English BreakfastTea seems pretty inert, when you look at it. Dry leaves, they’ve clearly gone through a fair amount of processing, surely you can just shove it in the pantry and forget about it, right?

Well, that depends on how you want your tea to taste. You’ll probably still get some sort of flavor and some sort of caffeine kick out of the ancient Lipton bags in that box shoved to the back of the shelf that’s a little to high to reach easily, but tea can be a lot better than that. I find that the more tea I drink, the more I know about the flavor, and the more I’m aware of little shifts in quality. So, drink that box of tea now, because if you’re interested enough in tea to be reading blog posts about it, you’re only going to get better at realizing how stale that box is from here on out. Go on, go make yourself a cup of it now, I’ll wait.

OK, got your cup of tea? Mmm, delicious hot beverage. Why are you reading posts by picky people on the internet who complain about it? Because tea gets even better than this stuff, that’s why. Tea can be strongly astringent or startlingly sweet, or both at once. It can taste like forests smell or like flowers do, or like you’ve picked a blade of grass and started nibbling on it. But it isn’t going to keep those qualities in a paper box in the back of a pantry. The best thing to do is, of course, drink it quickly, but there are plenty of ways to store it so it keeps those flavors longer.

AirJasmine Pearl

First of all, keep it away from air! At Teahouse Kuan Yin we sell our tea in heavy plastic pouches with resealable tops, except for our oolongs, which we pack in bags that have all the air sucked out of them, because oolongs are delicate and expensive and someone put a lot of work into them, so there’s no point in doing these things halfway. Air does all kinds of dreadful things to tea. It has oxygen, for one, which is definitely the most toxic, abrasive substance that life ever came to rely on. Your tea, and indeed everything else in your pantry, goes stale because air full of oxygen touches it.

Speaking of the other things in your pantry? They’re the next reason you shouldn’t let too much air touch your tea. Tea absorbs scents with incredible ease, which is good when you’re trying to make jasmine scented tea, but bad when you want it to taste the same way it did before it spent a few months on a shelf near the cinnamon. The only exception to the “keep air away from tea” rule is Pu’er tea, which is fermented and needs more oxygen so it can continue to age and develop, but you have to carefully store your Pu’er away from any strong smells, or else all you’ll taste is the glue that held the particle board of your new shelves together. Moisture is the next part of this equation. If there’s any humidity in the air, it will damage your tea. They’re dried leaves for a reason! The reason being to prevent any chemical reaction that might (say it with me now) change the flavor.

Light

Light isn’t as damaging as air, but it will degrade your tea. Think of the way rugs fade where the sun always hits them, or posters on the wall. By the way, you may want to put UV blocking glass in your frames if you’re really attached to those posters.

It’s very tempting to put your pretty tea in big glass jars and perch them on the counter, isn’t it? Your kitchen would look kind of rustic and organic, with a subtle touch of “why yes, I’m sophisticated enough to own this attractively rolled oolong.” Don’t give in. If you really love that pretty oolong, keep it in an opaque container. You can casually pull it out of the pantry and offer a cup to the friends you want to impress, and it will taste as pretty as it looks.Anxi Select

Temperature

Part of the reason you want to keep your tea out of the light is that it will heat up when the sun is on it, and warmth makes chemical reactions happen faster. And we’re all about retarding chemical reactions in this post! By the same token, you want to make sure the place you keep it is cool as well as dark. Not in the drawer next to the oven or the cupboard over the toaster, is what I’m saying. You do not need to refrigerate tea, except for one special case: japanese teas.

Japan is all about freshness, when it comes to food. This is fairly obvious when you think about, say, sushi, but rather more surprising when you learn that some people recommend sake be drunk within a month of production. This extends to tea. Japanese teas do tend to have more moisture in the dry leaf than other kinds, so it makes a certain amount of sense. That said, here’s how to protect your poor, delicate Japanese greens:

First, leave some of it at room temperature in the pantry, about what you’ll drink in a month, because you don’t want to take your tea out of the fridge every time you make a cup. If you open up the package while the leaf is still cold, any moisture in the air will condense on the leaf, like it does on the outside of a glass of iced water. Obviously not good for your tea! Second, wrap your tea up tight before you put it in the fridge. The pantry may be full of spices that threaten the integrity of your tea, but the perishables in the fridge are actually more dangerous, even at the low temperature. The humidity in there is very high, and there are a lot of smells for your tea to absorb. When your pantry supply runs out, take the package out of the refrigerator, let it warm to room temperature, take out another month’s supply, then wrap it back up and pop it back in the fridge.Gyokuro Suimei

But Really, Relax

That’s a hell of a wall of text I just wrote. Don’t freak out, though. The take home message is just put your tea in airtight canisters and don’t buy too much at once. The really central problem is time. All of the methods above are ways to slow down the chemical reactions that make your tea stale. The most effective way of making sure you drink it all in a reasonable amount of time. The faster you go through it, the less you have to worry about staleness. Buy in small amounts, often, rather than large ones occasionally. And buy from stores that specialize in tea, and thus have a quick turnover and are always getting new, fresh tea in.

Tea should be drunk within a year. Except for those flighty Japanese ones, they’re going stale as we speak! Have you finished your teabag tea yet? You should be drinking your Japanese tea now, the clock is ticking! If you don’t have any, buy some, then drink it real quick! I kid, I kid. I think I’m going to go drink some of my Japanese tea now, though.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

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