An ode to the tea taster, Noble Flemming

Tea taster whose well-trained nose and taste buds helped make Lipton the world's biggest tea company

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An ode to the tea taster, Noble Flemming

Noble Flemming, who has died aged 92, did for Lipton Tea what a wine taster does for a wine merchant, helping to establish the Thomas J Lipton Company as the world's biggest tea company.

The firm had been founded towards the end of the 19th century by Sir Thomas Lipton, 1st Bt, a Glaswegian merchant who opened his first tea-tasting office in 1888 and started bypassing traditional trading and wholesale distribution channels to sell teas at low prices to the poor working class - then an untapped market for the beverage. In 1893 he established the Thomas J Lipton Co, a tea packing firm with its headquarters and factory in New Jersey. Lipton teas were an immediate success in America, which, over time, became Lipton's biggest market.

The British-born Fleming, always known as "Toby", came to the tea business through his love of the India described in the works of Rudyard Kipling. Sir Thomas Lipton's senior tea taster was a friend of his parents and, when the young man was invited to join Lipton as a tea taster in India, he jumped at the chance.

Noble Fearnley Hutchinson Fleming was born in Wales on March 7 1919. During the Second World War he served in the Royal Indian Navy.

He then began a lifetime of travelling to plantations in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China and East Africa in search of the perfect leaf. There, he would evaluate the tea on the basis of soil, elevation, rainfall, temperature and quality of management. Back in the United States, where he was based from 1946 and was for many years head of Lipton's Royal Estates subsidiary, Fleming and his team of experts would study the "tone" of the leaves, place them in white bone china cups, pour in a precise amount of skimmed milk, then stir, sniff, gurgle and sip. At the end of the process he would tell his agents what to buy at auction.

Fleming always attended these tea tastings in a well-tailored suit and the whole procedure was conducted with an appropriate air of ceremony - down to the chrome-plated spittoons that received the discarded samples. By the time Fleming retired in 1983, Lipton commanded some 50 per cent of the American market.

After retirement, he moved to France. He is survived by a daughter.

Noble Fleming, born March 7 1919, died February 24 2012

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