, and odor. For most teas, storing them in a well-sealed container or package in a dry, cool place away from the sun is the best way to prolong the shelf life. We have a video that goes into detail about how to store tea and even how to age it so be sure to check that out. I won’t be repeating that information here, but if you store the tea properly, it takes months or even years to “go bad”. Now, this “go bad” is mostly about losing flavor and aroma. The concept is similar to a yogurt’s expiry date. If stored properly, even if it’s a day or two past the expiry date, it doesn’t mean the yogurt is rotten or inedible. Rather it’s very likely to have lost substantial quantities of the good bacterias which is one of the benefits we’d like from eating yogurt. In effect, it has become ‘stale’ and not so much ‘bad’.
However, the answer to the question ‘does tea go bad’, meaning really bad, is yes. Tea can go bad, making it unsafe to drink and even harmful to our bodies. This more serious version of “going bad” means moldy or even rotten, not at all safe for consumption, and quite literally bad. This is usually caused by water, possibly from high humidity in the storage environment, or the tea doesn’t meet the quality standard and the leaf itself contained too much moisture. Let me repeat that last one because it’s subtle. It’s possible for the tea leaf itself to contain too much moisture and to “go bad”, that is get moldy or rotten by being improperly made. So buy tea from a trustworthy and knowledgeable merchant who truly understands tea, because the nuances of the moisture level in tea are not readily apparent to the untrained eye. Another way to prevent your tea from going moldy is to store it properly, especially if you are trying wet storage for aging tea. Guangzhou has a representative “wet storage” climate, warm and humid. Around 2010, The Guangzhou Center for Disease Control and Prevention spot-checked Pu’er tea on the market and found that all the samples they collected contained aflatoxins, which can cause liver damage and even liver cancer. This doesn’t mean wet storage is bad, but it does show the importance of storing tea properly, and especially wet storing tea properly. There’s a common misconception that the moldy flavor in wet-aged Pu’er is the “taste of age”, but that is simply not the case. Teas can and do become contaminated when stored improperly, becoming a lovely home for aflatoxin, E. coli, and other nasties. It’s important to set your tastebuds correctly and recognize the difference between aged tea and spoiled tea.
So is there an expiry date for tea, from a tasting and health perspective? Strictly speaking, not really. There’s no strict point in time that a tea becomes expired, but there are some simple guidelines and time frames we can rely on. While the China National Standard for tea suggests that dark tea, white tea and dark oolong teas are “suitable for long term aging in proper conditions,” there are no clear guidelines for green tea, yellow tea, black tea, or green oolong teas. Most companies put their own recommendations varying from 18 months to 3 years on the package. This provides a good guideline for us, but definitely not a strict rule. There are so many different teas in each tea category and even teas with the same name, like long jings or tie guan yins, will have an abundance of varying grades. In the grand scheme of things, the better the quality of the tea, the longer it will preserve its best taste. If you bought an oolong tea, regardless of whether it’s a green or a dark one, if the taste and aroma fall flat in just a couple of months, and you took all the proper precautions in storing it properly, it could also be a quality issue with the tea itself. These teas are usually very lovely at first sight, catering to the popular tea trend of “the earlier the better” and appealing to those who are just getting into tea, without much experience or knowledge about it. We are not big fans of this kind of tea, as they are usually focused on overwhelming aroma and brute force flavors. We stubbornly insist on authentic, properly made tea that provides a balanced aroma, rich flavor, complex taste, thick mouthfeel, and lingering aftertaste and return sweet. AKA well made tea and consequently, the shelf life is relatively longer.
If you have been following us for a while, you probably noticed that we don’t rush to have “the earliest” tea, especially in spring when many are so eager to announce the arrival of this year’s green tea. Our green tea arrives when it arrives. It could be May, or it could be June. Our yan cha, also called rock oolong tea, won’t be on the website until October or November. We believe it pays to be patient with tea. Let it take the time it requires to be properly processed so you don’t have to rush to drink it up before it loses its flavor. You can take the time you need and enjoy the tea at your leisure and still experience a delightful sip. We serve discerning tasters, not trend followers. When stored properly, our green, yellow, black, and green oolong teas have a shelf life of 3 years, while white, dark oolong and dark teas are suitable for long-term aging but of course, you can drink them any time you like. The very nature of green and yellow tea values freshness and briskness, so don’t hesitate to drink those up, although they won’t lose their flavors fast, they also don’t improve with time. Our black tea and yan cha peak in flavor when they’ve matured for a year or 2. If you are into aging tea, be sure to check out our white tea, premium oolong, and dark tea selection, as they are from the prime terroir, meticulously made and prudently selected by a real Chinese tea expert. These are teas worth aging. Be sure to check out our video on how to store tea which also provides insight on how to age tea. I’m sure it’ll be helpful whether you are aging our teas or others.