The short answer is “it depends”. Depending on the type of teas and the storage condition, the shelf life of tea can be from a few months to 2-3 years. The more fermented and intact the dried leaves are, the longer they will last. Black tea leaves are more fermented than green or white, and oolong is somewhere in between. Measures of intactness vary from whole leaf, to broken leaf, to fannings and dust. Those rich in top notes (floral or other aromatic varieties) deteriorate more rapidly than the more opulent teas where base notes predominate (woody). The right storage conditions are also essential to preserve the freshness. Tea leaves acts as a sponge, absorbing moisture and odors easily from the atmosphere. Additionally, tea is susceptible to light and high temperatures. Hence, airtight opaque containers stored in dark temperature-controlled places are preferable. As a rule of thumb, tea should not be stored at home for more than a year. Keep it in a clean, away from the direct sunlight and atmospheric odors and after opening the sealed packet try to consume it within a month.
Classifying aromas and odors are not easy and it comes with practice. Our memories retain traces of smells and every other form of sensation. When we smell something, our brain can easily replay whatever is associated with that sensation but fails to prompt us a name – that’s why it is better to associate with the vocabularies to express ourselves properly. There are two major forms of vocabulary. The vocabulary of Organic Chemistry, which is difficult to understand and convey if you or your audience has not studied it. The second one, a more common image-based approach, is inspired by nature. Floral, Fruity, Spicy, Earthy are the common types. Each of these can be further broken down to several levels e.g. Floral can be “fresh floral” like roses, lily, hyacinth or “white flowers” like jasmine, daisy, wisteria or “exotic flowers” like magnolia and orchid. Similarly, Fruity can be classified further into “orchard fruits” like pear, apple, grape, plum or “berries” like strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries or citrus fruits like lemon, orange, mandarins or “tropical fruits” like mango, lychee, pineapple.
Words describing texture is another aspect of the vocabulary. “Astringency” is the bitterness in the mouth of various degrees, causes by the tannin in the tea. It could also be a sensation of dryness. “Body” refers to the characteristic of a liquor with a certain structure and thickness. Robust often describes a full-bodied tea. “Mouth-filling” or “Roundness” is another characteristic of a liquor that fills the mouth in a rounded way, a sensation of fullness in the mouth. “Smooth” often describes a tea lacking harsh tannins and therefore without the asperity. Other common tasting terms are “Balanced”, which describes a liquor in which the aromas succeed each other smoothly, well highlighted by the flavors and texture. “Finesse” refers to a liquor with subtle and precise aromas. “Bouquet” is the sensation of the aromatic characteristics while “Harmony” is commonly used when the flavor, texture and aromas are well balanced, with a fine succession of notes. Although I became aware of these vocabularies through reading but I have experienced first-hand during multiple tea tasting sessions while selecting our tea at Kolkata or tea estates in the Hills.
Puttabong Tea estate, formerly known as Tukvar Tea Estate, is located in the northern most district of the Darjeeling hills, around 9 kilometers towards north-east of Darjeeling town. The tea garden stretches in an area of approx. 20-22 sq.km at an altitude between 600 to 2300 meters. Puttabong produces 1st flush black teas, 2nd flush black teas, autumn flush black teas and green teas. The garden was acquired by Jayshree Group in 1967. It has received ISO 9002:2008 certificate in Manufacturing, Plantation and Marketing.
Makaibari was the first tea factory in the world built by the pioneering Banerjee, the founding father of Makaibari Tea Estates in 1859. Located in Kurseong subdivision, in Darjeeling district, Makaibari sustains seven villages and 1,587 people. Three rivers flow through Makaibari and empty into the Balason (the primary river of the region). One of the signature products of Makaibari is “Silver Tips Imperial” – Darjeeling Fullmoon Handmade Tea is the Jewel in the Crown. It is a handmade semi-fermented light liquoring Oolong Tea. Relaxing and anti-aging liquor ideally sipped at bed time. Plucked only on full moon days and nights during the plucking season. Makaibari was the first tea garden to receive organic
Mim Tea Estate is in the Darjeeling area of Northern India. It is located in Sukhiapokhri of Darjeeling district in Eastern India at an elevation from 600 to 2000 meters. The fragrance and taste is a complex bouquet that reaches right out of the cup. Some would describe the taste as nutty, but most often it is described as similar to the taste and fragrance of muscat grapes. The flavor also displays a tinge of astringent tannic characteristic and a musky spiciness often referred to by tea connoisseurs as "muscatel". The genus of the Darjeeling tea bush is the Chinese Jat, which gives it the distinctive muscatel character. Because the tea is grown at such high altitudes and in relatively cool weather the bushes do not grow quickly, and as such the production is limited (about 254,000 lbs annually). The town of Mim Tea Estate has a total population of 1,842 peoples.
Castleton Tea Estate is near the town of Kurseong in the Darjeeling district of North-East India. Castleton is one of the top estates in Darjeeling and consistently produces top teas. It is located at an altitude ranging from 980 to 2300 meters spanning the hilly slopes of Kurseong and Pankhabari. It has a planted area of around 420 acres which produces one of the world’s best muscatels. The annual production stands around 31,000 kgs. This tea has a remarkably mellow flavor with a splendid bouquet of fruits and fresh spring blossoms - a bright tasting, full-bodied tea that is as satiating as it gets. The clean notes of citrus and sweet greens dominate the top of the palate as the brisk tea fills the sense with wonder. From citrus blossom, fresh nuts and apricot in the subtle notes to ripe stone fruits and a gentle floral undertone all merged into a consistent profile.
The concept of organic farming in tea production has not yet been that widespread as other agricultural farming. However, in the last decade, the trend is getting popular in the tea industry, primarily driven by the consumer demand. When a tea is labeled "certified organic", it has met the conditions by at least one of the regulatory agencies with established guidelines for organic food production. Some planters, who have faced the problem of soil exhaustion, have realized that it is in their own interest to switch to organic production to restore the fertility of their land and to avoid the plantation to a slow decline in terms of yield and quality. Another critical point is that organic certification requires a financial commitment since it is more labor intensive, which translates to increased cost in return for lower yields. The fertilizers used for organic cultivation are mostly a form of compost made either by vegetable matter or animal manure. One method that I saw very popular in the Nilgiris in Southern India is the residue from the castor seed after the oil is extracted. Very rich in nutrients, it helps to improve the soil and its capacity to retain water. Vermiculture, the introduction of earthworms into the soil, is another common method used in Asia. The earthworms produce a natural fertilizing agent, enriching the soil by releasing nutritious mineral into it through their casts. This bio-organic method also helps to improve the drainage and the aeration of the soil thus restoring its balance. Switching a plot to organic is not always easy. Airborne pesticides sprayed on a neighboring plantation may contaminate the organic farming. One of the solutions adopted by many growers is to surround the plantation by rare tree species to form a screen against the airborne pesticides. That’s one of the reasons you might find some unusual trees surrounding tea estates.
Professional tea tasting session is a ritual to compare the different varieties or batches of tea to understand the “good” and “bad” points of that tea. The procedure and the rituals are mostly identical across the countries. Three things are typically evaluated in the process: the dry leaves, the infused leaves and the liquor of the tea after steeping. Typically, each column is represented by one variety/batch with the dry leaves being in the front, the liquor in the middle and the infused tea leaves at the back. Each cup has 2g of tea leaves with 100ml of water at a controlled temperature (depending of the type of tea). The brewing time varies with the individual tea, but the professional usually allows a longer brewing time to bring out the characteristics (including the defects) in the tea. The tea taster often disregards the side effects, especially the extra bitterness, due to the longer steeping time. For the liquor, the taster focuses on the color and clarity of the liquid, the effect on his/her palate, the flavor and the aroma. The taster also evaluates the dry leaves and the infused leaves particularly for its texture (suppleness, degree of homogeneity etc.) and appearance (shape of the leaves, harvesting skills etc.). I learned about tea tasting in Kolkata when we first purchased our black tea in bulk. The process took more than an hour to taste around twelve varieties of black tea from the same garden. I was told to slurp the tea (noisily) into my mouth to ensure enough oxygen goes over my taste receptors for understanding the profile of the tea. I consumed the tea, but I had the option to spat it back into a bowl before moving onto my next sample. Overall, it was a fascinating experience.