Sometimes we get carried away when making a pot of tea. While we think we’ll want to drink a whole pot’s worth, in reality, we may only want to have time for one cup. In cases where we have leftover tea, or tea that we aren’t going to drink immediately, we should know for safety’s sake if it needs to be refrigerated.
Does Tea Have to be Refrigerated?
If your tea is not going to be consumed within a few hours of being brewed, it should be refrigerated in a sealed container. Brewed tea left at room temperature for a long period of time will lose its scent and flavor, and can potentially make you sick. Unbrewed tea leaves, on the other hand, should not be refrigerated.
After tea is brewed, it is almost as if a clock starts ticking. The tea starts breaking down as soon as the brewing process starts, and at around 5 hours after it is brewed, you probably would not want to drink it. Temperature affects the length of time that tea is drinkable, so get it into the refrigerator as soon as possible if you are not going to enjoy it immediately.
Refrigeration and Tea
Cold temperatures help to slow, or even stop, the growth of bacteria and the breakdown of the chemicals that we look for in a tea. Once we get below around 40°F we can store tea and most other food products for an extended period of time. When it comes to tea, we would recommend storing it for 2 to 5 days in the refrigerator.
Because a large part of the enjoyment of tea is based on scent, we want to make sure to keep tea in a sealed container when stored in the fridge. It is very easy for brewed tea to pick up aromas and odors from different foods stored alongside it, and very few people want a lingering onion scent in their Earl Grey.
You may be tempted to store dry tea leaves in the refrigerator in order to extend the shelf life. In most cases, we would not recommend that because of the possibility of condensation ending up inside of the package. If the tea package is from the manufacturer, vacuum sealed, and unopened, you may store it in the refrigerator, but remove it after the first time it is opened.
High Temperature and Tea
Tea is most easily brewed when using high-temperature water, so we might think that keeping brewed tea at a higher temperature might help it last longer. This would certainly reduce the possibility of bacteria or other microorganisms developing in your tea, but it will also increase the speed at which the parts of tea we like will break down.
Higher temperatures help to break down the chemical bonds that help maintain the tea’s aroma and taste. They can also more quickly destroy the antioxidants, catechins, tannins, and other beneficial compounds that make tea the wonderful drink that it is.
If you were to keep brewed tea at a high temperature, we would recommend drinking it within 2 hours or so. After that point, the quality of tea reduces dramatically.
Room Temperature and Tea
Room temperature is the most dangerous temperature to keep tea at for long periods of time. Just like any other food product, tea can contain small amounts of harmful microorganisms that would not normally harm us. When those organisms multiply, however, that is when the potential for food poisoning becomes a real possibility.
Between approximately 40°F to 140°F is the temperature range called the danger zone. This is the range where bacteria that are generally found on food products are most likely to grow at a quick rate. Once enough bacteria has multiplied, your tea can become a danger to drink.
While food safety and the hazards around it are hard to judge from product to product and in different situations, it is important to remember that even a small amount of affected tea could make you sick. Look out for milkiness, a sour taste or odor, or even mold when considering whether to drink the cup that you’ve left out overnight.
As you may have guessed, lower temperatures generally mean a longer storage time. While it may be rare for you to store tea for more than a few days, there are some situations where it makes sense to freeze it.
- Make tea ice cubes to use in iced tea.
- Brew an especially good tea where the leaves are starting to lose their effectiveness.
- Tea popsicles.
- Taking tea on a trip – use it in a cooler to keep things cold, and when it melts, you can drink it.
Since brewed tea is a liquid that is easily frozen, this is the most effective way to store it for a long period of time. Frozen tea can last at least a few months, and possibly up to 6 months depending on how stable the temperature and humidity are of the freezer it is stored in.
Again, it is very important to store tea for freezing in a covered container. This is to prevent not only off-odors from adding to it, but also reducing the possibility of freezer burn. If at all possible, a vacuum-sealed pouch is the best storage option for freezing, but Tupperware or a mason jar will do in a pinch.
Is it Safe to Drink Tea Left Out Overnight?
Tea left out overnight can potentially make you ill. We will admit, under the right circumstances with a “short” overnight period, a low house temperature, and exactly the right conditions, your tea may be safe to drink. However, we would not recommend taking that chance.
Does Tea Go Bad if Not Refrigerated?
Tea can go bad in as quickly as 5 hours and generally is bad after 8 hours, when not refrigerated. The possibility of bacterial contamination and growth under room temperature is way too high to risk drinking tea that has been left out of the refrigerator.
Do Tea Bags Go Bad?
Tea bags can go bad, but they will last for up to a few years if stored in the right conditions. Even then, the tea bags will not go bad so much as the quality will just be reduced.
A dark, cool area like a pantry is the perfect place to store tea. Be sure the tea is in an airtight container that does not let light in. Even standard indoor lighting can break down tea leaves.
How Do You Know if Brewed Tea is Bad?
If your tea becomes harder to see through, that may be the first sign that your brewed tea is bad. Any change of color or texture is a good indicator that your tea may be unsafe. Also, check for sour smells or taste.
Tea should always be refrigerated or disposed of if it is not going to be enjoyed within a few hours of brewing it. Not only will you be able to preserve the taste, but the flavors and aromas will also have a higher chance of staying intact when it is served the next time. For ease of serving, consider drinking it as iced tea, but you will also be able to reheat it.
Scott is the founder of TeaMinded. He enjoys tasting and discovering teas from across the globe, with green teas and ceremonial matcha from Japan being among his favorites. He’s grateful to be immersed in the tea community, always learning and sharing along the journey.