Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Oh No! Stale Tea!

I was going to do a review of Tazo's Earl Grey, a teabag I had in my stash.  I brewed it and it had a very faint scent, smelling more like an Assam tea than anything else.  As I sipped it, it had almost no flavor.  Suddenly, the light dawned!  Stale tea!  I have no idea how long I have had this tea, I think I got it as part of a tea swap.  Therefore, no review of it - it would be totally unfair to Tazo to do so.  But it does bring up another issue, the storage and shelf life of tea.

Tea goes stale!  The less a tea is processed, the shorter the shelf life and the storage conditions need to be as ideal as possible.  The whites, greens, yellows and some Oolongs have a shorter life span than black teas, but black ones can go bad as well.  There are some Oolongs that are kept in perfect storage for many years and then drunk as very special teas, often re-roasted gently before drinking.  I just reviewed one recently, from the 1960s and I thought it was one of the best teas I've ever had, full of flavor and nuances.

By the same token, I have some 6 year old Hu Kwa from Mark T. Wendell, which is a Lapsang Souchong, which I swear gets better and better.  Puerh is another category of tea, which is really made to be drunk both new and after long storage.

However, the storage conditions for Puerh differs greatly from all other teas.  Puerh is kept in a humidity controlled dark environment to age, much like fine cigars.  Often people will break off a small hunk of the stored tea to see how it is progressing.  Our other teas like the dark, the dry and no air circulating around them.

A relatively cool spot on a shelf or in a cupboard will do, carefully separating out flavored teas from the others. I find tins with air-tight lids to be perfect and I have a large collection of them.

Matcha, that lovely powdered green tea, is often recommended to be kept in the refrigerator.  It has a very short shelf-life and this seems to extend that a bit.

Let's turn to tea bags.  Tea bags are generally made from very tiny bits of tea.  Because of this, they brew up very quickly.  However, they also go stale very quickly.  They should also be kept in the same manner as other teas - no air, no light, no damp.  You need to be aware they have often been on the shelves already for a long time, so if you buy them, do so in small quantities.  Better yet, try some loose-leaf teas from a reputable company.  Many of you only have ready access from grocery stores, so buyer, beware.  I live near a small town and while there is a wonderful Wegman's not too far away, I do most of my tea buying on line and have come to figure out, at least a little, where to get the "good stuff" that's within my price range.

Speaking of which, if you compare prices of teabags versus prices of  good loose leaf teas, you will find the latter are cheaper, unless you are using the very, very expensive teas.


Steph said...

How underwhelming that cup must have been!

The Everyday Tea Drinker said...

I understand your point was stale tea and not about Tazo Earl Grey. What caught my interest is I have tried this tea 4 times. Twice at home and twice at Starbucks. All 4 times my experience was as you mentioned. I assumed this is the way Tazo intended it to be. Now I have to rethink this and entertain the thought that our local Starbucks sells so little tea that even their's is stale! Thanks for the post.

Alex Zorach said...

When I've held tea bags and loose-leaf tea for 1-2 years, the difference in storage potential becomes hugely evident. Tea bags go stale easily, even sealed ones. And, I suspect most of it is attributable to the finely-broken contents of the tea bags, like you mention here. I've also found that finely-broken loose teas don't keep as well.