Why Brewed Tea Should Always Be Stored In The Refrigerator

With spring just around the corner, many tea drinkers will soon be stowing their mugs away and digging out their pitchers for fresh brewed iced tea. Consumed second only to water worldwide, per the Tea Association of the USA, brewed iced tea is a go-to choice for warm-weather refreshment. It's perfect for picnics, backyard barbecues, or relaxing by the pool after a Sunday afternoon of gardening. But before you dust off your tea maker, wash out those Mason jars, or stock up on your favorite brand of tea, you may want to take a moment to understand why you should always store brewed tea in the refrigerator.

Contrary to popular belief that tea is a low danger beverage, Food Safety reveals brewed tea is susceptible to bacteria growth and poses a potential risk of foodborne illness. While most people are fairly familiar with the safe food handling practices of things like poultry or dairy, there seems to be less concern when it comes to tea, which, considering its potential for harm, could be a recipe for disaster.

The term "overnight tea" is often used to describe tea that's been left out to steep for hours on end. Though you might enjoy the flavor of a really deep steep, this can create an ideal breeding ground for coliform bacteria, which can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea if ingested. Armed with a few important pieces of information, you'll be able to sidestep potential illness and enjoy your favorite brewed tea, worry-free.

When to refrigerate your brewed tea

Bacteria thrives in what food safety experts from Michigan State University Extension refer to as the "Temperature Danger Zone" (between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit) with typical room temperatures falling well within that range. But it's really how long tea remains in this danger zone that can lead to a problem. According to Washington State University, brewed tea should not be left out at room temperature for more than eight hours, though some tea purveyors choose to err on the safe side and recommend roughly half that time. 

Before you hit the eight-hour mark, brewed tea should be transferred to an airtight container and moved to the fridge, where it can last for an additional eight hours, according to two CDC physicians, per Virginia Epidemiology Bulletin. But here again there's some discrepancy, with many tea purveyors offering varying recommendations from 24 hours to three or four days. Whatever guidelines you decide to follow, it's a good idea to weigh them with your own best judgment. You'll know your tea has gone bad if it appears cloudy, has milky threads, or tastes or smells sour or off, at which point it needs to be thrown away. 

If you want your tea to last longer while ensuring it's safe to drink, you might try freezing it. Simply let the tea cool, then pour it into ice trays, allowing you to remove only what you need, tea-sy peasy.

Sun tea and cold brew

Summertime sun tea is often romanticized, conjuring images of glistening jugs lining a back-porch railing as an apple pie sits cooling on the windowsill. Many of us have fond memories of childhood, carrying clear glass jars outside to bake in the peak afternoon sun and then lugging those now-warmed jars of deep brown liquid back in again in the evening. Though the memories of letting the sun's heat steep your tea bags over the course of several hours are lovely, the facts are that sun tea comes with a greater risk of foodborne illness than your standard hot brewing method. While the sun's rays are hot enough to brew tea, it's simply not hot enough to kill dangerous bacteria. Tea should always be brewed in boiling, or near-boiling water, with Washington State University saying it should be at least 175 degrees Fahrenheit (sun tea can only reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit). 

One alternative to both sun tea and hot-brew methods is to cold-brew your tea. Not only is this safer and easier, but it's also thought to yield a better, more well-rounded flavor without any of the bitterness of hot brew. To use this method, fill a container with water, add your tea bags, and let it sit lidded in the refrigerator for eight to 12 hours. It's essentially an overnight tea that you don't have to fret or fuss over, leaving you more time for tasty upgrades.