We all have some type of tea in our pantry. It’s one of the common items that collects dust in our cupboards until we jump back onto that health kick (or maybe that’s just me). I find myself switching back and forth between tea and coffee throughout the year, so some of my tea tends to get neglected a bit longer than anticipated.
In this case, the question becomes, is this old tea safe to drink?
And if it is, how will I know? Do some teas last longer than others? What indicators should I look for? How long does tea last?
These are some of the questions I will be addressing in this post. My hope is to confront the topic of tea expiration from all angles, and to provide you with a sure answer to your tea predicament.
These days, anything steeped in boiling water is referred to as “tea." I know many people who continually call their mixes of honey, lemon, mint, and hot water “tea" even though, technically, it isn't.
For the purpose of this post, let’s dial in the terminology so you know exactly what we’re talking about. Tea will be considered:
Dried tea leaves
Herbal blends are typically concoctions of different herbs, spices, berries, barks, roots and flowers, but do not actually contain any tea leaves. These are usually caffeine free, and are still referred to as “tea.” Some popular examples are mint, chamomile, and hibiscus blends.
How to Tell if Tea is Bad
While all teas are different and some lose their flavor more quickly than others, tea essentially does not expire, as long as it's stored properly.
The important keywords here: stored properly.
If your tea has had any contact with moisture, mold can creep in and take over. Here are a few indicators that mold has created a home in your tea:
If you don’t use loose leaf tea, crack open a few randomly selected tea bags and look for these signs.
If you’ve kept your tea in a dry, cool place away from any immediate heat sources, and in a tightly sealed container, your tea should be free of mold and okay to drink.
Just be warned, it might be a bit weak if it's old, or the expiration date has passed.
There should be an expiration date on your tea, and if a year (or even more) has passed, your tea should still be fine. Again, flavor loss will be the ultimate result of age.
There are some herbal blends that contain ingredients such as chocolate, fruit and nuts. These varieties will not keep fresh as long as pure leaf teas. These blends should be consumed within 6 months after purchase, and kept properly stored (dry, cool, dark area).
The expiration date has nothing to do with health safety, but is rather the manufacturer's estimate on when the taste will start to deteriorate. If you’ve pulled out that old English breakfast that’s been in your cupboard for god knows how long, open up a bag and see if there are any unpleasant odors or noticeable moisture. If not, brew a cup and try it out. If the flavor is very weak, it’s probably time for a new box. The same goes for loose leaf teas.
Which Teas Last the Longest?
Pu-erh, or red tea, is the only benefactor in our equation. This special type of fermented tea gains an improvement in taste and quality over time, and can be stored indefinitely in the proper environment.
What Happens to Flavor as Tea Ages?
There is also the point of oxidation to take into consideration, when tea leaves deteriorate and get their classic brown color. This is done before packing and going out on the shelves. Green, yellow, white and light oolong teas are less oxidized before going on the market, so they have higher potential for oxidizing after being brought home and opened. Oxidation leads to flavor loss, hence more tasteless tea.
All teas will eventually lose their flavor and the phytochemicals (primary flavonoids) will degrade.
If you feel the need to toss your tea, add it to your compost bin to use as fertilizer, or leave it open in a storage area or closet to absorb unpleasant odors. As you continue reading, you'll see we have created a list of even more uses for your old tea.
Does Tea Expire Once it’s Been Brewed?
Absolutely! Once tea is brewed (either hot or cold water) the vitamins and flavors start to deplete. But keep in mind that tea brewed in hot water will decompose slightly quicker, as high temperatures will speed up oxidation.
Tea stored in the fridge will start losing its taste after 1 day, but can be stored in a clean airtight container, and kept in the fridge for up to 3 days (as long as no sugar or fruit has been added). After this point it will start to “go off” and become volatile. If you keep your tea at room-temp on the counter, don’t leave it for longer than 8 hours, and make sure to always cover it with an airtight seal.
Iced tea (no sugar or fruit added) can be kept in the fridge in an airtight container for up to 3 days, no longer.
Why is my Tea Cloudy?
The cloudiness that occurs in brewed tea usually only happens when tea is chilled. If you stick your tea in the refrigerator too soon after brewing, you might experience this unpleasant cloudiness. It is caused by the caffeine and tannins bonding with each other when tea is refrigerated or iced. The hotter the water for steeping, the more caffeine and tannins are extracted, leading to potentially murkier water.
The minerals in tap water can also cause some cloudiness. To avoid this happening, try using bottled or filtered water, and let stand at room temperature for at least an hour before chilling.
Does Loose Leaf Tea Expire?
Even though loose leaf tea may be of higher quality, eventually, it will go bad (or simply lose its flavor). When exactly will this happen? It varies. For instance, larger tea leaves or better quality leaves that are more tightly rolled will last longer. Tea that is more processed, like black tea, will also have a longer shelf-life.
Loose leaf tea is often sold in a paper bag. You'll want to make sure you transfer it into an appropriate container as soon as possible. Airtight, dry, and dark are your main objectives when it comes to storing tea.
Does Bottled Tea Expire?
Unopened bottles of iced tea, if kept away from direct heat and light, can last years. There will be a "best by" date on the bottle, but this is only the manufacturer's estimate of the freshness peak, not a "safe to consume" date. If the expiration date has passed, the tea should still be ok to drink, if it has been properly stored.
Opened bottles of tea will expire quickly. After opened, bottled tea should be kept in the fridge and finished within 5-7 days.
If any bottled tea develops an "off" appearance, odor or flavor, it should be discarded.
What to do with Unused Expired Tea Bags
Green tea (as well as other teas) that have sat too long in the cupboard, can have a purpose. Before you toss those ancient tea leaves, see how you may be able to recycle them:
- Brew some tea, strain it, let it cool, and water your garden with it as a natural fertilizer.
- Wash your hair with some chilled brewed tea to sooth your scalp and get rid of itching and irritation.
- Make a mouthwash. Green tea kills bacteria and freshens breath.
- Add it to your compost. The acid in the tea will help other compounds in your compost break down quicker.
- Use brewed tea for burns or scratches.
- Deodorize smelly shoes (or cupboards) by making a sachet of loose leaves and leaving them in the toe area overnight.
Can Old Tea Make You Sick?
Brewed tea can become harmful quite quickly.
Health departments have found tea samples that were left out contained coliform bacteria, which can cause symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.
When coliform bacteria are found, other harmful organisms also may be present, such as salmonella and intestinal viruses.
But brewing a cup of "expired" tea will probably leave you with a flat, tasteless cup, and not something that will cause any harm. Tea leaves, when stored properly, are a very shelf-stable food that are known to last decades.
How to Regain Maximum Freshness
- Store tea in tin, tea container, or tightly sealed bag
- Make sure to seal tightly after each use
- Always keep tea in a dark, dry, and cool place away from direct sunlight or heat source
- Freeze your tea (green, white, light oolong and flower teas only) for longer preservation of color, flavor and aroma
Check out some of our favorite tea canisters:
A large, stylish & functional tea canister $29
A set of 3 black canisters with viewing windows $22
A set of 6 black, double-seal canisters $14
Health Benefits of Drinking Tea
- Helps with weight loss
- Changes pH in mouth to prevent cavities
- Soothes the digestive system
- Boosts the immune system
- Protects bones (specifically Moringa tea, which contains calcium, iron, vitamins A+K)
- May reduce risk of heart attack/stroke
- Less caffeine than coffee
- High in antioxidants
Some Fun Facts About Tea
- 82% of tea sales in the U.S. are from iced tea
- Turkish people consume the most tea by far, and also grow ⅕ of the world's supply
- Tea originated in Southwest China during the Shang Dynasty in the Yunnan region
- It was first used as a medicinal drink
- Tea didn’t become popularized in Britain until the 17th century
“Tea” actually refers to the evergreen shrub Camellia Sinensis, a native plant to East Asia. Surprisingly, all of our black, oolong and white teas come from this same plant. The difference between these teas comes from how the leaves are treated after harvesting.
Green tea is actually the most popular drink on the planet, after water. The history of tea goes beyond our imagining, back thousands of years from cultures that are long gone. Tea is healing, hydrating and energizing. It has even been named as the “indispensable ingredient to the elixir of life” by Laozi. It has been known to have incredible healing powers, and is enjoyed by millions of people every day. For many, tea is life.
We’ve deduced that all teas are unique, and some will keep their flavor longer than others. I hope this article has helped you understand that tea doesn't usually expire, it just loses its freshness and taste. Ultimately, it comes down to how much the flavor matters to you.
Keep your tea supply up-to-date, properly stored, and don’t forget to treat yourself to a cup with a spoonful of honey every now and then...you deserve it.
Founder of Robust Kitchen