394: A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage

by Gerard

394.12: Standage, Tom. A History of the World in 6 Glasses. New York: Walker & Company, 2006. 274 pp. ISBN 0-8027-1552-4.

Books on food and drink would normally fall into 641, as it is an extension of technology used in home and family management (a stretch, I know, but it is what it is). This book, however, is a look at sociology and how it was affected by the introduction of various beverages. The social science are in the 300s, and this now falls into the 390s—Customs, etiquette, and folklore. This book, being about the general customs and social history of beverages falls into 394 (General customs). Enjoy.

THE REPORT

Tom Standage, in A History of the World in 6 Glasses, tries to present a human historical timeline that can be divided into distinct epochs that each centered on a different beverage. The first is beer. Beer was made by fermenting wheat, barley, or some other grain in water with naturally airborne yeast. It seems to be first man-made beverage (regular water at the time was typically polluted with human or other animal waste), coming into vogue between 10,000 and 7,000 BCE. It was used as a social drink and as payment for a day’s work. Sumerian accountants kept very careful logs of who got beer, how much they got, and when they got it. (On a side note, it is rather sad that accounting created some of the first records, and not the arts)

Next up is wine. It makes a first appearance in the record at a great banquet hosted by King Ashurnasirpal II as a drink sipped from a shallow bowl. Wine becomes easier to make because the grape skins have natural yeast that helps along the fermentation process. The Fertile Crescent already had a climate amenable to the production of grapevine, so this quickly became an abundant foodstuff around 2000 BCE. Wine also becomes predominant around the Mediterranean (it just so happens that at this time, this is the best environmental, political, cultural area to grow grapes efficiently). Ancient Greeks and Romans incorporate wine into their cultures and their lives (water is still dangerous to drink).

The Middle Ages and the Age of Exploration were the birthplace of spirits. Arabic scientists had discovered that if you heated wine at just the right temperature, you could get the alcohol to evaporate and only some of the accompanying water. This highly concentrated mixture became known by many names, including brandy wine, aqua vitae, and whiskey. These drinks were prescribed as medical panaceas, made locally for festival wines, and studied for their alchemical potential.

Before the Age of Reason, the world subsisted on alcoholic drinks of varying strength. Factory workers would have their breakfast with weak beer and continue drinking throughout the day, leading to an almost-constant drunkenness.  When coffee reached Europe in the mid-17th century, it was a welcome wake-up call. Coffee was seen to improve mental function and alertness, and coffee-drinkers (and those who frequented coffeehouses) became the principal agents of scientific, political, and sociological progress. Cafes became the focal point for local revolutions; the French Revolution was started by an impassioned speech at the Café de Foy in 1789.

Tea, while a staple drink in China since the first century BCE, became a global presence once the British Empire began its 18th century program of extreme colonization. Tea and tea bricks were used as currency in mainland China and a particular culture was created around tea harvesting and tea drinking. While tea and coffee the same on a fundamental level (processed plant products steeped in boiling water), tea came from more storied (and foreign) cultures that already had an established and elaborate ritual of drinking. Tea’s stranglehold on the British Empire happened on two tracks. First, the upper class citizen latched onto the Queen’s predilection for tea and began using it as a symbol of flattery and acculturation. Then, tea, once imported from India, became more inexpensive and incorporated into factory worker’s daily lives.

Last on Standage’s list is Coca-Cola, the only name-brand “glass” in his history. While soda (or carbonated) water had been used since Priestley’s discovery/creation of it in 1767, few people thought to do anything with it. Early in its history, it was sold plain around Britain, France, and America as a patent medicine to help cure numerous stomach ailments, but never as a refreshment. By the late 1800s, however, clever apothecaries and druggists began mixing it with fruit syrups to turn a nice profit. Coca-Cola gained a stranglehold on the world’s palette largely because of World War II. The soldiers, homesick for the flavors of America, encouraged the Coca-Cola Company to establish bottling plants in every major country they fought in.

THE REVIEW

Standage’s prose is meant for the non-academic and tries to get us to view our current slew of beverages in a more historical perspective. He tries (ingeniously) to align the primary consumption of each drink with known historical episodes. Beer belongs to the beginning of civilization in the Fertile Crescent; wine goes to the ancient world of the Mediterranean; spirits triumph during the Colonial Period; coffee is guzzled during the Age of Reason; tea quaffed during the Industrial Revolution; and Coca-Cola belongs to the Modern Age. These generalizations are tenuous at best, but it is still an interesting supposition.

Interestingly enough, while certain historical ages can be tied to the creation of each beverage, they all now co-exist in the present. These six, combined with water, form the absolute core of humanity’s drinks. There is an eyebrow-raising symmetry when you notice that the first half of the history is dominated by fermented alcoholic drinks, and the second half on brewed caffeinated drinks.

Standage’s research can be seen as superficial at best, but does give the reader plenty of notes and source material for further study. I enjoyed the book a lot, if only to point me towards more interesting works.

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