Tea is a funny thing. It’s a natural product, so even after it is processed and dried, tea reacts with its environment and changes over time. For puer tea, this kind of change and maturation is desirable – to a point. Sadly, some unscrupulous individuals counterfeit aged teas to make a quick, if unethical, buck. However, most tea doesn’t get better with age and that’s why proper tea storage is so important.
First off, you need to think about what kind of tea you’re buying and how it was produced. Black teas and darker oolongs are oxidized and were originally designed so that they could stand up to long periods of time in transport. The tannins and other compounds that come about through the oxidization process help to preserve the tea. They also tend to have darker, richer flavor profiles and more body, so it’s harder to tell when they’ve gone south. Green teas, however, tend to be much more delicate and fade or turn much more quickly that their darker counterparts. Whenever you have a chance at cupping a “new” tea, whether it be a first flush, a shincha, or a spring pick, take it so that you get an idea of what fresh tea tastes like. In general, Chinese-style teas tend to be a little more resilient to storage than others because they are usually processed using dry heat (baked, pan fried, etc). In addition, higher-quality Chinese teas tend to be larger in leaf size, which helps to protect the integrity of the tea. Other tea production styles often utilize more steam, which makes them more susceptible to interaction with the humidity in the air. Before we move on, darker, nutty, and smoky teas tend to fare better with age than lighter, floral, or fruity varieties.
This next part might be frustrating. One of the buzzwords of the day is “transparency.” I’m assuming most of you get your teas from a business rather than directly from a farm and when it comes down to it, they sell you tea to make money. Sorting, packaging, storing, and shipping teas well is an expensive practice. Even if your local specialty retailer makes every attempt to bring you the best tea possible, that tea has probably changed hands many times. It’s almost impossible to know what conditions the tea you’ve been drinking has gone through. Even if you’re getting a spring-picked tea in mid-April that was air shipped from Asia, it could have gotten to you by way of burlap sack … not the most hygienic way of packaging to be sure. It doesn’t help matters that many of the specialty retailers that stock this kind of seasonal tea do so in bulk, be it in a large glass mason jar or metal container. It also behooves them as retailers to sell you as much as you’re willing to buy so that they can clear their quickly aging investment as soon as possible (and don’t forget the super-duper container that you’ll need to buy from them so that it stays fresh). So, what can you do?
Drink tea. Drink lots of tea. If you’re new to the tea world, then pretty much anything you drink will taste better than the bulk Lipton tea bags that they have at work. But once you get a taste of a fresh, spring harvest Long Jing (Dragonwell), it’ll be hard to turn back to the “green tea” that you can pick up at the national mochaespressolatte chain. Also, trust your senses. Does the tea smell like pine needles? Good. Does it smell like natto? Not so good. When you have a taste of sencha, does it taste like boiled spinach, or dried seaweed? Does the blooming tea that you purchased open up quickly, or do you need to tap it a few times just to see the leaves fall away from the bundle?
Once you’ve found a reputable distributor of tea, then come your very own storage woes. My first recommendation is simply to drink the tea as fast as you can so that you never need worry about it going bad. However, if you’re like me, you’ve probably started to amass quite the collection of teas in your kitchen. First off, tea likes consistent temperatures. If you have a small drawer or container that can keep your teas at a steady temperature near, or lower than, room temperature, you’re off to a great start. The cooler temperature of a refrigerator is good, but make sure that your teas are safely tucked away in an air-tight container, as tea absorbs odors readily (“Hey, my $50 per ounce Taiwanese oolong tastes just like last week’s meatloaf! Awesome.”). Also remember that the humidity in the average fridge may be a bit too high to store teas properly. I know that some will recommend that you keep tea in the freezer. It may keep the tea more “fresh,” but the flavor will definitely suffer. Don’t forget that there’s always a little bit of moisture left in even the driest leaf and all of that moisture will turn into ice crystals in the freezer – basically forming spears that will shred your tea from the inside out. Also remember to keep tea stored against light. I know it’s nice to be able to see all the teas in your collection at a glance, but your teas will degrade much more quickly if they’re subjected to light. Finally, make sure that you teas are exposed to as little air as possible. And I’m not just talking an air-tight container – something small enough so that the tea has a minimal exposure to air. If you have an ounce of tea in a large can, even if it’s hermetically sealed, it’s still touching all of the air inside the can. Every time you open the can to get out a serving of tea, you’re introducing tons of new air back into the can. And remember to take an audit of your teas every once in a while. If some are starting to fade, make a big bowl of tea punch for your next get-together. Or use them in cooking.