Tea is easily available all across the world and almost everyone consumes it. Tea ends up getting stacked up for months and people gets confused whether they can consume that tea or not.
So can tea actually expire? No, tea leaves do not expire. But its aroma, color and even the flavor can change over time. The longer the tea leaves are kept, the more prominent changes become. However, moist tea leaves can facilitate the growth of molds which can spoil it. However, tea leaves if stored properly, do not have any expiration date.
Essential Information About Tea
Tea has originated from an evergreen shrub that goes by the name Camelia Sinensis. The leaves of the shrub are harvested time to time to give raw tea leaves, which is later processed and turned into the suitable quality of the consumable tea that we know.
Essentially, it is a herb. Like any other dry herb, tea does not really have an expiration date. Tea is essentially expiration free product. It does not corrode given perfect circumstances of its storage. Since it a dry herb, it does not come with a pre-decided expiration date.
However, the tea may lose the flavor, the color of the tea might alter to some extent, and the aroma specific to a tea leaf might be reduced considerably. We have to understand that tea leaf, in general, is a very delicate herb. It is hugely reactive to sunlight, air, temperature and moisture.
Thus, the answer to this question is very much dependent on how we handle the delicacy of the magical leaves. This explains the logic of a printed “best before” date and not “expiration date” on the packet of the tea leaf.
Going by the definition, the aroma, taste, color or the flavor might be compromised, but the tea leaf remains fit for consumption.
However, there are practices across the globe, of ancient tea-making which often speak otherwise. People can taste tea made from tea leaves that is well beyond 5-7 years old.Proper storage in exact right conditions can allow the tea to be ready to drink for years!
There are several methods of preservation involved during the process, which is sort of difficult to follow while at home and thus we cannot consider this the standard benchmark for best before drinking conditions in the case of household consumption of tea.
Tea can thus be considered drinkable even way beyond it’s marked “best before” date. That being said, let us dwell deeper into the matter. Preservation techniques used at our houses are often not foolproof, and thus it becomes tricky to specify the exact “best before” dates.
However, we use the reference of usual preservation that we stick to while at home. Now, let us specify “tea” into categories. Drinkable tea can come to our house in various manners. Broadly speaking, it may be packed tea leaf, or it may be loose tea leaf purchased directly from the store.
Let us further classify tea into the different methods of tea production, that is, the Orthodox method and the CTC method. The long leaf tea that we usually picture in our mind is generally the tea manufactured using the orthodox method.
First, we deal with the long leaf tea produced using the Orthodox method.
How Long Can Packet Tea Leaf Last?
The answer to this question depends on various factors. Usually, a packed packet of tea from any brand comes with a best before date. The date is by far a minimum approximation for tea to be consumed.
Usually, if the storing conditions are right, that is, the packet is stored in a fairly dry place, and it does not come in direct contact with sun rays for a prolonged period of time, the packet tea can last way beyond it’s actual printed best before date, that is, to be fair, at least another one to two years from the mentioned date.
It can be consumed beyond that period of time, but it is not advisable as tea leaves tend to absorb some amount of moisture directly from the atmosphere, which results in the formation of molds eventually. This eventually turns the tea undrinkable.
Refrigeration of the packet can, however, increase the shelf life by even considerable amount of time. The answer to this question is thus, broadly more than two years beyond the mentioned “best before” date under proper storage techniques being used.
How Long Can Loose Tea Last?
This is an even trickier question to answer. Largely speaking, we can consume the loose tea leaf purchased by us for at least a year from our day of purchase. Loose tea leaf is more prone to corrosion as it usually gets exposed to a lot of air before it finally makes up into our shelves.
The retailer might have mishandled the leaves during the purchase. It may be exposed to direct sunlight or air for a prolonged time. The tea leaf might gather some amount of moisture which can cause the tea leaf to get hampered. It is thus a bit more tricky to extend the shelf life of loose tea leaves.
It is therefore advisable to consume the tea purchased directly from store within a year. However, with proper management of storing techniques, the shelf life can be increased considerably.
The thumb rule that we must remember is that unless there are visible molds present on the surface of the leaves, or unless there is some insect infestation observable, you might actually be able to consume the tea.
How Long Can CTC Tea Last?
The tea made using the method of CTC has in general much more shelf life compared to tea leaves made in Orthodox method. The smaller granules of curled tea leaves is a lot more durable and easy to store.
This is another reason the modern method of tea production using the method of CTC is preferred. A CTC leaf can easily stay fresh for two years from the date of purchase either in packed condition or loose tea purchased from a store.
This makes CTC leaves ideal for storage for a longer duration of time. However, the standard rules of preservation must be followed even then. One can find the CTC tea leaves fit for consumption at least for three to four after it’s a purchase.
How Long Do Tea Bags Last?
Teabags are a quickly growing alternative to traditional tea-drinking habits. Teabags are easy to use, easy to store alternative to tea leaves. Teabags are primarily composed of finely grind CTC leaves covered with commonly filter paper or food-grade plastic, or sometimes of silk cotton or silk.
Teabags can last for at least 18 to 24 months from the date of “best before”. Again given the proper storage conditions, tea bags are durable. However, in the case of tea bags, the presence of additional material over the tea can sometimes corrode the tea. So, it is advisable to use the tea bags within two to three years of purchase.
It is to be understood that all the above mentioned time frames regarding the safe date of consumption depend entirely upon how we store the tea. We should keep some essential factors in mind while dealing with the storage of the delicate tea leaves.
Some Effective Methods To Store Tea
I. The tea leaves must be stored in an airtight container. The leaves react heavily to the atmospheric air, which causes the leaves to lose its flavor. In worst cases, the moisture content in the air might damage the leaves ultimately by forming molds.
II. The airtight contained leaves must be kept away from direct sunlight. Sunlight in the extreme cases warms up the tea leaves, which gradually causes the tea to lose its aroma and flavor over some time.
III. The tea leaves must be stored in a steel container for maximum storage efficiency. If glass is used for storage, then the transparency can cause the tea leaves to react with outside heat, thus damaging the leaves.Plastics of any form should be avoided as the plastic material tend to react with the tones of tea leaves and cause significant degradation in the quality of the leaves.However, it may still be fit for consumption, but the quality of tea leaf might be compromised significantly. In the absence of steel containers, colored glass containers can be used, the ones that can obstruct the light from entering.
IV. The containers should be kept in a relatively dark, dry room. It is essential to keep the containers in a dry shady place because the presence of moisture around the tea leaves in any form will definitely damage the tea leaves. Tea leaves are very sensitive to moisture.It can absorb the moisture easily and can form molds which can permanently damage the tea leaves beyond edible conditions.
V. The container containing the tea leaves must not be kept in a very hot room. Tea leaves are prone to damage with rising temperatures. It is sensitive to heat beyond its ability to withstand. Tea leaves must ideally be kept at a temperature below 22C-25C.
VI. The container must not be kept in the vicinity of any object with a strong odor. Tea leaves absorb any odor very effectively, and the presence of a strong smell near the container will definitely cause the leaf to absorb and reflect the odor, which will be very undesirable.
VII. The container must also not be kept very near the kitchen place where cooking is done with spices. The strong odor of the spices is well retained by the leaves, which will significantly alter the aroma.
If all the above conditions are correctly maintained, the tea leaves can last for at least two years beyond the “best before” date in the case of orthodox leaves, and at least three years after the “best before” date in the case of CTC leaves. This is the reason the tea leaf packet comes with a “best before” date and not “use before” date.
The best before date essentially means the flavor, aroma and color of the tea leaf are best before the mentioned date and not the quality of leaf. It remains intact for months beyond the mentioned date, but the taste gets compromised.
Since tea leaf is all about the flavor and aroma, dates are essential to mention during the production of the tea leaf pack.
What To Do If You Find Two Year Old Tea Leaves?
This may often be the case. We encounter such cases almost every day at every household! It is challenging to decide what to do right after rediscovering a packet of old tea leaf. In this case, it is advised to check how the container was kept during the period.
If the safe conditions for storing the leaf are ensured, we may proceed to check for any related insect infestation or for the presence of any mold or any foul odor. If the external factors of vision and smell comply with our idea of a good tea leaf, the tea leaves are most probably in good condition, fit for drinking!
Well, of course, the aroma or the flavor might not be as pleasant as new, but it is safe for consumption. Of course, it is harder to get rid of the leaves we purchased so dearly with our penny.
We can, however, restore the flavor slightly using a simple technique. We have to dry heat the leaf in a hot bowl. Do not overheat the bowl as the excessive heat may burn off the lighter tones of the tea leaf and may spoil the flavor even more.
So, it is advisable to heat a bowl slightly and place the tea leaves gently on it. Gently dry heating the leaves might restore the aroma to a great extent.
You must take proper care while making a cup of tea from the old leaves. You must infuse the leaves for a longer duration than you generally keep in the case of fresher leaves. The lost aroma and flavor will take some longer time to open up, but with sufficient time, the aroma will surely become a lot more indulging.
How To Know If The Stored Tea Leaves Are Damaged Or Unfit For Consumption?
It is relatively easy to know if the tea we just dug out of our kitchen shelf is damaged. We must check physically for any sign of mold or pest infestation. If the tea leaf is found slightly wet or turned whitish or the color of the tea leaf is completely pale, the chances are high that the tea leaf is contaminated.
We must discard the leaf immediately and not use it further. We must also check for any foul odor. The aroma is expected to reduce over a prolonged period of time. Still, if the leaf releases unpleasant odor, it is highly likely that the tea leaves are damaged or unfit for use. We should not further use them.
To sum up, then, tea leaves of all varieties can be used way beyond it’s best before date. The flavors might not be as fresh as newly plucked and packed leaves, but the leaves will surely be fit for consumption as long as we ensure proper storage. The keyword to this question always remains the means of storage we use.
As long as no physical damage is observable by us, the tea will remain fit for consumption given some little compromise in the taste of the tea.