A History of the World in Six Glasses
Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses tells how the discoveries of six drinks — beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola — shaped human history from the birth of ancient agriculture to colonization across the high seas to the global world we know today. This limited-lens approach results in some sweeping generalizations (“Factory workers had to function like parts in a well-oiled machine, and tea was the lubricant that kept the factories running smoothly” ) but also draws fascinating and reasonable connections between far-distant cultures (“From the start it seems that beer had an important function as a social drink. Sumerian depictions of beer from the third millennium BCE generally show two people drinking through straws from a shared vessel. By the Sumerian period, however, it was possible to filter the grains, chaff, and other debris from beer, and the advent of pottery meant that it could just have easily been served in individual cups. That beer drinkers are, nonetheless, so widely depicted using straws suggests that it was a ritual that persisted even when straws were no longer necessary.… Although it is no longer customary to offer visitors a straw through which to drink from a communal vat of beer…the clinking of glasses symbolically reunites the glasses into a single vessel of shared liquid. These are traditions with very ancient origins.”).
Standage references a respectable number of scholarly books and journal articles, but rarely chooses to cite them directly, preferring a casual round-up of notes at the end. (I understand why publishers choose this “reader friendly” route, but it renders the book a frustrating source for further research.) Among the documents he does quote in assessing each drink’s social influence, my favorite (as a committed coffee drinker!) may be this excerpt of an anonymous poem that circulated in London in 1674, proclaiming coffee “that Grave and Wholesome Liquor, / That heals the stomach, makes the Genius quicker, / Relieves the Memory, revives the Sad, / and cheers the Spirits, without making Mad.” Starbucks should incorporate that into their marketing materials!
Two chapters per drink provide enough information to satisfy a casual curiosity at an easy-reading pace. These sections are followed by an epilogue on another liquid with even more socio-economic power today: water. Finally, a short appendix suggests where and how readers might taste the “real thing,” be it Near Eastern beer, Greek and Roman wine, colonial-era spirits, seventeenth-century coffee, Old English tea, or nineteenth-century soda-fountain cola.
Standage’s book is a limited but appealing crash course on world history as mapped by humanity’s main thirst quenchers. Enthusiasts will certainly enjoy the chapters on “their” drink; the rest of us will at least pick up a little something to add to the conversation at our next cocktail party.