Tea that is 10 years old may not be safe to drink. Over time, the antioxidants and flavor compounds in tea can degrade. Old tea may also grow mold or bacteria that can make you sick. However, some types of tea, like pu-erh, are intentionally aged for 10+ years. If stored properly in a cool, dark place, pu-erh and some other teas can be drinkable after a decade. But regular black, green, oolong, and white teas are best consumed within 1-2 years. When in doubt, it’s better to throw out old tea than risk getting sick from it.
Is it Safe to Drink Decade-Old Tea?
Drinking tea that is 10 years old is generally not recommended. While some types of tea are intentionally aged, like pu-erh, standard black, green, white, and oolong teas are not designed for long-term storage. Over a decade, these teas will slowly lose their antioxidants, essential oils, and flavor. The tea will simply taste stale, with diminished health benefits. More concerning is the potential growth of mold, bacteria, and other microbes in old tea bags or leaves. Consuming tea contaminated with these organisms can cause food poisoning symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. So 10-year-old tea of any type may be unsafe, with both reduced quality and increased food safety risks.
Tea Storage Timelines
Here are the recommended maximum storage times for different types of tea:
- Green tea – 1 year
- Black tea – 1-2 years
- Oolong tea – 1-2 years
- White tea – 1-2 years
- Pu-erh tea – Can be aged for 10-50+ years
These timeframes help preserve the tea’s flavor, aromas, and health-promoting compounds. Tea sold in grocery stores is usually no more than 1 year old. Storage conditions also impact shelf life, with refrigeration extending freshness. But regardless, most teas are best consumed soon after purchase.
What Happens to Old Tea Leaves?
There are a few key changes that occur in tea leaves over a 10-year period:
- Oxidation – The antioxidants and essential oils in tea slowly get used up through oxidation reactions over time.
- Moisture Loss – Tea leaves left exposed to air lose moisture content, causing them to dry out.
- Mold Growth – Stale tea leaves are prone to growing harmless but undesirable molds.
- Bacteria Growth – Bacteria like salmonella and E. coli can sometimes contaminate and multiply on old tea.
- Color Fading – The vibrant colors of tea leaves fade as pigments break down.
These chemical and physical changes degrade tea quality and safety. Tea flavors become dull, aromas weaken, and health benefits decrease. And dangerous microbial growth becomes more likely over time. So if your tea is older than the recommended 2 years max, it’s smart to discard it.
Will Expired Tea Make You Sick?
Consuming expired tea past its shelf life may potentially make you sick. This is primarily due to microbial hazards rather than chemical degradation. Here are two risks of drinking old tea:
If old tea leaves have become contaminated with dangerous bacteria, it can lead to foodborne illness. Salmonella, E. coli, and listeria are bacteria that can rarely grow on stale, wet tea leaves. Drinking tea infected with these bugs may cause vomiting, diarrhea, and fever hours after consumption. Moldy tea can also cause similar gastrointestinal symptoms. So if expired tea smells or tastes funky, err on the side of caution and don’t drink it.
Aged, oxidized teas may contain increased levels of harmful chemicals like hydrogen peroxide and methylglyoxal. These compounds are naturally present in small amounts in tea. But over time, oxidation reactions can convert beneficial antioxidants like EGCG into hydrogen peroxide. Older teas may also accumulate more methylglyoxal, a diabetic risk factor. However, these toxic chemicals would need to reach very high levels to seriously endanger health, which is unlikely in aged teas.
Will Drinking Old Tea Make You Sick Immediately?
In most cases, drinking expired tea does not cause immediate illness. If old tea is contaminated with bacteria like salmonella, it may take 8-72 hours after ingestion before food poisoning symptoms start. This delayed onset is due to the time required for pathogens to multiply to high levels in your body after consuming them. Moldy tea can make some people feel unwell more quickly, within hours. But bacterial contamination is a more common hazard. If your decade-old tea still smells and tastes normal, it likely does not contain dangerous levels of microbes, even if it is past shelf life. But for the best flavor, aroma, and health benefits, it’s still better to stick to fresher tea whenever possible.
Can You Brew Decade-Old Tea?
Technically, you can brew tea leaves or tea bags that are 10 years old. The tea will simply extract into hot water just like newer tea. However, the resulting tea will likely taste stale, weak, and generally unpleasant. Aged teas have oxidized antioxidants and essential oils that diminish flavor. The health benefits are also reduced as key compounds like EGCG degrade over time. While not necessarily unsafe, brewing decade-old non-aged teas makes little sense given the quality loss. An exception is very high grade teas like gyokuro green tea – their superior leaves may retain some flavor even after many years. But for the most part, extremely old teas yield beverages not worth drinking.
Brewing Aged Pu-erh Teas
Pu-erh tea, on the other hand, is intended for aging and often deliberately stored for a decade or longer before drinking. This fermented tea improves with time, developing complex flavors and mellowing bitter notes. Aged pu-erh teas are prized in China. If you have premium pu-erh tea over 10 years old stored properly, it’s certainly safe to brew and may yield a highly enjoyable cup. Follow general pu-erh brewing directions and adjust steeping time based on taste. But aging standard non-fermented teas is unwise since they’ll simply degrade.
How to Store Tea for Maximum Freshness
To extend the shelf life of tea and keep it fresh for future drinking, follow these proper storage guidelines:
- Keep tea sealed in an airtight container, like a mason jar or reusable tin.
- Store tea in a cool, dark cupboard away from heat, moisture, and light.
- Refrigerating tea can prolong freshness, but don’t freeze it.
- Buy high-quality tea with intact, unbroken leaves.
- Avoid humidity which accelerates stale flavors and mold growth.
- Don’t keep tea near pungent spices and coffee which can impart odors.
- Consume green and white teas ASAP for best flavor.
- Drink black, oolong, and dark teas within 1-2 years.
With optimal storage conditions, you can enjoy most high-grade teas for up to 2 years past harvest before flavor and aroma diminish. Minimizing air exposure is key to preserving antioxidants and essential oils.
What Are Signs My Old Tea Has Gone Bad?
Here are some red flags that indicate your decade-old tea has spoiled and should be discarded:
- Musty, stale, or moldy smell – Aroma is critical for tea freshness.
- Change in color – Faded, dulled pigments signal aged leaves.
- Dry, crumbly texture – Tea leaves completely dried out.
- Clumps of moisture – Excess moisture enables microbial growth.
- Odd taste – Soapy, sour, or other off flavors.
- White film on surface– Visible mold growth.
- Upset stomach – If old tea makes you feel ill.
Trust your senses – if decade-old tea exhibits any unpleasant characteristics, it’s best to throw it out and start fresh.
Does Tea Expire or Go Bad?
Yes, tea leaves eventually expire and go bad. Over time, the compounds that provide tea’s flavor, aroma, and health benefits degrade through oxidation and moisture loss. Tea exposed to air and light stales faster. Old tea may also grow mold, bacteria, and other microbes that can cause food poisoning when consumed. So tea does have a limited shelf life and will become unsafe to drink after too long. Follow recommended maximum storage times. And if your tea ever smells, looks, or tastes off, err on the side of caution and discard it.
Do Tea Bags Expire?
Yes, tea bags also expire and have a limited shelf life. Tea bag paper is porous and allows more air exposure of the crushed leaves inside, accelerating staling. The tea bag itself can also grow mold. Unflavored raw tea bags last around 18-24 months before flavor declines. Flavored, blended herbal tea bags may last only 12 months before going stale. Discard old tea bags that have any odd odor, appearance, or taste. Tea bags that come individually wrapped stay freshest the longest.
Do Tea Crystals Expire?
Powdered instant tea crystals expire after around 2 years. The dehydrated tea compounds are relatively stable in this form, but will still slowly oxidize and degrade over time. Clumping of the powder can signal moisture absorption and potential mold growth. Discard any expired tea crystals that smell or taste bad. Properly stored, unopened tea crystal jars can last 2-3 years.
What Tea Has the Longest Shelf Life?
White tea generally has the longest shelf life of non-aged teas. Its unopened buds and minimal processing help retain antioxidants and aroma. High-quality white tea stored in ideal conditions can stay drinkable for up to 3 years. Green teas have the shortest shelf life at only 1 year maximum. Here are the maximum recommended storage times for different teas:
- White tea – 3 years
- Green tea – 1 year
- Oolong tea – 1-2 years
- Black tea – 2 years
- Pu-erh tea – Can age 10-50+ years
Herbal tisanes can last 1-3 years, while fruit and flavored blends are best within 1 year. Trust your nose – if aging tea smells unpleasant, it’s time to discard it.
Drinking expired tea that is 10 years old or more is generally unsafe due to substantial flavor loss and microbial growth risk over time. While some teas like pu-erh are designed to age, standard green, black, white, and oolong teas degrade in quality quite rapidly. Consuming extremely aged non-fermented tea also provides diminished health benefits as antioxidants break down. With improper long-term storage, bacteria may also grow possibly causing foodborne illness. Trust your senses – discard any decade-old tea that smells, looks, or tastes unpleasant to be on the safe side.