Recently, one of my friends invited me to his house. During our conversation, he shared one of his favorite green tea with me. But right after we tasted it, he frowned and shook his head. “I think it’s gone bad,” he said. “It shouldn’t taste like this”. Indeed, the tea was bad. It had a numb and dry mouthfeel. My friend looked up the date of package. It was this spring. “Shouldn’t a tea last at least 2 years?” he asked.
Well, in this case. NO. Green tea can’t last 2 years.
If you just discover the world of tea, you might also be puzzled by just how long a tea can last after you purchase it.
Depending on where you do your research, the answers you find can be even more confusing. In one of our previous blogs, we mentioned that Wuyi oolong needs cool-down time after the roast. Heavier the roast, longer the cool-down time. In another blog, we introduced that white tea can be aged for years. Most online guidances only talk about one kind of teas and simply apply rule to all other teas. Unfortunately, this generalization is wrong.
Different teas should be enjoyed differently. Some teas need to be finished as soon as possible because they lose flavor quickly; some teas need to be stored for some time to stabilize its flavors and aromas; some teas can be aged, longer the aging, better the taste.
Despite most tea products have an expiration date, as long as they’re before the expiration date and stored in a normal condition, they wouldn’t taste badly. Of course, we must address that a tea passes the expiration date doesn’t mean it’s gone bad. A carefully stored tea can last beyond its stated expiration date. At the same time, if a tea is exposed to excessive humidity or strong scents, it might go bad days after your purchase, just like my friend’s green tea.
However, every tea also has a “prime” time for the best drinking experience. In general, teas with no or little fermentation need to be consumed soon; teas with roasting need cool-down time. Only those aged teas are suitable for longer storage.
Green tea and white tea (specifically, Silver Needle), for example, don’t have very complicated tea-making. It’s very easily oxidized in storage. Green tea tastes the best when its fresh. After even just some weeks’ storage, the decease in freshness becomes very noticeable. If you’ve ever compared freshly harvested vegetables with supermarket vegetables, you’d understand the dramatic difference. Silver Needle can be enjoyed fresh or aged. If you prefer the fresher taste, you also need to finish it soon before the flavor transforms through the natural aging process.
For teas that are roasted, for example Wuyi oolong (and also the Authentic Lapsang Souchong), we better wait a little bit after the roast. A Wuyi oolong right after the roast still has a thick taste of “fire” (the residual flavor from the charcoal for roasting). It takes some “cool-down” time for this “fire taste” to withdraw. Typically, depending on how heavy the roast is, the cool-down time can be 1-2 months (light roast), 3-5 months (mid roast), 5+ months (heavy roast). Normally, a credible tea maker only sells teas after the cool-down is finalized. But if you have the opportunity to purchase a freshly roasted Wuyi oolong, remember not to drink it so soon. Once the cool-down stabilizes a Wuyi oolong, it can be stored for 2-5 years.
Finally, there are pu’er tea, dark tea and white tea that can be aged for years. If stored correctly, we can safely assume that these teas don’t have a definite expiration date. However, this doesn’t imply that they can be aged forever. Just like all life forms, the quality of aged tea will decline after reaching the peak of its aging process.
Please remember, tea is a consumable agricultural product. The best drinking experience is often associated with enjoying at the right time. Just like if you want to enjoy the cherry blossom in Washington DC, you have to visit the city at the right time. Going too early or too late, you’d miss it. Knowing more about your tea and when to drink it can give you a better tea experience.
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