Do you find it surprising that tea is the second most popular drink in the world, second only to — no, not coffee — water? Hard to imagine, given the number of coffee shops in view, but of course that’s not the scenario worldwide. And there are so many different types of tea!
In the United States, green tea is most popular, followed by black tea, herbal tea, fruit tea, and rooibos tea. We primarily drink our tea iced, though hot teas have been growing in popularity.
No matter what kind of tea you drink or what temperature you prefer it, you’ll want to know how to store tea so that it best maintains its freshness and flavor.
How to store tea
Some teas are aged over time, developed much as wines are. These teas are oxidized (exposed to air) in various ways for different periods of time. For the teas in your kitchen, though, the goal is to keep them from deteriorating, which generally means slowing oxidation from exposure to air. This is especially important for teas that have not been oxidized during processing, such as white teas.
Loose leaf teas, in particular, need to be stored carefully. But it’s not hard. These simple guidelines for how to store tea will keep your teabags fresh tasting for longer, too.
Be sure to store your tea:
- In an airtight container. The less air in the container the better for keeping out moisture and preventing oxidation. You can use an airless storage container (one that removes the air via a pump or vacuum, for example), or you can minimize the air in the container by keeping it full. Don’t push the leaves together too tightly, though, or you’ll crush them.
- Away from heat and humidity. Both heat and humidity speed oxidation. So keep your teas away from the stove and sink. And don’t leave them on top of the refrigerator or next to the dishwasher if they get warm.
- Separate from other aromas. Tea leaves easily absorb surrounding odors, so don’t store your teas next to spices or other aromatic foods or items. Also store different teas in different containers, especially if some are more delicate tasting than others.
- Out of the light. Light can cause a chemical change in the tea leaves, and this change can result in an off, metallic taste. For this reason, storing teas in glass jars isn’t great unless you keep them in a closed cupboard, where they won’t be exposed to light.
How long will tea last?
How long your teas last depend on the type of tea and how you store it. Some teas, if correctly stored, will be good for as long as two years.
Teas that are more fermented (black teas are the most fermented, white teas the least; see below) will last longer than teas that are not. For example, while black teas can last a couple of years, green tea has a relatively short life of about 6 to 8 months.
Whole leaves will last longer than fannings and dust (small pieces and particles of leaves often used in tea bags because they brew quickly and take up less room). The large, mostly intact leaves of loose teas give them a substantial flavor advantage over tea bags, by the way.
Can I freeze tea?
You can freeze tea, but make sure you do these three things to prevent condensation on the leaves:
- Freeze in small packages rather than bulk quantities.
- Seal out as much of the air as possible before freezing.
- Before you open it, bring the tea to room temperature when you take it out of the freezer.
Types of tea
There are many different types of teas — thousands of varieties, in fact! In addition to true teas (Camellia sinensis), we use tea to describe any drink made by brewing an herb. Let’s explore the teas you’re most likely to come across.
A little helpful background: All true tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. It has two main varieties used as tea, var. sinensis and var. assamica. Teas are usually classified according to the degree of fermentation (a chemical enzymatic reaction that happens to the plant leaf when it’s exposed to air, or oxidized). Oxidation is stopped by roasting or steaming the leaves at a particular point. In general, lighter teas are milder in flavor, while teas that are fermented for longer periods are usually darker in color, and the aroma and flavor are often more robust.
Green tea comes from the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis plant, native to China. It’s only lightly oxidized, usually roasted or steamed soon after harvesting. This results in a mild, sweet taste and a variety of flavors, from brassy to fruity. Green tea is valued for its antioxidant content, which is preserved in production.
Matcha tea is green tea that’s been grown in the shade and had the fibrous veins and stems removed. It’s then ground to a fine powder. Unlike other teas, it’s not steeped and then taken out of the water — it’s stirred into the hot water. (It can also be stirred into other beverages or foods.)
White tea is made from the young buds of the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis plant. It’s not fermented or roasted and is only slightly oxidized (not through processing but through natural exposure to the air). Sometimes you’ll notice a slightly silver coating on the leaves. White tea is often described as sweeter, more fruity, floral, and delicate tasting than other teas.
Black tea is also known as Assam or Indian tea, because it comes from the Assam region of India. It’s made with the fermented leaves of Camellia sinensis var. assamica. A fully oxidized tea, it has a stronger, more robust flavor than other teas. The most widely consumed tea in the world, black tea is often used to make commercial tea bags and includes varieties such as English Breakfast, Earl Grey (flavored with bergamot), and Chai (flavored with a variety of spices).
Oolong tea, or wulong tea, is also made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis var. assamica. For oolong, the partially fermented and roasted mature leaves are withered and then “rattled” to break the cell walls, allowing more flavor to be released during oxidation. Then the leaves are fired, rolled, and roasted or fired again. Flavors of oolong range from fresh to nutty.
Puer tea, also called Pu-erh or Puerh, hails from the Chinese town of Pu’er. It’s made from Camellia sinensis var. assamica, grown in the Yunnan Province of China. There are a couple of production methods used for Puer tea. Shen or raw Puer is made by naturally aging, and Shou Puer tea is made by accelerated fermentation. Puer leaves are usually dried, steamed blended with other leaves, and then pressed into cakes. The taste is woody, chocolaty, and earthy.
Yellow tea is more rare than other tea varieties. Made from the early spring-harvested tea, it has a delicate, fresh flavor. The tea is similar to green tea, but it’s wrapped in cloth and slightly oxidized a second time before being charcoal dried. The result is a leaf that has a slight yellow tinge.
Herbal teas are not technically teas because they don’t come from the Camellia sinensis plant. They are tisanes, which simply means they’re made from an infusion of dried herbs, flowers, spices, and/or fruits. Popular herbal teas include chamomile, peppermint, hibiscus, ginger, sage, lemon balm, rose hip, passionflower, and lavender. Herbal teas are often enjoyed for their specific attributes. Some are taken to relax, for example, while others cleanse or refresh.
Rooibos tea (pronounced Roy-boss) is also known as red tea or red bush tea. This is an herbal tea that comes from the Aspalathus linearis shrub in South Africa. It’s earthy and sweet, caffeine- and tannin-free.
Chai tea, or Masala chai, is traditionally a blend of black tea and spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, star anise, pepper, nutmeg, and fennel. Milk is usually added, too, which softens and deepens the flavors. Traditionally the teas, sugar and spices are boiled together, then milk is added and the tea is boiled again, then strained.
Blooming tea, or flowering tea, is a bundle of flower buds and tea leaves that “blooms” in your cup when hot water is added. The flowers used include jasmine, lily, globe amaranth, marigold, and osmanthus. Blooming teas are traditionally hand-sewn into bundles by Chinese artisans.
Bubble tea, or boba or pearl milk tea, was created in Taiwan in the early 1980s. It’s a combination of black tea, milk, ice, and chewy tapioca pearls. Bubble tea can be made with black, green, or oolong teas, and sometimes the milk is left out.
Butterfly pea flower tea is an herbal tea made with flower petals or the whole flower of the Clitoria ternatea, a Southeast Asian flower. The tea is common in Thailand and Malaysia, where it’s mixed with honey and lemon. Some producers combine it with dried lemongrass. The flower changes the color of the beverage it’s added to, depending on the pH of the liquid. It’s also used as a natural food coloring and dye.
Does tea contain caffeine?
Yes, in varying amounts, though generally less than coffee.
The amount of caffeine a cup of tea will deliver depends on the type of tea and also in part on how it’s brewed. Tea made with water that’s been brought to a full boil and then steeped for a longer period of time (say five minutes) will result in a cup containing more caffeine than a more delicately brewed cup of tea, for example.
In general, here’s how much caffeine tea contains per cup:
Black tea: 40-100 mg
Oolong tea: 9-50 mg
Green tea: 8-30 mg
White tea: 6-20 mg
Herbal teas contain no caffeine.
Afternoon tea is an English custom, introduced by Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, in 1840. Apparently Anna enjoyed tea and a snack to tide her over until dinner, which was generally served later in the evening, around eight o’clock. Traditionally, afternoon tea includes a snack such as sandwiches and scones with clotted cream and preserves, cakes and pastries.
We have supper around 6:00 here, but I still love a spot of tea and a sweet snack in the mid-afternoon to tide me over! I also find that afternoon tea is also a great way to stop for a few minutes and unwind, plan the rest of the day, take a deep breath, and return to mindfulness, if I’ve been away.
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Some tea resources
Another sampler pack of loose leaf teas
Tea diffuser (heart shaped)
Bamboo tea strainer (Tiffany is offering our readers a 10% discount on their orders. Use TAKE10 at checkout!)
Tea cups (It’s fun to collect these at thrift shops and yard sales!)
Tea Celebrations: Special Occasions for Afternoon Tea by Lorna Reeves (ed)
Tea Fit for a Queen: Recipes & Drinks for Afternoon Tea by Historic Royal Palaces
Tea Wisdom by Aaron Fisher
How do you like your tea? Plain or with lemon or milk and sweetener (how my grandma always drank hers!)? I like mine with scones, and I’m eager to try this recipe for making clotted cream from Kevin at A Garden for the House.
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