I love all kinds of tea. But many of us have several boxes in our pantry. And who knows how long they’ve been there. So, how long can you keep tea bags?
Tea bags can be kept for 1-2 years provided they were stored in a sealed container (such as a ziplock bag) in a cool, dark place. But they will be freshest and the most flavorful within 4 months of purchase.
As they age, tea bags simply dry out and lose flavor. But unless exposed to moisture or bugs, they do not expire or go bad.
But it’s actually not that simple.
So in this article, we’re looking at tea bags and how long they last. But we’ll also look at how to tell when they’ve gone bad. And we’ll explore far past the expiration date it might be safe to use them.
Will it make you sick if you drink expired tea? Yes, we’ll answer that too!
We’re even exploring the differences between regular tea bags and different herbal and green teas. So let’s get started!
Do tea bags go bad or expire?
As a general rule tea bags can go bad and expire when stored improperly or exposed to moisture. However, when kept properly most only lose flavor but will still be quite safe to drink even 1-2 years after purchase.
When I searched on the internet for information, I mostly found a lot of forums and opinions, so I decided to go right to the manufacturers to see what they said.
While there are dozens, if not hundreds of tea companies, I focused my research on the best-known brands. Here’s what I discovered:
Their teas are date-stamped with a “Best taste date”.
That should not be confused with an expiration date found on perishable grocery items. Best taste dates simply mean Lipton feels the product tastes best when used by that date. It in no way means the product is bad after that date or should not be consumed.
Having said that, tea shelf life varies a little by the type of tea.
Most of their tea bags are designed to be used within 18 months of the production date. Those include:
- Iced Tea Brew
- Cold Brew Tea
- Black Flavored Teas
- Earl Grey
- English Breakfast
For their Powdered Iced Tea mixes, they recommend using within 12 months of the production date.
Celestial Seasonings uses a date code to indicate the date when the product should be consumed by.
Here’s how to read that code. It simply shows the day, month and year run together. As an example, “09FEB19” is February 9, 2019.
In Canada, though, the year is the first number and the day follows the month.
But they go on to note that their “Best By” date is, like Lipton, a measure of the taste and quality and not for safety. As they state: “While we cannot guarantee that a tea meets our standards for taste after the “Best By” date, it is perfectly safe to drink when it is past expiration.”
Tetley notes that “Tea does not “go bad like a container of milk.”
They recommend a shelf life of 2 years from the date of production. They also mark their containers with a “Best Buy” date.
They also note that it’s fine to consume their tea up to 2 years after the best by date. Just drink it with the understanding that it may not be as flavorful as it was when it was fresher.
Like all the others, Bigelow notes that there are no “health or expiration concerns with our teas”.
Like Celestial, they use a date code. Typically, that’s found next to the bar code on the bottom of the box as well as on each tea bag.
Their production code has nine or ten characters. The last of these numbers represent the year. For example, a code ending in 9 means it was made in 2019.
But they also recently started adding a “Best by Date” to their boxes as well.
Dan’s tea bag storage system is a thing of beauty.
Photo by @LoinerDan. pic.twitter.com/wlTxjWDqfF
— Yorkshire Tea (@YorkshireTea) September 3, 2017
How do you know when tea bags go bad?
Tea bags that have gone bad will have an off odor or may show signs of mold on the paper wrapper or bag if they were exposed to moisture. Additionally, if the tea bags have small holes in them, that can be a sign they have been compromised by bugs.
As I have noted, virtually all the best-known manufacturers of tea acknowledge that their products are good long past the best-by date on the packages.
But, of course, they don’t know you, your kitchen, or how the product has been stored.
But if you’ve kept your tea bags in a ziplock bag in the pantry or a kitchen cabinet, all they are really going to do it dry out (like that container of All Spice you have with your spices). After all, dried spices were once the plant leaves of fresh herbs.
Tea really isn’t much different.
However, if your tea bags ever got wet, moist, or sat out in the sun, it’s possible that they have gone “bad”. So if you have some old tea bags that have been around for 5 years and you just can’t bring yourself to throw them out and buy new ones, look for the following:
- Smell the tea bags (smell anything unpleasant, musty, or sour? Throw ’em out)
- Look for evidence of bugs (movement in the tea bags, holes in the tea bags)
- Obvious mold or mildew
When in doubt, throw ’em out. In most cases, the few bucks for a new container is going to be far cheaper than potentially treating foodborne illness.
Ireland and England’s ‘best’ teas, reviewed by an American: Barry’s is Ireland’s finest cheap black tea in a bag.… https://t.co/eJqKZxcg4J pic.twitter.com/OkmoJ4cOVD
— Maria T. Smith (@mariatsmith) April 20, 2017
How long do tea bags last after best by date?
Tea bags don’t go bad when properly stored, even after the best-by date. However, they will be the freshest and most flavorful when used before the best-by date.
I covered this above when I researched each individual manufacturer and what their recommendations are.
But as they all noted, their teas (if properly stored), don’t go bad. They just dry out and lose flavor. But as a general rule, here are some guidelines to follow where the flavor will still be decent even long after the best by or expiration date.
Generally, the larger the leaf or the more tightly the tea leaves are rolled, the longer it stays fresh. Typically, the cheaper the tea, the less likely it is to have larger, fresher leaves. Inexpensive teas that tend to have smaller, broken leaves get stale faster since more of the tea is exposed to air.
Do avoid placing tea bags or loose tea in the refrigerator though as moisture is not their friend.
|Tea Bags and Loose Tea||Cupboard||Freezer|
|Good After Expiration Date||Good After Expiration Date|
|Black Tea Bags||12-24 Months||2-3 Years|
|Green Tea Bags||8-12 Months||1-2 Years|
|Herbal Tea Bags||8-12 Months||1-2 Years|
|Loose Tea||6-12 Months||1-2 Years|
|Instant Iced Tea Powder||6 Months||1 Year|
Can I drink expired tea bags?
Tea bags that are past their expiration date can be consumed unless signs of mold are present. They will simply be older, drier, and less flavorful.
As long as they were stored properly in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, tea bags will be good for well over a year after their best-by date.
Black tea will stay the most flavorful past the best-by date. By comparison, green and white teas which rely more heavily on oils for their flavor will lose flavor faster.
Herbal teas, which technically aren’t teas at all are probably the most volatile in terms of flavor loss. So use that closer to the best-by date than black, green, or white teas.
Just avoid the temptation of steeping the tea longer thinking it will make the flavor better.
While it’s true that older tea bags will make for less flavorful tea, longer steeping time will mostly just make it more bitter. But it does also bring out the caffeine and beneficial flavanols. So over-steeping isn’t all bad.
But unless you see some of the signs I listed above of your tea being bad (bugs, mold, mildew, or an unpleasant smell), brew away; you’ll likely be just fine.
Can old tea bags make you sick?
Old tea bags or loose tea are good well past the expiration or best-by date and will not make someone sick unless they were exposed to moisture or bugs. As tea ages, it simply gets drier and less flavorful as long as it has been stored properly in a dark and dry place.
So it’s just like that old pumpkin pie spice jar you bought last Thanksgiving (or was it the one before?)
But if you’re extra cautious, here are some good recommendations:
- Brew your tea for at least five minutes in water at least 175°. This kills any potential bacteria
- Once steeped, avoid storing brewed tea beyond 8 hours
- Unless being consumed immediately, place brewed tea in the refrigerator
- Don’t make tea by sun brewing or simply using hot tap water; it won’t get hot enough to kill any potential bacteria
Tea bag VS Loose leaf tea
The differences between loose leaf tea and traditional tea bags are numerous. Why do we choose to produce loose leaf tea over commercial tea bag tea? It all boils down to freshness, quality and flavor.https://t.co/Ii13s55sCL pic.twitter.com/sDUnxWXz3P
— Zuxiang organic tea garden (@teaandbetter) July 31, 2018
Should you refrigerate tea bags?
Do not refrigerate tea bags or loose tea. The moisture and condensation in the refrigerator can easily lead to the tea molding and going bad.
Like olive oil (and all oils), tea should be kept in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
And that’s not the refrigerator. So don’t just keep the box or tin sitting open on your kitchen counter. Especially don’t keep it near a window or near the stove as heat and light aren’t your friends here.
A kitchen cabinet or pantry is a great place. But since you don’t want any flavors absorbing into the tea, even in a sealed container, I’d keep them away from your spices.
Contrary to some beliefs, most manufacturers do not recommend keeping tea bags in the refrigerator or freezer.
While it can extend the shelf life, the condensation, especially from the fridge, can affect the flavor of the tea. Once you’ve opened the box or tin, a ziplock bag in a pantry is a great way to store them.
Do herbal or green tea bags last longer than regular tea bags?
Herbal teas tend to have the shortest shelf life compared to green tea or black tea. This is because the potential for mold is higher since it isn’t actually made with tea. But black tea will generally have a stronger flavor compared to green tea if the tea bags are older.
Green tea, like white tea, relies heavily on oils being released when the hot water hits it. Black tea does not have the same compounds. So the older the green tea bag, the more dried out it becomes. This results in fewer oils being in the tea when brewed and a less flavorful cup of tea.
Herbals teas, such as chamomile tea, as I mentioned above, aren’t really teas at all; they are dried flowers or fruits. Because they are dried flowers and/or fruits, they could be a little more susceptible to mold than “real” teas.
Learn more about how to tell if your herbal teas have gone bad, and how to properly store them in my recent article. Just click that link to read it on my site.
But like green tea, herbal teas won’t be as flavorful past the expiration or best by date as black teas.
Does loose-leaf tea last as long as tea bags?
Because loose-leaf tea gets exposed to oxygen more than the tea inside of tea bags, it will naturally become drier and less flavorful than tea bags.
That being said, as we’ve discussed, it won’t really go bad unless exposed to moisture (which can cause mold) or bugs. If you want to maximize the flavor of loose-leaf tea, avoid direct sunlight, and store in a cool, dark place; never the refrigerator.
If you’re a tea lover, it’s also a good idea to consider getting a vacuum sealer like this one on Amazon that’s only around $100 bucks.
Simply divide the tea (I like oolong tea) into small bags for your vacuum sealer. Then seal each one and store them in a glass jar (mason jars work great) or even in the original packaging if they will fit. Proper storage is essential for keeping your different types of tea fresher longer.
In this article, we took an in-depth look into the world of tea bags and expiration dates.
We explored how long they last if it’s safe to use after they expire, and best way to tell if they have gone bad. But we also took a look at different kinds of tea bags to see if one is better than the other in terms of shelf life.
Different tea types may require different types of tea storage. Herbal teas, for example, are very different from “real” teas. But with a little planning, you can maximize the shelf life of your tea bags well beyond the actual best-by date.
Lastly, we explored some ways you can keep tea bags fresher longer.