You humans spend a lot of time and money on tea and then throw a lot of it out, usually due to poor storage. Time for your faithful little teapot buddy to lend a hand by passing along my wisdom gained over the years for how you can store those teas to extend their “shelf life” and save you money.
There’s a lot of information, but we here don’t want you to be overwhelmed, so we decided to organize things by tea type, with a general guide up front.
Your storage container should shut out light, air, odors, heat, and moisture.
The Enemies of Your Tea
Click on each photo for details:
Store Your Teas So They Are Protected from the Above
The container should be airtight to avoid odors that could affect the tea leaves, which are very absorbent, and to keep the leaves fresh tasting.
Be sure the container is also watertight and that you open it away from running faucets, etc., that the spoon you use to take some tea leaves out of the container is dry when you do so. You don’t want to encourage mold or bacterial growth!
Keep the container of dry tea in a cool area away from stoves, ovens, and other heat sources as well as away from windows where sunlight could shine on it.
Glass jars seem so pretty on display in teashops, but in your home, the dry tea needs to be in an opaque container. This is of most concern for white, yellow, and green teas, all of which will fade and look unappetizing.
Adjust for duration of tea storage
Some teas will be stored a short time only. Others can be stored for years. You can prolong the “shelf life” of your teas by first determining if you will be planning to store them a long time or not. This could take some experience with the tea in question but also depends on your personal tea drinking habits.
See details on storing pu-erhs are further down in this article.
Know the exceptions to the basics of tea storage
The basics are just that — basic! And the old adage “there’s an exception to every rule” certainly applies to storing your fine teas. There are those who say not to put your teas in the refrigerator or freezer. But if you know the tricks and which teas can take it, then you’ll be fine and so will your teas. Green teas can be frozen if the leaves are wrapped up tightly in small batches and not left in the freezer for longer than about two months (don’t worry if you go a few days past this), then steeped while the leaves are still frozen. Contrary to what some tea vendors say, you can store teas in the refrigerator, too, especially the newer models that can reduce moisture levels (the main problem with storing teas this way). Be sure the teas are in an airtight container, preferably vacuum sealed by the vendor (once you open the package, sealing it totally airtight is difficult). Reputable tea vendors in China store their fine teas such as Tie Guan Yin in refrigerators all the time. Just don’t consider this long-term storage.
Keeping your fine teas properly stored will help your expenditure go further since you won’t have to throw away spoiled tea leaves.
Visibility and accessibility
The old adage “out of sight, out of mind” applies to teas. If you want to decrease your consumption of other beverages and increase your tea intake, keep those teas stored in plain sight.
To enjoy some of those teas on a daily basis, be sure the storage method allows for easy access. Matcha, for example, is best stored in small jars (usually around 50 grams capacity) with openings wide enough for a small spoon to fit. If you like a daily round of pu-erh, keep some broken pieces in a loose paper bag or unsealed clay jar.
In the case of flavor-enhanced teas which tend to become part of your cooking arsenal sooner or later, keep them as handy as you do the flour and sugar.
Kids are so cute, but they are also natural explorers. And their learning curve is huge. Some of your flavor-enhanced teas may have things in them that your children will find tempting. Eating them may or may not be tough on tender tummies, but better safe than sorry.
The Arsenal to Save Your Tea
Well, obviously you want something air-tight, but it can’t stop there. You have to shut out light, too, and put the tea in a relatively cool location. With that in mind, we can strongly recommend the plastic pouches typically used by the better tea vendors. As you use up the tea the pouch can be rolled up tighter, assuring no air inside. Unlike tea tins and canisters, your teas will be air-free and stay fresh longer. The tins and canisters are good to put the pouches in, if you want a nice display, but they take up extra room. Such proper storage will, of course, prolong the time you can store your teas. Whites are generally stored for a couple of months. Greens for a few months, oolongs for as much as six months. Blacks for up to a year.
About Refrigerating Your Tea
Some tea experts caution against storing teas in the refrigerator, but there are situations in which this is advisable. Some tea vendors store this way to extend the “shelf life” of the more delicate teas, especially whites and greens. The key is that the teas are kept in the refrigerator until shipped out, but in your home you would be taking the container out of the refrigerator, removing some of the leaves, and putting the tea container back in the refrigerator. This exposes the tea to the air for a short time and can introduce moisture.
Tips on Storing Your Flavored Teas
Storing your teas is a tricky business but very important, especially for your more delicate teas. But flavored teas are different and therefore need some special handling, unless you want all of your teas taking on that dominant flavoring of the tea stored improperly with them.
It’s probably good at this point to give a brief explanation of what constitutes a flavored tea. I must confess that this is my personal definition and that tea professionals may beg to differ. Basically, to me a flavored tea is any true tea (made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, not from such things as honeybush or rooibos) and that has had other things, from fruits to spices to flower petals and more, added to it. I lump into this category the “scented teas,” since taste and smell are so closely affiliated.
Some of the more problematic flavorings my humans have experienced (click on each photo for details):
A Few “Musts” for Flavored Tea Storage
- Seal the tea container as tightly as possible.
- Keep teas with strong flavorings away from each other teas in your cupboard, drawer, or pantry, no matter how well sealed, or you will end up with a very odd combination, such as cinnjaspep (a combo of cinnamon, jasmine, and peppermint) or some such monstrous cacophony.
- Teas flavored with real pieces of fruit (as opposed to fruit flavored oils) and/or flower petals should be used soon since preservatives are generally not included in them.
- Don’t store those flavored teas in an area that’s too hot, which isn’t good for tea anyway, but a tea flavored with fruit chunks could end up with cooked fruit chunks — ew!
- Don’t forget to follow the normal guidelines for tea storage at the beginning of this article.
- My advice to those of you inclined toward flavored teas is to buy smaller quantities and enjoy them as soon as possible. Considering that new flavors are being developed all the time, also, you will not want to be overstocked on any one tea anyway, so that you feel free to buy the new ones.
- Teas with actual slices of orange or apple, etc., will be unevenly flavored. These things sit in the same place in the container during storage. Shake the container now and then to give the other tea leaves direct exposure to these items. Flavorings in powder form such as cinnamon, coriander, black pepper, etc., settle to the container bottom. A good shake helps them mix in better.
- Flavor-enhanced teas that use natural flavorings such as pieces of fruit and flower petals have the possibility of those things deteriorating and affecting the tea leaves just as one rotten apple affects the rest of the barrel. So, pop the lid on that tea tin or storage jar or crack open that plastic or foil pouch and take a whiff once every week or so. You may want to remove that hunk of orange rind or those flower petals when they start to look a bit past their prime, or you might end up having to chuck the whole thing, which would make this teapot very sad.
How Long Can You Store Your Teas
How and how long to store your fine teas is often presented in a very condensed manner, but sometimes in a fairly complex manner. And all sources that I have come across say a lot of the same things, most of which I agree with and some that I tend to disagree with. A bit of sorting out is needed, I think, so here goes.
Conventional wisdom says:
Plus you are usually advised to buy teas in small amounts so you can use them within the prescribed storage time.
You can extend the number of months substantially by keeping the teas in a place below normal room temperature and by using proper storage methods that guard against heat, light, moisture, odors, and air. Pu-erh is different in how it is stored and tends to benefit from air around it.
My Teapot Opinions on Storage Methods
We teapots want you humans to get the best drop of tea possible from those tea leaves, so I wanted to present my take on the various ways you store those teas.
Click on each photo for details:
Other popular container types and their storage effectiveness
Generally speaking, the container you use for tea storage should be food safe. Use opaque packaging if possible. And if you are reusing a container, be sure it is thoroughly clean and dry before adding your dry tea.
Click on each photo for details:
Special Tips for Storing Your Pu-erhs
If you can’t start your day without a morning cuppa ripened (cooked, shou) pu-erh, you might think about keeping enough readily accessible for that daily use and store any extra. Storing pu-erhs depends on the length of time: short (break into small pieces, put in paper bag, be sure there is plenty of air circulation), medium (break into pieces, put in paper bag which goes into cardboard box or unglazed jar), long (put unbroken tea cake in plastic wrap with air holes or in a clay/glass/metal jar, or keep in paper wrapping in a cardboard box).
Pu-erh is a specialty tea from the Yunnan Province of China. Like a fine wine and that hottie older college professor you once had, it can improve with age under the right conditions.
For Best Aging
Pu-erh teas can be real investments. You buy them and then store them so they continue aging. After awhile you take them out and have some. Hopefully, you stored them right for the best aging experience and therefore the best taste. How long you store them can depend on several factors, one being how old they are when you buy them. A pu-erh pressed into a cake in 2007 and purchased in 2013 is already six years old and, if it’s been properly stored, could already be up for a try. Or you can choose to store it for a few years more.
Pu-erh teas are stored and left to mature for decades like classic wines and then can fetch astronomical prices at auctions, being worth their weight in gold.
Different Storage for Different Pu-erhs
Pu-erhs are made according to many recipes using a range of tea leaves from various locations. Each is unique on how it ages and can take 10, 20, or even 30 years to reach their peak of flavor. The longer the aging, generally speaking, the more complex and rich the flavor and overall appeal. A storage “caretaker” can monitor the teas periodically, checking for problems with humidity, insect infestation, mold, and the status of aging for each tea, knowing when a tea has reached its peak before it goes into decline. Many of the tea’s treasured characteristics will quickly fade away if the tea is not handled properly.
Young pu-erh tea is quite astringent and mellows with aging — the longer the better. Store in a dry environment for several years. The pu-erh undergoes a fermentation process due to microbes present in the tea leaves.
Green pu-erh tea aging can be hastened artificially by storing it in a humid environment, a process called “aspergillus post-fermentation” that is used on cheaper grades of pu-erh tea. This type of pu-erh, if not processed correctly, can contain harmful bacteria.
White pu-erh, characterized by a light and sophisticated taste and a liquid that is light with a gentle flavor, can be stored for ten years.
What to Do
Mold and fungi infection are common problems stemming from bad storage conditions.
- Breathable (not airtight) packaging is crucial. It’s easiest to just keep the tea in the original factory packaging. Avoid plastic and other materials that block the flow of air.
- Do not store with items that emit strong odors or be sure those items are stored in airtight containers.
- Keep humidity at no more than 70%. Most basements, therefore, would be unsuitable.
- Avoid fluctuation in temperature and sunlight beyond a minimal range.
Protect Your Investment
You can shove your pu-erhs into a corner and forget about them, but don’t be too shocked at the flavor disaster you may encounter when next steeping some. Better yet, take care when storing your pu-erhs, and you’ll have a wonderful tea experience for years to come.
Signs That Your Pu-erh Needs a Bit of Air
Unlike most types of teas out there, pu-erhs need a bit of air. So, how can you tell when your pu-erh needs a bit of air? Here are some signs:
- A whiff of moldy aroma — It can be very faint and only hit your nostrils on first opening the wrapper, so you’ll have to pay close attention to detect it. If you’ve had the cake stored awhile, you’ll want to check the humidity level in that area and perhaps have a small fan running in the room just to keep the air moving around. The moldy quality, if it’s only very faint, can be removed by airing out the cake. If the cake is a fairly new one to your stock, check it carefully for any visible signs of mold. This indicates poor storage somewhere along the way (tea factory, distributor, tea vendor, etc.) or even possibly a bad cake. Air it first with that fan running in the room (but not blowing directly on the cake) for a couple of days and see how it goes. If the odor goes away and you seen no other signs of mold, you just saved your cake. Otherwise, play it safe and say “Sayonara!”
- A generally stale, lifeless aroma — Ever unwrap a cake you’ve had stored awhile and have your high expectations met with a totally lackluster aroma to the cake? Try letting the cake sit outside its wrapper for an hour or two just to get some air. It has worked for me once or twice. Worth a shot. But bear in mind that even if the aroma does not liven up with that air interaction, the flavor could still be good.
- Odd flavors when infused — So, you select a cake from storage, unwrap it, break off a nice piece, and prepare for a steep session deluxe. Your tea table, pre-seasoned Yixing teapot, chahai, tea cups, etc., are all set. You do that first short wake-up rinse. And then the moment of truth comes – the first actual steep that you will drink. They are usually only about 15 seconds, depending on which pu-erh you’re infusing. The timer dings. You pour into the chahai and from there into the cups. You sip. Your friends sip. Then come the grimaces. Something is off – waaaaaay off! Stop right there. Toss the leaves in the teapot. Then, take the cake they came from and set it in a cool place (not the kitchen) that is fairly free of extraneous odors, and let it air for a minimum of 24 hours and ideally about 48 hours. Then, break off another chunk and see how it goes.
How to Tell That Your Tea Storage Has Let You Down
We all know that storing your teas is a task to be done with care. The nemeses of tea (air, light, moisture, odors, etc.) are constantly on the attack, and so our guard must never be down. Sometimes, though, our best efforts are just not enough. You dig out that tin of tea, expecting that wonderful flavor you remembered from the first time you’d tried it, but you get something more like chocolate chip cookies. Oops! Maybe the lid on that tin wasn’t tight enough. And that package of cookies was probably a bit too close.
Of course, the opposite can happen, too, where a strongly flavored/scented tea leeches its aroma onto things around it. For example, a strongly flavored tea such as Cinnamon Flavored Black Tea, if not stored in an airtight container, can bestow that cinnamon odor to everything around it, including any teas not tightly sealed inside their containers.
There are other signs that something is amiss with your tea storage system, and knowing what to look for is crucial. A handy list:
- your Earl Grey tea smells like jasmine
- your jasmine tea smells like peppermint
- your blooming teas won’t
- your white tea looks sort of brown or grayish instead of its usual silvery green
- your gunpowder tea looks and smells like real gunpowder
- that bag of breath mints now smells and tastes like Lapsang Souchong and vice versa
- the tea pouch is poofed out from having air in it
- the tea tin is rusted
- you open up the tea package and see mold growth (this is especially relevant to pu-erhs)
- a family of mice have taken up residence near your teas and are showing signs of having freely partaken of those dry tea leaves (that is, they are acting a bit jittery and over caffeinated)
Don’t let any of these things (or maybe things even worse) happen to your teas. Practice proper storage techniques and assure tasty cupful after tasty cupful of those teas.
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Hi, humans, this site is now under my editorial excellence. I, your lovable and sassy Little Yellow Teapot, will be authoring articles on here from now forward, with the occasional guest article. All in the interest of helping you humans have a better tea experience. TOOOT!