Monday, May 10, 2010

How long does bulk tea last?

Customer - "How long does bulk tea last?"

I get asked this question (or some variation of it) at least once a day at work. It can sometimes be hard to provide a satisfying answer because there are so many variables involved.

During my last eight years selling loose leaf tea, I have developed a suitable response for answering this question. My response, like all tea knowledge, is constantly evolving as I collect data and experiences. Depending on the specific situation, my answer will usually sound something like this:

Brett - "It really depends on the tea. For most seasonal greens and lighter teas I would recommend drinking it up within six months, but blacks and other darker teas will usually taste fresh for as long as a year or two. Roasted oolongs and puer teas can last a very long time if properly stored and flavored tea and most herbals will usually last about two years. Bulk tea doesn't really go bad but it will get stale and loose its flavor... and all of this is subject to how well it has been stored..."

As you can see, this question often segues to other important discussions about tea intricacies. The trick is to meet the customer at their current tea knowledge level. Instead of overloading them with with tons of data, I prefer to tailor the conversation to the specific teas that they are most interested in.

I'd love to hear some of your own experiences regarding tea's shelf life. When do you throw away your old tea leaves and do you currently have any teas (besides puer and aged oolong) that are over three years old and that you're still drinking? If so, how do they taste now compared to when they were fresh?


Sir William of the Leaf said...

I continue to drink a dragonwell from one year ago. It is stored in a bag, that is inside an airtight canister.
I can tell that the flavor is not a potent, but it still is a very satisfying cup of tea!

CindyW said...

I find that some Chinese blacks actually get a little better after a year or two, in particular my favorite golden yunnans. IMO, oolongs can vary from a year to two years, depending on how heavily oxidized and/or roasted they are. A couple of tea buddies have just about talked me into getting a personal roasting machine for refreshing oolongs, and I've been wondering if that isn't a nice way to extend their life. Right now, though, I put most of my "stale" oolongs in a big basket to use for iced tea. I think they're fine for that, and during the summer I've got a neverending supply for my overnight-in-the-frig cold brewing.

Chinese/Taiwanese greens don't seem to last more than 6 months to a year, especially some of them. . . but Japanese green teas seem to have a longer shelf life.

Rob Bageant said...

The seller in Jiangsu who sold me my biluochun and Nanjing Rainflower said to be sure to drink it within 2 months at most, or buy a cheaper tea, because the flavor fades.

The Taiwan harvest schedule makes life easy. November tea must last until the end of April, and April/May tea until nearly November, after which July's Oriental Beauty gets to do a solo turn on the stage until the "Winter" harvest rolls around again.

Charles said...

I always keep old tea around just in case they have some surprises in store. I bought a kilo of delicate Yunnan green (a spiral snow dragon) that matured over the years very much like a sheng pu'er and is now one of our favorite teas. I also have a 12 year old (factory aged and sold through Best Tea House in Hong Kong) bai mu dan style white that convinced me that more teas can be aged than simply pu'ers and roasted oolongs. That said, yes plenty of my greener teas just tend to fade, but almost always those are broken-leaf teas rather than whole-leaf.

Alex Zorach said...

You might want to read this brief but very accurate post on Indie Teas about this.

I've also been working on an article on storing tea on

Pretty much what both of you say (and what I say, and have read in other sources) all seems varies by the individual teas tend to last longer. I did find and cite in that article one interesting study though that employed a blind tasting panel, which found that green teas tended to keep fresh longer than most people say they do...that study found that most green teas change minimally during the first year, and only slightly during the second.

My personal experience is that I tend to use up tea before it goes stale...but there have been a few exceptions, usually green teas or lighter oolongs, that have developed unpleasant characteristics even when stored properly, after a shorter period of time.

Marlena said...

I have had the remnants of two very old tea tins, bought for looks, not the tea. Each was at least 30 years old. One still tasted pretty good, the other was really awful. I had some Harney's black - can't remember which that I lost track of and it was 2+ years old and while it was not as good as fresh, it was still very nice.

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