Sometimes you may find old samples or forgotten tea stashes and you wonder if it is okay to drink the old and expired tea. This is exactly what happened to me today.
I went through my tea stash and found an old sample for some Chai tea supposedly produced in Chennai, India a few years back. Because I am not the biggest fan of Chai tea, I have not come to taste this tea before.
But today I want to give this tea a chance. Is it still good or has it turned into undrinkable or possibly toxic material? After some considerations I share with you here, I did taste the tea.
SHORT ANSWER – Can You Drink Expired Tea?
Tea is considered to be good for two or three years, but can still be enjoyed many years after the expiry date. Greener teas tend to lose their taste fast while darker teas develop new characteristics. It is necessary to inspect the expired tea to identify the growth of bacteria or mold in your tea.
This quick answer does not fully explain why green tea will not be as good after expiring as black tea or Pu Erh tea would. I will give you my best answer on that now and name you some precautions that you would be wise to take when dealing with old and expired teas.
How Long Does Tea Last?
According to the law in many countries, tea shops must give a best-before date on every tea they sell. Although some vendors sell 30-year-old aged oolong teas, the tea you get in the supermarket still is labeled with a best-before date of 2 to 3 years.
In some cases this makes sense. There are types of tea that lose enough taste withing two years that you would not enjoy them nearly as much. Some teas just need to be fresh! Others do not change in this timeframe at all.
How Tea Loses Its Taste
Time is the most important factor in the degradation of tea and loss of flavor. Over time artificial flavoring, floral and fruity notes, as well as fresh green vegetal taste, will decrease.
There are some factors that you can control to influence this process. If you adjust the storage to conform with the following points, your tea may keep its freshness and taste for much longer:
- Storage Temperature – Lower temperatures keep your tea fresh and prevent the loss of flavor.
- Light – Light, especially UV light, causes degradation of your tea. Store your tea in a dark place.
- Humidity – Degradation and the growth of bacteria and mold are much slower if the water content is lower. Relative humidities between 50% and 60% will keep your tea unchanged for longer
- Air – In contact with air, your tea will slowly oxidize and lose greener taste notes and freshness. Store in an airtight container to keep the freshness over time.
When Should Not Drink Expired Tea?
The loss of flavor and freshness does not automatically mean that your tea has gone bad. Of course, green teas like Matcha or Longjing (Dragon Well) will be much better shortly after production. But they will be quite good after a few years, still.
For tea to go bad there must be lots of degradation or growth of micro-organisms going on. Degradation does not happen quickly but rather over a few decades. If the tea is stored in direct sunlight with high temperatures, the degradation will be way faster.
The growth of micro-organisms is largely dependent on the storage conditions. Tea that is stored dry and maybe even airtight will not be able to support the life micro-organisms. They need water and air just like other life-forms do and can not live with too low or extremely high temperatures.
Which Expired Tea Will Taste Good?
Clearly, there is a difference in the longevity of green tea (especially Japanese green tea) and dark teas like black and Pu Erh. I have created a list that should help you judge which teas will do good and which will lose taste after the expiration date.
Teas That Will Lose In Taste
- Green Tea
- Yellow Tea
- (Green) Oolong Tea
- Herbal Tea
- Fruit Tea
- All Aromatized Teas
- Most Mixed Teas
Teas Which Will Be Fine After Expiring
- Pu Erh Tea
- (Darker) Oolong Tea
- Black Tea
- White Tea (Silver Needle Ages Well)
- Some Mixed Teas (Darker Blends Of Tea Only)
What To Watch Out For
Humans have developed good instincts on whether food is spoiled or still good to eat. This works for your tea, too! If you smell your tea and it smells good to you, there is a high chance of it being perfectly fine.
To be sure, you should always inspect the tea leaves and look for any signs of micro-organisms like mold, yeast, and bacteria. If you are unsure about your findings, it is always better to be safe and to refrain from drinking potentially harmful teas.
Signs of bacteria
Bacteria need moisture to grow and often correlates with two unmistakable signs of their presence. Do not drink expired tea that shows direct signs of heavy bacteria growth.
- Acidic Smell Or Taste – Bacteria will cause an awful smell that you will definitely notice if your tea has it.
- Oozing tea leaves – This does not sound appetizing, does it? If your tea is wet and/or sticky, you need to be careful.
Signs of mold
Mold can be way more tricky to spot. There are many different kinds of fungi that can grow on tea leaves, but all of them need moisture and will grow in storage conditions with relative humidity above 65%.
- Weird Taste Or Smell – Mold can smell quite bad, but some forms are not as noticeable. If you taste the tea and get a nasty off-taste, you are likely to have a tea that succumbed to mold.
- Mycelium – Mold is a fungus and will have show mycelium between your tea leaves if present. The color of mold can vary between white, light green and distinct yellow.
5 Precautions To Take Before You Drink Expired Tea!
Aged, old and expired teas need to be handled more carefully than fresh tea. You can never be too careful if you do not trust the tea you have in front of you. If you go through the following steps, you should be able to identify if you could drink the expired tea.
- Visual Inspection – Bacteria, mold, and yeast are often easy to identify visually. A thorough look at your tea leaves is all it takes.
- Smelling The Tea – Micro-organisms produce molecules that humans are rather good at noticing. Take advantage of that.
- Rinsing With Boiling Water – To be sure, expired and old tea can always be rinsed (washed) with boiling water. The resulting brew should be discarded. This will get rid of most germs and mold.
- Taste Test – After completing the previous steps, you should take a small sip of the next infusion. If it tastes good, your tea should not have gone bad. Otherwise, you may need to throw it out.
- Compare Experiences – If you are not sure about your findings, you can either ask someone else to discuss the tea with you or compare it to other teas. Maybe you just didn’t like the taste of aged tea?
There’s a lot more to learn about tea! If you are looking for a good place to start, I highly recommend the book Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties. You can check its current price on Amazon here.