I had Tom Standage’s book, A History of the World in 6 Glasses, of books to get to this year. A finally bought it about a month ago and it did not disappoint.
First of all, it isn’t a history of each individual beverage, though there is plenty of that, but a history of the world (as the title indicates) viewed through the lens of what (and why) people were drinking at the time. The drinks and the times they represent are:
Beer – probably the oldest known drink, popular in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Likely made/discovered by accident, at some unknown time far in the distant past. One of the main benefits it had on society was that you must boil water to make it. This had the affect of water purification and a decrease in waterborne illness. Interesting notes about how it was used as currency and given as rations to soldiers and slaves.
Wine – Our next step in history (Western, at least) is to move north to Greece and then Rome. Wine was viewed as the sophisticated drink and being a wine civilized, educated and wealthy (the more things change…). The sections about the drinking parties are fascinating, with all the ritual and impact on democracy they had. Tangentially related, I grew up in a church that served grape juice for the Lord’s Supper. People would argue that we should have wine, as Jesus turned water into wine, etc. but the common retort was well, wine was weaker then. Turns out, this is actually kind of true. It was made the same as today, but watered down. It was considered crass to drink wine straight. Who knew? I assumed they were just pulling something out of their asses, on the other hand, they could have just watered it down, but I digress.
Spirits- specifically whisky and rum, my personal favorites, though there is also gin and brandy that play a major role. This is the era of exploration and colonization. Beer & wine were expensive to ship and didn’t always keep on the voyage across the Atlantic. Distilled spirits would, and quickly replaced beer as the rations for soldiers. Incidentally, to flavor the harsh drinks, they’d add lime juice, which would help prevent scurvy. He also goes into detail about the triangle of slave trade where slaves would be taken to the islands where they’d be traded for sugar, sugar was then taken to Boston to produce rum, the rum was then traded to Africans for more slaves. And of course, the Whisky Rebellion – the first major attempt to raises taxes in America and one of the first violent threat from within, all due to homemade whisky.
Coffee – The age of reason and the enlightenment. This was definitely my favorite chapter. If you are not familiar with the impact that coffee had on the move to the industrial revolution, the book is worth the cost for this chapter alone. Basically, we’d all walk around half drunk all day. People often had beer (weak, but still) for breakfast because it was safer than water. Your precision in operating machinery or your output at a factory is greatly diminished when you’ve been drinking. Once you are caffeinated, however, then you are alert, focused, and ready to go. Also, the interesting impact on enlightenment and revolutions, as discussion moved from pubs and taverns to coffee houses.
Tea – Mostly focused on the British empire, there is still a cool history behind tea in the East that he dives in to. Some of the more interesting things to come out of this history is the impact of people working out of Tea Shops. People would often use the place for meetings and have mail sent there. Because the shops were located near places of work, there would often be a certain industry focus. Proprietors would put shipping information or stock prices on boards. Manuscripts were circulated and critiqued. Lloyd’s of London and the London Stock Exchange both started as or at tea shops. Twining’s, The Wife’s favorite, started almost 400 years ago and may be the oldest official logo still in use. Speaking of women, unlike coffee shops, they were allowed in tea shops which had some interesting impacts, such as the little boxes, sometimes with locks, that teas are still kept in today.
Coco-Cola – or Coke here in the South. This chapter follows the rise of America and The American Century; also ‘Murica, to a lesser extent. The history is kind of crazy, to think about the number of people running around selling random drinks that are dangerous for you, even though they make wild health benefit claims. Then again, this is still happening, and is completely unregulated,(so, again, the more things change…). Overall fairly interesting, but probably more known by most people (at least Americans) but some great and funny anecdotes. Such as the Russian general who couldn’t been seen drinking Coke, even though he loved it, because it was associated with capitalism. So, Coke hooks him up and make clear Coke, puts it in a different bottle to look like vodka and sends it to him. Interesting stuff about Coke embodying capitalist ideals to many communist countries.
Overall, definitely worth picking up somewhere. Very well written and interesting book, especially if you are a big history nerd.