How long can sweet tea sit out? (+3 storage tips)

In this brief guide, we are going to answer the question “How long can sweet tea sit out” with an in-depth analysis of the shelf life of sweet tea at room temperature and what affects its shelf life. Moreover, we are going to discuss how you can store sweet tea and how you can tell if sweet tea has spoiled.

How long can sweet tea sit out?

Sweet tea is a perishable beverage that can spoil if left at room temperature for too long. If sweet tea is kept at room temperature (about 70 °F or 21 °C), it should be eaten within 8 hours to avoid bacterial development (1).

If sweet tea is left outside on a hot day (over 90 °F or 32 °C), it should be eaten within 2 hours to avoid bacterial development. After this time, you should discard the tea, since high temperatures are a good breeding site for microbes, and sweet tea may quickly become a breeding ground for pathogens (2).

Sweet tea can be kept in the refrigerator (below 40 °F/4 °C) for up to 5 days. Cold temperatures prevent microbiological multiplication and enzymatic reactions, prolonging the shelf life of the sweet tea. This is accomplished by reducing microbial metabolic activity and decreasing the breakdown of sugars and other organic components in tea when tea is refrigerated (2).

What affects the shelf life of sweet tea?

Bacterial growth

Because of its high sugar content, sweet tea is a perfect substrate for microbial development, particularly lactic acid bacteria and molds. These microorganisms can proliferate quickly when sweet tea is incorrectly kept or left at room temperature for lengthy periods (3,4).

Bacterial metabolism in tea can cause sugar fermentation, resulting in the generation of organic acids (e.g., lactic acid) and off-flavor chemicals, which contribute to the sour or vinegar-like taste. In addition, bacterial metabolic byproducts can produce cloudiness and affect the overall sensory quality of the tea (4,5).

Exposure to air and light

Sweet tea, like many other drinks, is prone to oxidation when exposed to air and light. Oxygen molecules can react with numerous components in tea, such as catechins and other polyphenols, causing them to degrade. This can cause the tea to lose its freshness and produce stale or cardboard-like tastes (6). Exposure to light, particularly ultraviolet radiation, can cause photochemical reactions in tea, resulting in the breakdown of chlorophyll and the creation of off-flavors and off-colors. Sweet tea should be kept in opaque containers or bottles to avoid exposure to both air and light (7).

Temperature fluctuations

Temperature fluctuations can have a considerable influence on the stability and sensory properties of sweet tea. When subjected to temperature fluctuations, the solubility of some chemicals in tea can alter, resulting in cloudiness and particle precipitation (8). 

Temperature extremes, whether too hot or too cold, can promote chemical reactions that change the flavor profile of the tea, resulting in off-flavors. Sweet tea must be stored in a stable environment with a steady temperature, ideally in a cool, dry spot away from direct sunlight and heat sources, and within the recommended temperature range for tea preservation (9,10).

How can you properly store sweet tea?

Sweet tea should be refrigerated at 4 °C, as soon as possible, to prevent bacterial development and deterioration. This is an important step since bacteria thrive in higher temperatures and can proliferate quickly in sweet liquids. Microbial activity will reduce at lower temperatures, ensuring that sweet tea is safe to consume (11,12).

Sweet tea should be placed in a clean, airtight container to prevent contamination and extend its freshness. You also should store tea away from food with a strong odor to avoid your tea absorbing it (12).

When refrigerating, it is critical to properly seal the container with a lid or plastic wrap to prevent air and moisture from seeping and therefore protect the tea’s quality (12).

To ensure the best freshness and quality, sweet tea should be consumed within a few days of brewing, as extended chilling can lead to flavor deterioration and the creation of off-flavors owing to the probable breakdown of organic constituents. 

Can you freeze sweet tea?

Yes, you can freeze sweet tea. Freezing sweet tea is a good choice for preservation, since the low temperatures slow bacterial development and enzymatic reactions, successfully maintaining its freshness and safety (11).

To properly do it, cool it to room temperature or fridge temperature, move it to a freezer-safe container, and make sure it’s airtight or with little headspace (since the expansion of liquid as it freezes can occasionally damage the container), so leave some space for expansion. Mark it with the freezing date, and store it at -18 °C or below (11).

Sweet tea can last for at least 3 months under this condition with no changes. However, it is advisable to consume it between this timeframe for best quality (11).

The freezing procedure might result in the development of ice crystals, which may affect the texture and mouthfeel of the tea upon thawing, perhaps resulting in some cloudiness (13).

When you’re ready to use your frozen sweet tea, avoid doing it at room temperature because of microorganism growth. The best option is to thaw it in the refrigerator for a few hours and consume it immediately to avoid any microbial contamination and health risks like foodborne illness (14).

How can you tell if sweet tea has gone bad?

To tell if your sweet tea has gone bad, there are a few things to consider, and they all have some science behind them.

Check the color

Freshly brewed black tea should have a lively, amber hue. If it starts looking dull or turns a bit gray, it’s a sign it might be past its prime. When tea ages or is exposed to adverse storage conditions, polyphenolic compounds, particularly the catechins, which are responsible for both the color and numerous health benefits of tea, can undergo further reactions. This leads to degradation and the formation of colorless or grayish compounds (15,18). 

Give it a sniff

If there’s a funky or unpleasant smell when you take a whiff, that’s a pretty clear indication that your tea has gone bad. It could be because of off-flavors or microbes’ action.  Microbes like bacteria and fungi can metabolize tea components, creating volatile substances such as aldehydes, ketones, and organic acids, which can bring off-flavors and aromas (16).

Besides, the oxidation of tea components can produce compounds with musty or rotten odors. According to science, the identification of these repulsive scents is a solid sign that the chemical makeup of the tea has been changed, affecting its overall quality and safety (17,18).

Take a sip and taste it

Tea taste varies as a result of complicated chemical reactions caused by oxidation, enzymatic processes, and microbial activity. While these activities are necessary for the creation of tea’s distinct flavor and fragrance, departures from perfect circumstances or prolonged exposure to adverse variables can result in weaker or off-tastes in the tea, lowering its overall quality and appeal. You can take a sip, just to see if there’s something bad with your sweet tea. Do not swallow it, just taste it in a small amount (17,18).

What happens if you consume spoiled tea?

Consuming spoiled sweet tea can result in food poisoning, which can produce symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. These symptoms can range from moderate to severe, depending on the depth of the contamination and the amount of bad tea drank. Food poisoning can also induce fever, headaches, and muscular pains in certain situations (19).

Molds can also be dangerous to your health if consumed. They can produce mycotoxins that can be harmful to human health (20)

It is vital to note that sweet tea has been shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, cardioprotective, hepatoprotective, antidiabetic, and anticancer properties. These advantages, however, are related to the drinking of fresh, properly prepared sweet tea, rather than spoiled tea (21).

If you feel you have drank tainted sweet tea and are experiencing symptoms of food poisoning, you should seek medical treatment.


In this brief guide, we answered the question “How long can sweet tea sit out” with an in-depth analysis of the shelf life of sweet tea at room temperature and what affects its shelf life. Moreover, we discussed how you can store sweet tea and how you can tell if sweet tea has spoiled.



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