Ways to extend the life of your Japanese tea leaves!

Read it in Spanish!

Often times I get asked if there is a right way of preserving Japanese teas in order to keep them fresh for as long as possible. Truth be told, all the teas outhere no matter the type will benefit greatly from applying high standards to their storing conditions
However, since Japanese teas are for the most part green & steamed, the way they are preserved has a huge impact for them to keep their freshness until the time of consumption. Matcha being the most delicate of all since it can degrade very fast due to its powdered form, faster than other Japanese green teas. By not storing your teas correctly, you will end drinking brews that will not resemble the true taste of a tea made using well preserved tea leaves.

WHY DOES TEA DETERIORATE?

Almost any type of tea will deteriorate over time. When I relocated to Glasgow, I forgot some loose leaves in a bunch of tea caddies that I got back to about 5 years later. The teas were preserved in an opaque air tight environment yet they did not age well. They smelled very odd like super dry wood that has been laying around for ages almost like mildew. It develops a distinct off putting kind of smell. I tried them on an infusion, they were awful, nothing like the teas I remembered. Light, heat, oxygen, dust, microbes, odours, humidity all these factors will deteriorate dry leaves rendering them unusable. Or non-enjoyable at least. There is nothing worse than the off putting smell of stale tea leaves. Such an unpleasant olfactive experience!

 

HOW LONG CAN JAPANESE TEAS BE KEPT OPEN FOR?

Generally speaking, it is always recommended to drink most of the Japanese teas as soon as possible after having opened their packaging, or within a year if they haven’t been open. Shincha teas are an exception since they are made out of very young tea leaves and therefore it is recommended to consume shincha within three weeks after opening the tea pouch. As I mentioned before in the related article about shincha teas, if you take a month or two then is still ok, the flavour might have faded out slightly yet it might not be as noticeable. It will definitely won’t make any harm.
Black teas can last a bit longer & especial types of Japanese teas such as goishicha (碁石茶) or awabancha (阿波晩茶) are the ones that hold the longest shelf life since they have been boiled, post-fermented & pickled. As you might already know, pu-erh is a type of Chinese tea that is used a lot for aging, if we apply the same rule to goishicha or awabancha we could obtain tasty brews if we allow them to age well & under proper storage conditions. These types of teas are great for experimentation. Unfortunately, matcha doesn’t age so well.

HOW ARE TEAS STORED GENERALLY?

By keeping them in an opaque air tight container away from heat & light we can already extend their life. I cannot remember how many times I have visited a café or a bar where they serve teas & I have observed with horror how they store the teas they serve to their customers. In a glass jar, on the counter or shelf, open sometimes. And they use a lot of it, like if by using more leaves your tea was tasting better. But this is a topic I would like to write about separately since there are lots of things to say about it. Have a I tried those teas? Yes, I have tried them. It might sound crazy to you but I have a hard time allowing teas to lose their taste & aroma at home, so public establishments are amazing test beds for me. I spend a bit of money in doing so without having to sacrifice my precious teas. If you are a person who likes to test & experiment & who doesn’t mind to sacrifice some tea in the name of science I have something for you. Tools 3 glass jars with lid
5 grams of matcha (ceremonial is best since it has a brighter colour however any other matcha will do) 1 bamboo scoop 1 notepad (to keep track)
Steps
 
1. Take five grams of matcha
2. Divide the matcha in five parts, 1 gram per part
3. Add one gram of matcha to a small glass jar, three grams, 1 gram per jar, three jars
4. Add one gram of matcha to an opaque container, 1 gram per container, two containers
5.Place 1 glass jar closed close to a source of heat & light, such as a window
6. Place 1 glass jar open away from heat & light, such as a pantry
7. Place one glass jar close inside the fridge
8. Place one opaque container closed, inside the fridge
9. Place one opaque container closed, inside the freezer
10. Ensure you record the date in which the experiment started
11. Keep checking all the jars/containers once in a while (once a week, every two weeks, once a month)
12. Keep track of the changes you observe (taking photos of all the containers side by side is usually the best way to observe the differences)
 
If you do the experiment please share the results with me! Depending on many factors such as the location, the moisture levels in the air, the climate in your region,… results might vary so it is interesting to know about your own experience as well.

WHAT ARE THE DISADVANTAGES OF USING TEABAGS?

Tea leaves need space to open, breath & release their components, they cannot do this efficiently when brewed inside a narrow enclosure such a teabag. While how good a brew tastes doesn’t only depend on where it was brewed, the quality of tea is a really important factor, by moving the tea out from teabags & brewing it in teapots we are already improving our brew considerably. Another reason to take into account to support our argument against the use of teabag is the number of unwanted chemicals such as bleaches & small particles contained in the materials used to manufacture the teabags themselves. These undesirable chemicals could not only affect the taste of the brew but could also be damaging our bodies if ingested. In 2019, a group of Canadian scientists found out that plastic teabags shed billions of micro-plastic particles into the brew. These particles could be harmful to the human body. While more research is needed on this topic, it is advisable to skip using plastic teabags altogether.

Some people would argue that teabags can be recycled. This also became a hot topic since, tea bags in 2017, a farmer in Wales noticed that a white substance was present in his compost. Upon further investigation, he found out it was the polypropylene that was being used to seal the teabags. According to the manufacturers, the use of such chemical substance helps to make the teabags stronger & less likely to break down during the brewing. Some teabags might contain up to 25% of polypropylene, if we take into account the number of teabags used around the world, this is a lot. In fact, even 1% would be too much since something used to brew a beverage that will be consumed by living beings should contain ZERO amount of plastics. Many companies raced to change the materials used in their teabags production as soon as the research got published. However, by improving the materials, or by making the teabags bigger, the taste of the brew doesn’t improve. The tea leaves still do not open properly cramped inside the teabags, the tea contained inside the teabags is for the most part still of low quality & also, a large amount of waste is generated.

SO ARE THERE WAYS TO KEEP JAPANESE TEAS FRESH FOR LONGER?

Yes! There are! They are not really difficult to implement & they will keep your Japanese teas fresher for longer. Keep reading!

MATCHA

If you use the matcha powder often (like me, I drink one cup of raw matcha on empty stomach daily) it is recommended to keep it in the fridge. In an air tight opaque container in order to keep it away from odours, moisture, heat & light. Ensure that you only take the matcha out for a really short time (to add it to the bowl) & place it back in the fridge rather quickly in order to avoid condensation to be formed. If you have an event or need to use the matcha while you are away travelling for example, it is recommended to leave the can closed at room temperature until the matcha inside the can has reached the room temperature. In this way, it is easy to keep the moisture away from your matcha powder.
 
If you use large matcha packs (200 or 500 grams, even a kilo like I do) it is recommended to keep it stored in an air tight opaque container in the freezer. Just add some matcha to a smaller opaque air tight container for daily usage & leave it in the fridge. In this way, the matcha in the larger container can be kept fresher for longer by avoiding it to be exposed often to light, heat, oxygen & or odours.
One thing to keep in mind is the type of freezer unit you have at home. If it is one of the old models where there is a lot of ice plaques covering the walls overtime, then keep the matcha inside the fridge instead. If the freezer has no ice plaques then it is fine since the amount of moisture inside is considerably less. A Japanese friend of mine from Arashiyama used to practice chanoyu (茶の湯) (she did for several years, Urasenke (裏千家) branch) and recommended me back in the day to keep the matcha in the freezer. Since then I have been doing so with great results. Its colour remains practically the same, its smell too but I wouldn’t do it if I couldn’t regulate the temperature of my fridge/freezer unit completely. And as far as I have observed, the matcha powder doesn’t get frozen, which is interesting.
 
If you have a especial fridge to keep your teas (I have seen them in specialized tea shops) then you can store your matcha there. It is designed to keep the teas cool while controlling the humidity levels in an optimal way.

JAPANESE GREEN TEAS

I have noticed that different vendors provide different recommendations. Since we all live in different parts of the world the storage methods might vary slightly depending on the region you are in.
It is recommended to keep Japanese green teas inside an opaque air tight container inside the fridge. This will make them to last longer. I keep mine inside their original package with a metallic clip & inside a plastic box or bag tightly closed. This is because I am far too sensitive to odours & I don’t want the tea pouches smelling like the things stored inside the fridge. The ones for the shop are stored separately. Not all the Japanese teas are steamed, some are pan fried in Chinese style (kamairicha, tamaryokucha) I keep these teas cool outside the fridge, always in an opaque air tight container. This is what I do & so far the teas have preserved really well.
 
If the teas are meant to be kept outside the fridge I use metallic tea canisters or caddies known as chazutsu () they are especially designed to preserve the teas freshness. They are made of different materials such as cherry bark, copper, stainless steel or even ceramic. Possibly they use many more I don’t know about, I haven’t seen any made out of plastic though.

JAPANESE BLACK TEAS

There is no need to keep the black teas inside the fridge. Just keep them cool inside an opaque air tight container. I keep them in tea caddies that I have inside a basket. I still make sure that they are kept away from moisture, odours, light dust & heat. If it was far too hot however, I would also place them tightly closed inside the fridge. Black teas have an average shelf life of three years. Some of them might last longer than others due to the difference processing methods used.

JAPANESE WHITE TEAS

White teas age well if stored properly. They are lightly fermented & therefore retain a bit more of moisture than black teas do. It is recommended to keep white teas away from all sources of light & humidity. By keeping it inside an aluminum pouch wrapped with some carton & a seal we can keep white tea stored for long time.
 
I am currently waiting to get some white tea from a Japanese farmer. I will be able to age a bit of it & follow its evolution since it is a rare tea & my experience with it is a bit limited.

JAPANESE OOLONG TEAS

I treat them in a similar way I treat black Japanese teas (wakoucha) I keep them in a cool place inside an air tight container. If the temperature becomes far too high (that would be interesting to see here in Sweden where it never gets hotter than 30 degrees Celsius) they will go directly to the fridge.

POST FERMENTED JAPANESE TEAS

These teas do not need to be kept in the fridge. The same as the black or pan fried teas, keep them away from light, heat, moisture, odours. If you want to age them, it is recommended to keep them in opaque ceramic/clay jars (for instance) & to cover them with a clean cloth. Since aging teas is an interesting topic I would like to do more research on I will write an article about it in the future. These types of Japanese teas are rare. For this reason, I haven’t had the chance to run different tests with them. I will be able to do so in the future & might be updating this article by then.

 

One important thing to keep in mind when storing teas is that tea does a great job absorbing any odours around. This is the reason why we are not allowed to wear make up or use perfumes when visiting Japanese tea factories.
 
If the tea is placed in a container that still has some smell you can be certain that your tea leaves will end tasting the same way your container smells. The same thing will happen if your tea leaves are wrapped with printed pieces of paper from a magazine, book or newspaper. A great trick I use to remove any odours from the tea caddies (metallic ones) is to place a large piece of kitchen towel inside them & leave them like that for a couple of days. If the smell is strong or persistent however, it will need longer time & changing the kitchen towel several times until the odours are gone. I have been using this trick since as long as I remember & I still use it today. If for any reason the teas get damp they can be restored up to certain extend (like for example by laying them under the sunlight so they get dry, their flavour will get affected by this) if they get mildew however, they are ruined. In that case you shouldn’t drink them and should discard them immediately.
 
Do you have any questions or experiences about tea storage you would like to share?

Share your comments below!

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