Spring Cleaning Your Tea Stash
By Samantha Cappuccino-Williams
visibiliTEA tea container
Spring is near. It's almost time to trade snow and ice for flowers and sunshine, aaaannnnnddd get out your broom and do a little spring-cleaning. Oh yeah. Spring-cleaning. Ugh. I propose we start easy this year. Instead of chasing dust bunnies from beneath our beds, let's tackle our tea stashes! I don't know about yours, but mine gets a little out of hand over the course of the year and needs an annual purge to keep it under control.
Despite the impression you may have gotten from the megapack of supermarket-bought tea bags your mom kept in the cupboard forever, tea is not immortal. Tea that is properly stored can last a long time, and while it doesn't exactly go bad, its flavor decreases over time. Storing your tea properly will increase its shelf life and help it last until your annual spring cleaning (Note: the half-open box of megapack tea bags is exactly what you don't want for storing tea. We'll come back to tea storage).
The general rule of thumb regarding tea's freshness is that you should consume it within a year of purchase, noting that some of the more delicate teas may start losing their flavor after 6 months. Some types, like some blacks and oolongs, will last more than a year, if well stored. Eventually though, all tea will age and you'll probably want to replace it.
Now, I'm no innocent here when it comes to maintaining a completely fresh supply. I have been married for 3.5 years, and the leftover loose-leaf tea wedding favors that I gave out are still hanging around (I just can't throw them out and waste all that good peppermint tea [although by now, it ain't so good]). I've found this to be my biggest problem when it comes to managing my tea supply: I sit on tea for years because I just can't throw out the types that either I didn't love, got tired of, or received as gifts (I get a lot of tea as gifts). I have to force myself to do this annual tea cleaning every year because I get so hung up on the waste, even when canisters, bags, and boxes avalanche out of my cupboard when I open it because I have so much freakin' tea. This, in itself, is another problem: I don't try new teas as often as I'd like because my stash is already ridiculously huge because I can't bear to waste the 80% of it that I'm not even drinking! So not only do I have a huge collection of teas that are all just aging away in my kitchen, I don't have the space for new teas because it is all taken up by the clutter of the old teas (even if I know they're not good anymore). *Sigh* Maybe my real problem is that I do try new teas as often as I'd like and they just accumulate faster than I can drink them. Maybe I'm too good at properly storing my tea…maybe if I didn't store it so well, I'd be more compelled to release it so I could try more new teas! (You can see now why this annual purge is necessary for me.)
Speaking of—and getting back to—tea storage, there are several important considerations: air, light, and humidity. You want to prevent your tea from absorbing flavors/scents from its surroundings by keeping it in an airtight metal or glass container (or packaging, in the case of individually wrapped tea bags), you want to protect the leaves from UV light, and you want to keep the leaves dry. Adagio used to sell all of their loose teas in airtight canisters with clear lids that were specially treated to block UV rays, but recently they've made the switch to airtight, zip-top, opaque bags that you can squeeze excess air out of (but be sure you don't crush the leaves when squeezing! I once watched my dad violently crush the leaves in a brand-new bag of White Peony while squeezing the air out and I almost had a heart attack). If you prefer the canisters, you can order them separately.
In sum, here are a few tips to help you (and me) manage your supply while prolonging the life of your favorite teas:
- Order only what you can drink in a reasonable amount of time. I order Ceylon Sonata by the pound because I drink it nearly every day. I order green tea by the ounce because I don't drink it and guests only want it from time to time. Also, if you're going to compulsively order samples like I do, either drink them up or commit to discarding the ones you don't drink after a year. These rules lead to less clutter, less waste, and less guilt.
- Make sure that you store your tea in a dry, cool environment in airtight containers. I've hoarded my Adagio canisters over the years and refill them religiously. Make sure you mark the canisters accordingly if you fill them with something other than their original tea, though. I confused the heck out of myself by filling an old Oolong #8 canister with Gunpowder Green. I couldn't figure out what I did with that Gunpowder Green!
- Put a date on your tea when you first bring it home so you know when it might need freshening up.
- If you have tea in your cupboard from the dawn of time and you haven't touched it since, it's time to let it go. If you really want to keep that particular type on hand, toss the old stuff and buy a small quantity of fresh tea.
- I can't just throw food in the trash, and tea is no exception. All of my old tea leaves (brewed and unbrewed) go into my compost bin. I feel slightly better about the wasted tea knowing I'm giving it back to the ground.