Noble Toby Fleming and the Triumph of Royal Estates Tea

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Long considered one of the most powerful men in the United States tea trade, Noble Fearnley Hutchison Fleming passed away last month.

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Noble Fearnley Hutchison Fleming, known as "Toby" throughout his 92 years, died last month, the last and most powerful proconsul of the world-wide empire of British Legacy Black Tea. An Englishman, he was the longtime head of Royal Estates Tea, the subsidiary that purchased all the teas for Thomas J. Lipton Company, the best-selling tea brand in the United States. This gave Mr. Fleming, before he retired in 1983, one of the most powerful positions in the U.S. tea trade. But his place in history is not only that of a legendary tea man. He was also the emblem of his era.

Noble "Toby" Fleming's career represented the triumph of British Legacy Black Tea in the U.S. and around the world. It did not last, and will not come again: America's present-day tea renaissance has opened a new chapter in our country's tea history. We have newly awakened to life after black tea and enjoy a whole world of traditions. Be that howsoever, the post-World War II tea world was one Toby Fleming bestrode like a colossus.

To supply a nation with consistent and inexpensive blends of black tea packed in supermarket teabags required no little doing.

David Walker, founder of Walker Tea Corp. in the U.S., warehoused, graded, and blended tea for Fleming in Kenya in the 1960s, when Fleming visited regularly and kicked my butt -- as a good imperialist must, of course. I was, after all, a colonial laboring in the same fields. But Nairobi's famed Muthaiga Club was just one of the stops on Toby's tour of the empire, East Africa being of less importance than Sri Lanka or India. Here the British pioneered growing tea on plantations and manufacturing it by machinery, producing enough by 1886 to seize the lion's share of the world tea market for British Empire tea. India is where Toby got his start in the approved English fashion -- through family influence:

"I had been reading a lot of Kipling (in 1939) and wanted to get out of rainy old London," he told The New York Times in 1980. "So when Thomas Lipton's top tea taster, who was a friend of the family, agreed to take me on as an apprentice in India, I jumped at it." There he joined the fashionable Calcutta Light Cavalry (he remained a horseman all his life) and served in the Indian navy during World War II. But mainly he learned tea from cultivation to consumption, and developed an insanely refined palate which won him recognition. Toby Fleming's face eventually became familiar from Calcutta Tollygunge to the Darjeeling Planters Club, from Ceylon estate bungalows in Dimbula and Uva to those of south India and East Africa. By then his headquarters, however, was the facility old Thomas J. himself had founded in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

There Mr. Fleming, almost always attired in a finely tailored suit, spent hours "sipping, spitting, and looking wise," as the tea taster's work has been well described. He tasted thousands of samples each year and bought the teas he deemed "useful" in maintaining Lipton's indomitable brand consistently from one year to the next. Tea professionals as notable as Barry Cooper, Dick Cooper (no relation), Malcolm Long, Tony Hankin, Gilbert Renzior, and Peter Goggi were trained working for him. Together with the Tetleys and Nestles, Liptons dominated the profession's organization, the Tea Association, and helped finance conventions that are still warmly remembered.

To supply a nation with consistent and inexpensive blends of black tea packed in supermarket teabags required no little doing. As the driving force of Liptons, Toby Fleming maintained not just its famous "brisk" blend but also the genteel traditions of the trade he came to embody. Nowadays teas the British never heard of are increasingly popular in the U.S. and around the world and the likes of Toby Fleming, commanding half the country's total tea sales, will not be seen again.

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James Norwood Pratt's Tea Dictionary was named the Best New Publication of 2010 at the World Tea Expo. He has served as honorary director of Imperial Tea Court and as international juror of India's first-ever tea competition.

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