We’re terrible for brewing tea and then leaving it on the counter. Easily distracted by the things our pets are doing in the backyard or by the opening theme of our favourite show calling from the other room, we often find mugs with the teabag still floating in cold brown water.
I’m horrified to admit, too, that I once left a teapot steeping whilst we were away on holiday, returning to see the ceramic insides ridden with mould spores. I wouldn’t have sipped that water for all the money in the world (or all the tea in China). Since then, we’ve tried to be more mindful, but we can’t be the only people doing this; can you leave a teabag overnight? Or is it always better to throw the old drink away and make one fresh?
How Long Can Tea Sit Out?
The answer appears to vary.
Most advice suggests that plain brewed tea shouldn’t be left out any longer than 8 hours. If you’ve added milk to it, the FDA reduces this to 2 hours because milk is perishable and spoils more quickly and easily, especially when it’s not sufficiently refrigerated. It also depends on the room temperature. Leaving tea out during the height of summer makes it spoil more quickly than in a colder kitchen during the winter. Bacteria growth will also happen more rapidly if you’ve added sugar to the tea.
But it’s not just the potential growth of bacteria; the tea’s taste will also be affected. We like strong tea but letting it stew all night will produce a very strong and bitter taste that will be unpleasant for most people. Moreover, it will not be great for your teeth and can contribute to staining. I remember brewing tea in school for a long time and then using the liquid to stain pieces of paper to resemble old documents or parchment. I’d hate to think what it can do to teeth!
What about leaving out ice tea?
Ice tea is a little different as that’s refrigerated. There are again variations in what is considered acceptable. Intentional Hospitality suggests that brewed tea kept inside the fridge is good for up to 3-days. And we certainly know people who would agree (ice tea never lasts that long in our house, so we can’t say!). It’s worth mentioning, however, that the CDC suggest ice tea should only be kept in the fridge for eight hours. It may be better to make smaller amounts more regularly rather than making too big a batch and then leaving it sitting around.
There’s also a way of brewing ice tea called “sun tea”, where batches of tea are left to brew in the sunlight. According to the CDC, there’s a higher risk of bacteria growing because ‘it provides an environment where bacteria are more likely to survive and multiply’.
Can You Leave a Teabag Overnight?
We wanted to keep this post brief because it’s a pretty straightforward question, albeit one with some variation between answers. We’d suggest following the CDC and FDA guidelines. You can also exercise common sense — how long has the tea been left out? What temperature is the room? And are there added extras in the tea like milk or sugar that will increase the time bacteria can grow? Tea can go off before brewing too, so it’s always a good idea to pay attention to what you’re consuming.
Check closely whenever you open an older box or a canister that’s already been open. Mould can form if tea leaves have been exposed to dampness. Smelling the tea may also help. Several people online say they regularly drink day-old or even three-day-old tea and are completely fine. Whether that’s something you want to do is a personal choice, but it’s worth being aware of the risks. Nobody likes to get sick, not when it’s easy just to make a new cup or batch.
We’d rather throw the tea out and start again with a new one – life is too short from lousy tea.