Let’s be honest – if you’re a tea fan, you might be guilty of buying more tea than you need. If you’re anything like us, you’ve amassed a collection of tins that you could never get to the bottom of. So: are you harboring tea that’s gone bad, or is tea everlasting?
Tea can expire, but it takes a long time! This is because mold and bacteria, which cause food and drink to go bad, thrive in water. Tea leaves, when dehydrated, have so little water in them that they’re largely protected from bacterial growth. That said, tea eventually expires after 18-24 months.
That means you have a lot of time on the clock before you need to use up that tea. What a relief! However, the expiry of tea isn’t as simple as products like bread and milk. Read on to find out more.
Can tea expire?
Food storage has come a long way, and relatively recently. In fact, it was only in the 20th century that refrigerators and the like became common household goods. Prior to that, refrigerating food was seen as a luxury that required ample room: ice houses in Victorian properties tended to be vaulted rooms, distant from the main property, that were kept cool ambiently. With the advent of electricity and efficient power use, the magic of coldness is in your home 24/7.
Poor food storage continues to be the root of health issues, particularly in the global south: it’s estimated that foodborne diseases cause 600 million illnesses and as many as 420,000 deaths worldwide every year. So it’s easy to see why so many are anxious about that tea that’s been sitting on the shelf for months – after all, you wouldn’t drink milk that you’d had in your house for that long. (You couldn’t, anyway. You’d need a fork.)
Thankfully, there’s not much to worry about when it comes to tea. That’s because bacteria, the cause of food and drink ‘going bad,’ requires two things to proliferate: fuel and space. Fuel can come in the form of heat, light, and stored energy in the foodstuff concerned. Space is usually provided by the relative water content of the food and drink in question; if something is dry, that makes it very hard for bacteria to reproduce and become visible mold. That’s why most cupboard-fillers come with the instruction to “store in a cool, dry place” – warm and damp storage makes for a perfect breeding ground for bacteria!
As you’ve probably guessed, this isn’t much of an issue for tea. Even tea blends that contain fruit pieces and other herbs are fully dehydrated for the purposes of storage (both in terms of space and longevity) and concentrating flavor.
How long does loose tea last?
So how long does loose tea actually last? Well, like other dehydrated products, tea will normally be good for well over a year – but what ‘good’ means to you will decide whether or not you really want to brew out of that old tin.
When kept in a cool and dry environment, loose tea can last 18-24 months before going bad. However, as loose tea tends to lose its flavor over time, it’s recommended that you brew and drink your tea within 6-12 months of purchase.
The key distinction here is between tea that is past its best and tea that you really shouldn’t drink because of health concerns. While there’s usually no problem with drinking tea that you’ve had around for more than a year, you aren’t likely to get much benefit out of it; this is because tea leaks flavor from the moment the tea plant (or another relevant ingredient) is cut down. Dehydrating the tea drastically slows down this process – which is not dissimilar to flash-freezing produce as soon it’s harvested – but can’t stop it entirely.
This means there’s quite a long period of time between a tea losing its flavor and actually succumbing to bacterial growth. During this time, the tea is perfectly safe to drink, but it won’t have the intensity of flavor you’d expect.
Can I still drink expired tea?
Maybe you’re a daredevil. Maybe you just like your tea incredibly weak. Maybe you’ve just discovered a treasure trove of tea sitting at the back of your cupboard. Here are the facts.
Unless there is visible mold, expired tea is usually safe to drink, though it’s likely to have lost its aroma and flavor. Labels such as “best before,” “best by,” and “best if used by” are used by manufacturers to ensure quality and not as an indication of safety.
When it comes to expired tea, a degree of common sense is involved. If the tea is visibly bad, throw it out immediately. However, old tea is highly unlikely to make you sick: foodborne diseases are caused by bacteria residing within the foodstuff. Since it’s very difficult for bacteria to develop in loose tea, there are very few bacteria to ingest, and therefore little chance of illness. Always consult a doctor if you are feeling unwell.
Brewed tea, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish (and if you keep fish in your kettle, you definitely shouldn’t drink the tea!)
How do you know if brewed tea is bad?
As we’ve noted, the key catalysts for bacterial growth are heat and space (usually water). That means it’s a lot easier for brewed tea to house bacteria. So: what are the signs?
You can tell if brewed tea is bad in several ways. For example: is there visible scum or mold on the tea? Does it look or feel slimy? Furthermore, if the tea tastes or smells strange, that’s a good indication that it’s gone bad. If you’re worried that your brewed tea has gone bad, don’t drink it.
As you might expect, adding hot water to tea is an exciting prospect for bacteria. That means that tea left alone for more than 12 hours is likely to start growing mold and rapidly become unpleasant. Leave it for 24 hours, and you’ll be tempted to throw away the mug with the tea rather than get your hands anywhere near the strange new lifeform in your kitchen.
But the bigger question is: why are you leaving cups of tea lying around rather than drinking them? Go make yourself a better brew and think about what you’ve done.
Can tea bags grow mold?
We’ve covered what you can expect from loose tea – but what about tea bags? After all, it’s hard to see what’s going on inside the tea bag most of the time, so there could be all sorts of grim bacteria building up in there. Here’s the truth.
When stored properly, it’s very difficult for tea bags to grow mold. This is especially true if the tea bags are kept in an airtight container or individually sealed. Most commercially produced teabags are thoroughly dehydrated, and therefore largely safe from bacterial growth.
In fact, there are several stories online of people finding old tea at the back of their cupboards in fading, worn packaging and deciding to brew up the teabags they find inside. While many report a loss of potency and flavor, they lived to tell the tale without any major side effects. Just make sure that the seals on the teabags haven’t been broken. If you’re particularly worried, you could always cut open the tea bag and then brew it as a loose leaf tea instead. There’s no issue with ingesting the leaves themselves unless there’s visible mold.
Food safety is a top priority for big brands (it means they don’t have to shell out money on expensive lawsuits!), meaning the blandest tea bags are among the safest to drink.
Can you age loose leaf tea?
It might seem counterintuitive if you’ve read the rest of this article, but there are some teas that – rather than becoming flavorless shadows of their former selves – actually get better with age. The foremost among them? Pu’erh tea.
Most commercially available loose leaf tea will lose flavor and aroma with age. However, in China, tea is often stored and aged like wine. The most famous tea for this is Pu’erh, some of which is aged for years and even decades.
So what’s the difference between general teas and teas like Pu’erh? Simply put: quality. Like poor quality wine, produced with no regard for the source of the grapes or the conditions in which it is processed, poor quality tea will only go bland and nasty over time. However, tea with a richer provenance, stored with care, will gain a deeper and more exciting flavor over time. This is because the tea is allowed to undergo its oxidization slowly.
Consider the making of a normal cup of tea: by pouring hot water over tea leaves, you stimulate the leaves to release their flavor. This is, at its heart, a chemical reaction: the application of heat and oxygen (present in water) breaks down amino acids into tannins and other palpable flavors. However, this oxidization need not be immediate if you’re willing to wait: even the most inert metals, such as gold, nonetheless react with air over time, and tea is the same. If you’re willing to wait for years, you can achieve a level of oxidization similar to a quick cup of tea but without any of the damage caused by heat.
Due to the length and complexity of the aging process, Pu’erh tea can be incredibly valuable. In fact, during the late 1990s and early 2000s, China was ravaged by fraudulent teamakers hawking pale imitations of genuinely aged teas. As a result, the most prestigious Pu’erh teas are now datestamped in tiny print to ensure their authenticity.
If you’re interested in aging your own tea, all you need is a high-quality tea, an airtight container, and a place to put it. Oh, and time. Lots of time. We just aren’t that patient!
What can you do with expired tea leaves?
Your tea has gone bad. Or, at least, it’s flavorless. It isn’t high-quality enough to have aged nicely, and it’s taking up room in your cupboard. Is it time to throw it out? Well, that isn’t your only option.
As a general rule, expired tea leaves make for excellent composting material. Simply cut open the teabags and pour the contents over your compost heap to make a nutritious and versatile mulch. This is because, while tea loses flavor all the time, the useful nutrients are still present.
Creating healthy compost isn’t the only horticultural use for expired tea leaves. While brewing them might not be pleasant or flavorful for tea enthusiasts, the brewing process still imparts nutrients that can help ward off infections in plants. If you brew a cup of tea and leave it to cool – or, even better, cold brew it – you can water your plants with the resulting concoction. Note that this is not recommended for tea blends that contain more unusual, synthetic ingredients.
You can also use expired tea leaves as an odor remover. While tea leaves lose their aroma over time, their subtle scent is still useful when it comes to removing unwanted smells from the refrigerator. This is because the tea is still able to absorb the scents. Simply pour the tea leaves into a small bowl, set it aside, and replace every few days.
As strange as it sounds, you can even use expired tea leaves in a bath! No, we aren’t suggesting making a vat-load of tea – though we’ll note that idea down for later. By adding tea leaves to a bath, even when expired, you can release nutrients and aromas that make for a relaxing and invigorating experience. This is far less wasteful (and with fewer unnatural chemicals) than using synthetic bath bombs, and you get to feel good about not being wasteful.
Ultimately, however, most tea leaves are destined for the garbage and for recycling. There’s no such thing as buying too much tea, so that leaves only one solution: drinking more of it! Now there’s a use for tea leaves that we can unequivocally endorse.