Noble Fleming — Master of Tea

Too many folks in the tea world play fast and loose with the term “tea master.” It seems the title is being adopted by anyone who feels they’ve studied or worked with tea for sufficient time – however arbitrarily long that may be, from years to weeks. To my mind, there are very few people deserving of this sobriquet. Nigel Melican of TeaCraft recently put it rather succinctly: “Tea Master” is perhaps a title that should only be awarded posthumously.

So I don’t use the word “master” lightly when I describe Noble Fleming.

Never heard of him? You’re not alone. Most consumers wouldn’t recognize the name.

Noble Fleming at work at Lipton Tea
Noble Fleming at work at Lipton Tea

Although he was a “behind the scenes” kind of guy, he was in fact one of the most powerful and influential tea men in the world. I’m sure you have heard of Lipton Tea, the best-selling tea in the USA? Mr. Fleming was no less than the director and chief taster for Royal Estates Tea, the purchasing subsidiary for Lipton, for almost fifty years. He and his remarkable palate were well known – almost legendary – within the tea industry.

Born in Wales in 1919, Mr. Fleming began his life’s work in tea at the age of nineteen, when a top Lipton tea taster took him on as an apprentice.  In 1946, Lipton sent him to their USA headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, overlooking the Hudson River across from New York City.

He traveled to tea estates in India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and Africa, but it was in New Jersey where he studied and tested the samples that would – or wouldn’t – measure up to his skilled and specific taste standards. He would then instruct Royal Estates’ representatives which teas to buy at auction. Clearly his decisions could make – or break – a tea garden.

Mr. Fleming was a pioneer of approaching tea as one approaches wine: an agricultural product that reflects its environment of origin. He would evaluate the growing conditions of the tea bushes according to elevation, terroir, climate, and weather, even taking into account how well each garden was managed. These are all standard procedures for today’s tea buyers and professional tasters – some of whom were fortunate enough to study with him. In 1983, Mr. Fleming retired to Normandy in France. Drinking all that tea for so many years undoubtedly had a beneficial effect on his health: He lived to be 92 years old.

Noble Fleming died on February 24, 2012. His was the life of a true tea master – a title he clearly merited not just posthumously, but in his lifetime as well.

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