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Tea 101

How to Store Tea

A brief history

It's claimed that tea most likely originated as a medicinal drink in Yunnan, China, during the Shang Dynasty of 1500 BC – 1046 BC. But one popular tea legend suggests that Shennong, Emporor of China and supposed inventor of Chinese medicine, discovered tea as a beverage around 2737 BC when fresh tea leaves from a nearby tea tree fell into his cup of just boiled water. He thought the beverage to be restorative and encouraged its cultivation as a new, medicinal beverage for his people.

In either origin of tea story, it’s true that as the popularity of the tea beverage grew, not everyone had access to fresh tea leaves to brew, nor would fresh-picked tea leaves stay fresh very long.

Originally, fresh tea leaves were steamed and compressed into cakes or bricks to dry for easy preservation. The dried tea bricks would then be ground as needed and added to hot water to make a beverage.

The production, preparation and uses of tea throughout China’s history were known to change over time, however, based on the whim and directive of the most current emperor and his dynasty of the time.

Eventually, tea masters developed various modern tea production methods – like rolling, oxidizing and firing – to make distribution and export more manageable and to ensure tea was treated in a way that it could be shipped and stored by both merchants and consumers without fear of spoiling.

Tea storage tips

While the tea produced today won’t ever really go bad, it can get stale and loose its flavor. The longer tea sits in your cupboard the faster it will loose its freshness and originally intended flavor profile, so it’s best enjoyed within a few months of purchase.

Here are some general guidelines for storing tea so it remains as fresh as possible for as long as possible:

Know your tea: Buy tea from a reputable company that can tell you when and how the tea was processed and packaged.

Buy small: Buy fresh tea in small quantities and refill when you get low. And date your tea when you buy it, so you know how long it’s been on your shelf.

Protect tea from its enemies: Store tea in a cool, dark place away from light, heat and moisture. Light and heat can activate enzymes that will start to degrade your tea. And tea is shelf-stable because it’s completely dry. Any interaction with moisture can drastically shorten the shelf life of tea, so refrigeration or freezing is not recommended.

Don’t let tea breathe: The more tea is exposed to oxygen, the higher the chance it will absorb odor and moisture from the air around it. Therefore it’s best to store tea in an airtight, non-plastic, opaque container. Glass, tin or aluminum containers are best. Plastic can transfer odors and chemicals into the tea and affect the tea’s flavor.

Put tea in seclusion: Tea is highly absorbent, so give tea its own storage area far away from coffee, spices or anything else in your pantry that has a strong odor. If you have flavored teas, store them separately from your non-flavored as flavored teas can impart their flavor into other teas.

The shelf life for tea varies depending on the type of tea, how it was produced and how you take care of it once you get it home. Here are a few rules-of-thumb for how long different types of tea can be stored:

Green, white and herbal teas: These are all delicate teas and infusions that require more careful storage attention and will remain fresh up to a year if cared for properly.

Flavored teas: Teas treated with flavorings, like an Earl Grey flavored with bergamot oil, will have a shorter shelf life of around six months to a year.

Oxidized teas: Darker teas, like oolong and black, that have been exposed to more oxygen in the production process are less sensitive to environmental factors and can last for upwards of two years if stored properly.

Pu-erh tea: This tea is the exception to the rule. Pu-erh is its own category of tea in which the tea leaves are allowed to age and undergo a natural fermentation process. So like wine, the flavor of pu-erh develops and changes over time. And also like a fine wine, the longer a pu-erh ages the better its flavor becomes. So most pu-erh tea can be stored (properly) indefinitely.

Learn about how tea is processed.

Learn what it means to be certified organic.

Learn more about Teatulia’s single garden direct organic tea.

Sources:
History of the Tea Bag by United Kingdom Tea Council
Tea Bag by Wikipedia
The History of the Tea Bag by Teekanne
A (Tea) Potted History by Tetley
History of Lipton Tea by History of Business
Brooke Bond's 'Gotta Brand New Bag' by The Free Library
The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss, Ten Speed Press, 2007
History of Tea by Wikipedia