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What’s the Tea? – Part One

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When we ask, “What’s the tea?” we’re not looking for gossip — we want to talk about actual tea! What are the basic styles of tea? Does shelf life change between tea varieties? What is the best strategy for selling shelved tea in a café? Grab some honey, because we’ve got the tea!

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The basics

The five basic styles of tea include white, green, oolong, black and pu’erh teas. All tea is produced from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. What makes them different is the way the leaves are processed.


  • White tea — Basically unprocessed tea. The plucked unopened or semi-opened buds are set out to wither dry.
  • Green tea — Leaves used for green tea are plucked, withered, hand-rolled then fired to finish the drying process.
  • Oolong tea — Most complex style to process. Leaves are rolled, allowed to rest and oxidize for a while. This process is repeated several times over the course of hours, or even days, to develop layers of flavor. Gentle heat is often applied.
  • Black tea — Is made completely within a day. The process is the same as oolong tea, except the steps are not repeated.
  • Pu’erh tea — Similar initial steps to green tea. However, before the leaf is dried, it’s aged in its loose-leaf form or pressed into shaped into condensed cakes or other formations. Aging can last anywhere from months to years.

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Shelf Life

The shelf life of tea ranges from 12-18 months depending on the style of tea and how it’s stored. The five basic styles of tea are white, green, oolong, black and pu’erh. It’s important to be aware of the shelf life of various teas to ensure the products you’re using and selling in your café are purchased and used long before the freshness window lapses. No one wants stale tea.


  • White tea — Has a unique shelf life expectation in comparison to other styles. There’s a saying for white tea: “One-year tea, three-year medicine, seven-year treasure.” The longer a white tea is aged, the richer and more mellow it will taste. When stored properly, white tea can be kept for up to 20 years.
  • Green tea — Has an average shelf life of 18 months, though we suggest purchases smaller batches that can be consumed more quickly and retain freshness.
  • Oolong tea — Has a shelf life of approximately two years, but loose-leaf oolong has a shorter shelf life and should be used more quickly.
  • Black tea — Has a longer shelf life than green tea. Black tea in bulk can last about 18 months; paper-bagged black tea can be stored for nearly two years; and tins or aluminums bags of black tea can be stored up to three years.
  • Pu’erh tea — Has an undefined shelf life. However, similarly to white tea, when pu’erh is properly stored, the flavor and quality improve in time.

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Best Practice

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If you already sell tea in your café, you’ve likely figured out a best practice based on how quickly certain styles and flavors of tea move from your shelves. If you’re introducing shelved teas, we recommend starting with small batches stored in airtight containers to prolong the shelf life of your teas. In addition, it’s wise to offer popular or well-known styles or flavors of tea to gauge interest rather than immediately diving into specialty teas. Lastly, select tea styles or storage techniques that promote lengthy shelf lives to protect your café from an potential risk of investment failure.