Common Tea Questions
Outside of the general questions about tea, health benefits and flavor profiles, there are a handful of common questions that keep popping up when talking with tea buyers. This lesson attempts to identify and answer the most common of these questions.
How long is tea good for?
The good news is that tea, if properly stored away from air, light and moisture, will never spoil. That said, tea will lose its flavor gradually over time. Most teas are seasonal and therefore picked during a specific growing season each year. As such, it is common to drink tea that is a year old, but your goal should be to avoid keeping teas longer than a year. As a general rule, the larger the leaf and more tightly rolled the tea, the longer it will stay fresh. Smaller and broken leaf teas simply allow more of the leaf to contact the air and therefore grow stale faster.
How do I store tea?
The key is to avoid moisture, excessive heat, light, air, and strong, competing aromas (which may be absorbed by the tea). Each of these will degrade the quality of your leaves. Your best bet is any opaque, airtight container in a cool, dry place. Because of the danger of scents, the spice cabinet or next to the coffee beans, while common and convenient, is probably a bad place for tea.
Should I refrigerate my tea?
We do NOT recommend keeping tea in the refrigerator. Some prized Green and Oolong teas are refrigerated by the growers, distributors and retailers, but their refrigerators are specialized for this purpose. Your kitchen refrigerator is home to a host of food scents. Most importantly, the first time you open a container full of chilled tea and the outside air swooshes in, the moisture of the air will condense on those leaves. Whether you can see it or not, you are adding more moisture to the leaf by keeping it in the refrigerator than at room temperature. A good rule of thumb may be that long-term refrigerated storage of a sealed container is a great idea, but daily storage of a tea you access regularly is discouraged.
What causes iced teas to "cloud"?
Clouding occurs when the polyphenols (antioxidants) in tea bind with the minerals in the water. The effect is heightened when hot tea is iced quickly. This cloudiness has no impact on the taste, and is actually proof that your tea is chock-full of healthy stuff. In fact, in the search for teas that do not cloud, many commercial iced teas have far fewer antioxidants than you might expect.
Should I use fresh water in my kettle?
Yes. Water contains oxygen, which is critical in extracting the flavor from your tea. As steam from boiling water rushes out of the kettle, the minerals left in the water become more concentrated, effectively making your water harder. Fresh, filtered water will deliver the best taste every time.
Is it OK to use the microwave to heat my water
Yes. Some will claim that microwaved water delivers fewer flavor, but we know of no scientific reason for this to be true. The only downside is that the microwave makes it exceedingly difficult to determine the proper temperature. At the end of the day, if you like the taste, there is no reason not to use the microwave. If your tea seems a little off, slow down and check your leaf quantity, water temperature and brewing time to identify whether it's the tea you don't like or if there is a hole in your process.
Is it possible for microwaved water to explode?
This may seem like a strange question, but the even stranger answer is, YES! That said, you shouldn't have to worry about it. Water is heated in microwaves all across this country every day and we certainly do not have an epidemic of exploding water. Here is the science behind it: If you have a perfectly smooth glass cup with no ridges or microscopic imperfections in the glass and your microwave causes no vibrations in the water, then it is possible for the water temperature to rise above the boiling point. For water to boil, the gas must have a "nucleation point"... usually a bump or crevice in the cup or pan (or a current of hot water rising from the bottom of the kettle) on which to form. Superheated water turns to gas, forms a bubble and "explodes" to the surface. If the water is stationary and no nucleation points exist, the temperature can rise above boiling and then a great deal of water can turn to gas when a teabag is dropped into the cup or the cup is shaken. The theory may be scary, but this is nearly impossible outside of the lab. (NOTE: If you are a male under the age of 30 we are not responsible for what happens in the next 60 minutes.)
Should I cover my cup when I make tea?
Yes. It keeps your tea hot and therefore maintains the proper brewing temperature. Most importantly, however, it keeps the aromas from escaping. When professionally cupping teas, one of the most exciting parts of the experience is first opening that cupping set and inhaling the aroma of the hot, wet leaves. The strength of the aroma and nuance that can be detected by a good nose are absolutely incredible! Since a significant portion of taste is actually smell, keeping a lid on it will usually improve the flavor of those first few precious sips.
Can I tell how hot my water is without a thermometer?
Yes - not perfectly, but you can get close. The Chinese use word pictures to give you some visual cues:
"Pillar of Steam" forms above your pot or kettle when the water is between 170F and 180F.
"Fish eyes" form as small bubbles on the bottom of the pot when your water is between 180F and 190F.
"String of Pearls" form as the tiny strands of bubbles make their way to the surface of the water indicating temperatures between 190F and 200F.
"Dead Water" is boiling water according to the Chinese. Boil it for too long, and your tea will not be as flavorful as intended. Part of the thinking behind this strong term is that the Chinese almost exclusively drink Green tea, and you never steep Green tea in boiling water.
How is tea decaffeinated?
There are two methods in which teas are decaffeinated, each with its pros and cons. The first employs ethyl acetate, a chemical solvent, which is passed through the leaves. As it travels through, the ethyl acetate bonds to the caffeine and takes it with when removed. This method has been around for quite a while and is relatively inexpensive. An interesting note: ethyl acetate is found naturally in small amounts in tea (along with citrus fruits and a few other foods). In the second method - carbon dioxide decaffeination - tea leaves are put under tremendous pressure in a chamber of liquefied carbon dioxide gas (the gas that we breathe out and that plants absorb). The carbon dioxide bonds with the caffeine, and when the pressure is released the caffeine is removed. While this method is much more expensive, it uses no chemicals and yields much better flavor. As importantly, carbon dioxide decaffeination leaves roughly 90% of the original antioxidant content intact. In contrast, ethyl acetate leaves only 20% of the antioxidants in the leaf.