How to store tea

Keeping your tea stored properly can make it last as long as a year.

You've gone to great lengths to find a great tea. You've spent two to five times or more what it would cost to get an ordinary tea from the grocery store. But even fine teas can go stale, like any agricultural product. In fact, finer teas often have fewer or no artificial preservatives and can decay the quickest. But keeping your tea stored properly can make it last as long as a year.

A proper tin or chest is your best defense against the aging effects of air and light. You can find them in different materials and hundreds of stylish designs. But the two chief characteristics they need to have are to be airtight and light-proof.

Ordinary sunlight and indoor lighting both have a UV component. That energetic light wave can break down the molecules in tea, stripping color and flavor over time. Keeping your teas in the dark may not allow you to enjoy a display of the multi-colored fine leaves from around the world. But it is preferred in order to preserve the flavor and appearance of the brew.

Air contains oxygen, which readily combines with a wide variety of organic molecules, altering them. The result is rarely an enhancement of the flavor of tea. That oxidation breaks apart molecules and changes their flavor profile.

But air has more than just oxygen. It also carries odors from foods, air pollutants like hydrogen sulfide (a component of smog) and other compounds. Those readily find their way into both the water and the tea leaf and bag. Keeping air out during storage keeps those chemical reactions to the minimum. Those will happen on a very small scale when the tin or chest is opened, but not enough to cause a change that most can detect.

Air also contains moisture, water molecules that float around. Higher humidity climates have more, desert climates have relatively less, but all but the most extreme environments have some. Moist air carries odors, enhances the effect of oxidation and can itself produce chemical changes. It can also form an environment that is friendly to the growth of mold and other organisms that can ruin your tea.

Keeping the interior of the tin or chest moisture tight and dry helps your tea retain the optimum flavor. Get an airtight tin or chest, then add a small desiccant to absorb water that gets within the container.

Since tea leaves themselves will evaporate a certain amount over time, it's best to keep each one separated. The flavor profile of your favorite oolong can be altered if it's exposed to the same air as a good rooiboos. Whether you use individual tins, or a type of container in which each cubical is closed off is a matter of convenience.

A good tea caddy is your first and best line of defense. But help it along by keeping teas away from spices, heat and other things in the kitchen that can rob your tea of flavor. Storing the tea in a cool, dry area away from pungent foods - and away from other teas - will reduce the chances of your fine leaf being exposed or degraded.

Tea tins and tea chests

Tea tins and chests come in all sizes, shapes and designs. Few are made of tin anymore, despite the name. But if plastic is not your preferred material there are rust-proof metal tins that can seal airtight and keep your stash fresh as the day you bought it.

Porcelain, glass, plastic, wood and entirely new kinds of materials are being used for tins today. You can enjoy the fine traditional look of a Japanese porcelain or the latest Swedish composite that could seal a modern mummy.

Some are just round, rectangular or octagonal containers in which you dump loose leaf or bags. But others have compartments that help keep your teas separated and organized. You'll want to keep loose leaf teas in either separate tins or find a tin that has individually sealing compartments. The latter type has smaller cubical areas that enclose individually or close off each one separately when you shut the lid.

Tea chests often allow for holding dozens of individual sachets or bags. Here again, the design you get will be dictated by the type of tea, tea bag and decorative element desired. Individual sachets are air-permeable, so it's important to get a chest that can seal each compartment. If you buy sealed bags, then the design options are wider.

Chests can hold from as small as a dozen to over a hundred and many make for fine furniture. Teak, and other fine woods are often used and the display is equivalent to a fine cigar holder. Some have cherry finishes, others ebony, others still another color. Some with glass tops are available, but exercise caution. Glass transmits heat much better than fine woods, so you'll need to keep the tin somewhere out of the sunlight. Also, UV can degrade both fine mesh bags and the tea leaves themselves, so the interior should be kept dark.

In either style, tin or chest, fine teas can be kept fresh up to a year, depending on how often they're opened and how the tea itself is stored. Small, flexible metal or plasticized paper can seal extremely well. Sachets and other fine cloth mesh will allow exposure to air. But the latter are often used for the finest teas and are intended to be consumed fairly quickly.

You may want just an inexpensive, but attractive, tea tin to hold a few bags. Or, you might prefer a finely crafted piece of furniture for the kitchen that contains hundreds of dollars of fine tea. Whatever your preference, there's a tin or chest tea caddy in a price and style perfect for you.