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A History of the World in 6 Glasses

November 1st, 2010

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From beer to Coca-Cola, the six drinks that have helped shape human historyThroughout human history, certain drinks have done much more than just quench thirst. As Tom Standage relates with authority and charm, six of them have had a surprisingly pervasive influence on the course of history, becoming the defining drink during a pivotal historical period. A History of the World in 6 Glasses tells the story of humanity from the Stone Age to the 21st century through the lens of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola. Beer was first made in the Fertile Crescent and by 3000 B.C.E. was so important to Mesopotamia and Egypt that it was used to pay wages. In ancient Greece wine became the main export of her vast seaborne trade, helping spread Greek culture abroad. Spirits such as brandy and rum fueled the Age of Exploration, fortifying seamen on long voyages and oiling the pernicious slave trade. Although coffee originated in the Arab world, it stoked revolutionary thought in Europe during the Age of Reason, when coffeehouses became centers of intellectual exchange. And hundreds of years after the Chinese began drinking tea, it became especially popular in Britain, with far-reaching effects on British foreign policy. Finally, though carbonated drinks were invented in 18th-century Europe they became a 20th-century phenomenon, and Coca-Cola in particular is the leading symbol of globalization.For Tom Standage, each drink is a kind of technology, a catalyst for advancing culture by which he demonstrates the intricate interplay of different civilizations. You may never look at your favorite drink the same way again.


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History Books From beer to Coca-Cola, the six drinks that have helped shape human historyThroughout human history, certain drinks have done much more than just quench thirst. As Tom Standage relates with authority and charm, six of them have had a surprisingly pervasive influence on the course of history, becoming the defining drink during a pivotal historical period. A History of the World in 6 Glasses tells the story of humanity from the Stone Age to the 21st century through the lens of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola. Beer was first made in the Fertile Crescent and by 3000 B.C.E. was so important to Mesopotamia and Egypt that it was used to pay wages. In ancient Greece wine became the main export of her vast seaborne trade, helping spread Greek culture abroad. Spirits such as brandy and rum fueled the Age of Exploration, fortifying seamen on long voyages and oiling the pernicious slave trade. Although coffee originated in the Arab world, it stoked revolutionary thought in Europe during the Age of Reason, when coffeehouses became centers of intellectual exchange. And hundreds of years after the Chinese began drinking tea, it became especially popular in Britain, with far-reaching effects on British foreign policy. Finally, though carbonated drinks were invented in 18th-century Europe they became a 20th-century phenomenon, and Coca-Cola in particular is the leading symbol of globalization.For Tom Standage, each drink is a kind of technology, a catalyst for advancing culture by which he demonstrates the intricate interplay of different civilizations. You may never look at your favorite drink the same way again.
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  1. J. Brian Watkins
    November 3rd, 2010 at 01:37 | #1

    Rating

    This book is evidence of the power of a good idea to organize one’s thoughts and arguments so as to make them compelling. Other than the air we breathe, which hasn’t really changed all that much over the years, there is nothing so universally important as liquid refreshment. Mr. Standage’s decision to structure his history of the world upon beverages is brilliant. It is precisely because the drinks discussed remain so familiar to us that the history is so relevant and interesting. Though we understand quite well why alcohol has such a prominent place in history, who would have thought that water itself is only now just emerging as the drink of choice? or that the antibacterial properties of Tea supported the industrial revolution. True, the bias is towards Western history–but as that is my history, I’ll take it.

    We are surrounded with objects that we take for granted and there are any number of great books that spin the historical tale around such objects; however, this work excels because of its brevity–the author manages to cover the topic without the pace of the book ever lagging. The lawyer in me appreciates a finely honed argument; Standage’s book is so good that he makes the supremely difficult job of summarizing world history look easy.

    Many authors of history are unable to prune the many fascinating insights that history presents. And to be sure, I enjoy a nice meandering presentation of interesting tidbits organized around a central theme, but it is always refreshing to find a history that has the same “can’t put down” type of feel as a thriller or mystery. I can’t think of a more excellent example of a history that is both appropriate for a younger student as well as an overeducated adult. Highest Recommendation.

  2. R. Hardy
    November 5th, 2010 at 02:19 | #2

    Rating

    Breathing is essential, but the air is free and no one has found a way to make it special enough that people will pay for the privilege, unless you count the hits of pure oxygen that some favor. Eating is essential, and of course there are countless ways that the activity has been turned into a trade. Between them, as far as the body’s needs go, is drinking, that is, drinking water, and while there is a pretty good trade in more-or-less pure water, it’s the stuff that is added to water that has changed history. Or, at least, that is the view of Tom Standage in the sprightly _A History of the World in 6 Glasses_ (Walker & Company). An overview of world history that is based on what people imbibe might seem to be a theme too narrow to tell us much, but this enjoyably breezy overview looks into science and culture through the millennia and shows that humans took a physiologic necessity and used it to shape the ancient, classical, and modern worlds.

    Beer, for instance, gave us history itself. The workers who built the pyramids were paid in beer, and Egyptians would greet each other with the phrase “Bread and beer,” a genial wish for prosperity. The pictures of Egyptians enjoying their beer show them doing it together, using straws communally inserted into a big jar of beer; using straws kept the floating stuff at the top from being ingested. Wine, by contrast, was the drink of the elite ever since it spread through ancient Greece. It is remarkable that thousands of years later, though the categories have merged somewhat, beer has remained the working man’s everyday drink while wine has remained an exotic, fit for connoisseurship and social differentiation. Rum was “The world’s first global drink” and a key part of the slave trade as well as of the American drive to independence. George Washington eventually distilled whiskey at Mount Vernon, but when he campaigned for the House of Burgesses in 1738, he distributed, besides wine and cider, twenty-eight gallons of rum and fifty of rum punch. This went to a county with only 391 voters. The use of coffee took off in European coffeehouses, and the tradition of coffee being a thinking beverage continues; we have Internet caf├ęs rather than internet bars. Tea was a perfect drink for sober, productive attendants of the machines that powered the industrial revolution, and tea breaks were part of the job. Coca-Cola was sold until 1865 as a medical elixir, but since not everyone is ill but everyone gets thirsty, it was thereafter marketed as a drink, not a drug. Coke was an all-American drink and the harbinger of the consumerism of globalization, largely due to its participation in World War II. Soldiers all over the world wanted this liquid bit of home while they were overseas, and the Coca-Cola company was happy to oblige them, especially since it got an exemption from sugar rationing as a product essential to the war effort. The soldiers eventually came back home, but the company continued distribution to the locals.

    Standage comes around in an epilogue to our basic beverage, water. There is an amazing paradox that now in nations which have good water supplies, people are bypassing them to buy bottled water. This is despite bottled water having no real advantages; it is not more nutritious or pure, and it might even be more likely to grow germs. It also costs hundreds or thousands more than tap water. But trendy bottled waters are not really a problem; access to water is, with a fifth of the world’s population not having reliably safe drinking water. Water wars loom in various areas of the globe, and may well do as much shaping of our future as the other six drinks have in bringing us to the present. Standage’s entertaining tour of thousands of years of drinking history makes plain that what we drink will continue to change the world in unexpected ways.

  3. irishrep
    November 5th, 2010 at 12:27 | #3

    Rating

    I can’t say enough good things about this book. A great subject and a fine read. I found it fascinating and finished it in just three days. An accessible book for readers who don’t normally pick up non-fiction books, yet detailed enough for history fans. It would’ve been nice to have at least a mention of hard apple cider, which was important in early American history because the fermentation process kills bacteria, making it safer to drink than well water at the time. But Standage makes a compelling case as to the importance of each of the six drinks he profiles.

  4. Esther Schindler
    November 6th, 2010 at 18:32 | #4

    Rating

    The premise of this book is great, and the author does a good job of covering the territory. Essentially, he explains the importance of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca Cola as a historical catalyst. The Pilgrims landed in Plymouth because they ran out of beer; sea exploration was enhanced because spirits (such as rum) took up less storage room and didn’t spoil (as beer will); the Pope blessed coffee, so that consuming it wouldn’t be sinful (after all, it was a drink that came from the infidel Arabs). And so on.

    If you’re looking for lightweight mind candy that’s also educational, A History of the World in Six Glasses will be just dandy.

    Although Standish does a good job, it’s best to think of this book as an introduction to gastronomy-as-history. If you do get seriously interested in the ways that food and drink moved history along in its path, though, you’ll find at least a few options for further exploration. For example, you might want to check out _Beer in America: The Early Years–1587-1840_ to understand its role in the American Revolution in more depth. I’d wholeheartedly recommend _Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World_ by Mark Pendergrast. And I’d encourage you to dive into _Nathaniel’s Nutmeg_ by Giles Milton, to learn more about the spice trade (so THAT’s why the Dutch traded away New Amsterdam to the British!). These books are much more in depth, which is both their strength and weakness. You might want 60 pages about coffee’s role in history rather than 300. But, since I’d read them before I read this book, I found Standage’s overview an eensy-bit thin. I don’t consider that a serious demerit, however; if you like what you read here (and I think you will), you’ll simply be glad to discover that there’s more to learn.

  5. Gregg Eldred
    November 8th, 2010 at 00:36 | #5

    Rating

    If you have never enjoyed reading history, this book may change that. But be forewarned, as you read this book, you may develop a thirst for the beverages that are being discussed.

    Contents:

    Introduction

    Chapter 1: A Stone-Age Brew

    Chapter 2: Civilized Beer

    Chapter 3: The Delight of Wine

    Chapter 4: The Imperial Vine

    Chapter 5: High Spirits, High Seas

    Chapter 6: The Drinks That Built America

    Chapter 7: The Great Soberer

    Chapter 8: The Coffeehouse Internet

    Chapter 9: Empires of Tea

    Chapter 10: Tea Power

    Chapter 11: From Soda to Cola

    Chapter 12: Globalization in a Bottle

    Epilogue: Back to the Source

    Acknowledgements

    Appendix

    In A History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage traces world history using six beverages; beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola. The Epilogue adds one more to the list: Water. With each drink, Standage explains why and how it came to be, what was happening regionally or globally, and how the drink influenced civilization. Wine is a good example. Early in its development, it was only available in very specific regions. As such, key wine making areas were favorites of kings and sometimes the focus of wars or territory disputes. Finally, to see the vine make its way around the known world is a fascinating trip. Another fact shared by most of the beverages; in the days of cholera and other water born illnesses, drinking beer, wine, coffee, or tea were a good way to remain alive.

    You have to commend Standage for this book: it is one of the most unique views of world history. Whether your favorite drink is beer, wine, rum, or water, you are presented with the history of the drink and an excellent tour of the past. In addition, you should go away with an appreciation for all of the beverages as well as an excellent understanding of how these drinks influenced world politics (some of which are still with us). Because Standage uses familiar beverages, you can’t help but be drawn into the history of the world. Some chapters are more interesting than others, primarily because your favorite drink isn’t central to the chapter. But regardless, you learn something about a particular time in history, using a cup of coffee, a pint of beer, or shot of whiskey. Another benefit of this book – you will have plenty of anecdotes to tell your friends over a beer, a cup of coffee, or a Coke. As an example, look at whiskey. The original phrase for distilled spirits was aqua vitae, or “water of life.” The Gaelic for aqua vitae is uisge beatha, which is the origin of the word whiskey. You may think that you are simply having a drink, but you are really consuming history.

    This is a fun, informative book and highly recommended.

  6. Avid Reader
    November 9th, 2010 at 18:06 | #6

    Rating

    Great History even if told through liquid refreshments. One is struck by how history can be viewed as the enrichment of previous experiences, inventions and ideas into greater and greater quality….witness the advent of language to the alphabet to temple reports to fiction to electronic media. In this case it is the liquids we drink and the fascinating way they were discovered, produced and how they changed society. We in the West are well-acquainted with these whereas some parts of the world (Muslim areas) banned many of these and thus did not undergo (for good or bad) the various social changes they wrought.

    The work is short, simple, pleasing and – except for a couple of quibbles – factual. Don’t look for detailed analysis or sweeping statements of unique import – just six good stories of a drink and how they changed the world today.

  7. Karen Sampson Hudson
    November 9th, 2010 at 20:43 | #7

    Rating

    Tom Standage’s stellar writing skills and effortless scholarship are both shining in his latest book, “A History of the World in Six Glasses.” I first encountered Standage was when he was interviewed on NPR one weekend, and my initial reaction was, “He can’t be serious about this lightweight topic!” But I was taken with his erudite, expressive language and his half-humorous, half-serious demeanor.

    When I opened the book, pages flew by as I was quickly caught up in his account of beer—early nutrition, “liquid bread”; wine, “a gift of the gods,” according to ancients; spirits, which fueled the age of exploration, providing sailors with a safe beverage (unlike the often undrinkable water); rum, and later cereal spirits, favored by colonial Americans; coffee, a beverage ideal for Enlightenment times; tea, an economic and political tool of the British Empire, which is still the favored beverage all over the far-flung lands the British once ruled; and Coca-cola, which has become the symbol of American culture and capitalism.

    I picked up some fascinating tidbits: Our word, alcohol, comes from the Arabic al-koh’l, the black powder of purified antimony which was used as early eye makeup. Alchemists used the term generally for highly purified substances, including liquids: Distilled wine came to be known as “alcohol of wine.”

    Our word whiskey comes from the Gaelic word for distilled beer–

    uisge beatha. The word brandy comes from the German branntwein, burnt wine.

    Worth quoting, since it is still relevant, from an ancient play by Greek writer Euboulos, is a kind of chart for wine

    consumption:

    “For sensible men I prepare only three kraters: one for health, which they drink first, the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home. The fourth krater is not mine anymore—it belongs to bad behavior; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.”

    This entertaining, authoritative book will keep your interest from start to finish. Highly recommended.

  8. mrliteral
    November 11th, 2010 at 08:15 | #8

    Rating

    For any who have read much on world history, it is obvious that certain natural resources are necessary for a civilization to prosper. The most pivotal to human life would be air, but that was hardly in scarce supply anywhere on the globe. On the other hand, water is much more unevenly distributed and has played a huge part in how, where and when certain civilizations have developed. In Tom Standage’s brief and entertaining book, we see that other drinkable liquids have also played a critical part in history.

    He focuses on six drinks in particular (hence the “six glasses” of the title): beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola. As he observes early on, these six can be split evenly into two categories, the first three being alcoholic beverages and the latter three being caffienated drinks. In sections for each drink, we get a history of how the drink developed and how it had an impact on history. We see how beer was the first “working-class” drink, how wine played a role in developing Greek and Roman civilization (as well as its differing roles in Christianity and Islam) and how spirits provided a more economical way of transporting goods (being much more compact than its root materials). Coffee from the start was associated with coffee houses, social zones where important political and scientific ideas were discussed. Tea helped expand the British empire and Coca-Cola parallels the development of the global economy, to the point where its trademark is one of the most recognized symbols worldwide.

    For most of human history, water was essential but unsafe for drinking purposes. These six drinks provided safer alternatives. Now, as discussed in the epilog, water is making a comeback, exposing a grand irony. In areas where tap water is safe, people buy bottled water that is no purer but is more expensive by volume than gasoline. Standage really only neglects two major classes of drink: milk (which probably had its biggest impact in prehistory by encouraging the keeping of livestock) and juice (although wine is kind of related).

    There are little flaws in the book, such as Standage’s error in referring to a year 0 C.E., which does not really exist (the year before 1 C.E. actually being 1 B.C.E.). Overall, however, this is a solid four star effort and well-worth reading. You may never think of that drink in your hand the same way.

  9. Mark Towler
    November 11th, 2010 at 11:20 | #9

    Rating

    An entertaining and easily-read book that casually traces the impact of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coke on human history. There are a few new tidbits of information and interesting factoids, but nothing particularly earth-shattering here. If you’re looking for intriguing details on the order of “Salt: A world history” or “Potato: How the humble spud changed the world” you’ll be disappointed. That said, this is a good starting point for anyone interested in learning how consumables can impact history. An Amazon reviewer referred to one of the author’s other books as a ‘McBook’ which is probably equally accurate here. But there’s certainly room in the world for the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries. It may not be tremendously nutritious or flavourful, but it’s tasty enough.

  10. John D. Cofield
    November 12th, 2010 at 02:08 | #10

    Rating

    This is a good example of why history is fun. Tom Standage has investigated the origins of six beverages: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola and has found innumerable connections, interconnections, and insights into not only the histories of the drinks themselves but also their impacts on the larger human story. The links Standage finds, for example between coffee and the Enlightenment or tea and the Opium Wars or wine and beer and their effect on class and cultural tensions in Greece and Rome, just a few of the many insights you’ll find in the book) are fascinating. Standage also provides one of the most succinct but thorough dissections of the globalization debate I have ever seen in his coverage of “Coca-Colonization.”

    A History of the World in Six Glasses is much more than just a history of six beverages. It is history as it should be written (and taught).

  11. John Matlock
    November 12th, 2010 at 04:43 | #11

    Rating

    What can you say except, “I’ll drink to that.”

    As I first started looking at this book I was reminded of James Burke and his ‘Connections.’ Like Burke, Mr. Standage looks at the six (well maybe seven) drinks that basically were a technology that changed history.

    To illustrate this I’ll talk about only one of his drinks — Beer. Beer probably began as some leftover cooked grain, perhaps the kids morning cereal, was left outside in the rain. Soaking in water, it turned into malt. Wild yeast fell into the mix, and in a few days the result was beer. While I’d bet it was foul tasting beer, it was the only alcoholic beverage around.

    OK, so you have beer, how does this mean anything? Well, to get more beer, you need more grain. To get more grain you basically move from being a hunter-gatherer to a farmer. You also need the ancillary technologies of pottery to make and store the product. If you have beer, and your neighbors have food, perhaps you can make a trade. Expand on this and you have a need for writing, for record keeping, for accounting. And with accounting can the tax people be far behind? And that’s not all. No pathogen lives through the brewing process, so all of a sudden you have a beverage that’s safe to drink, cutting down on illnesses. Think about all that the next time you sip a brew.

    Surprisingly, a lot of the glasses Mr. Standage talks about have this same factor of sterilizing the water, thereby cutting down on disease.

    A delightful book, now if we can only get it made into a TV series.

  12. Nyarlathotep
    November 13th, 2010 at 21:23 | #12

    Rating

    Standage decided to write the history of the civilized world not by tracing the histories of kings, popes, wars, and explorers, but with beer, wine, coffee, tea, spirits, and soda. The result is such an incredibly interesting and entertaining read, that one wonders if historians have been concentrating on the wrong subjects all along.

    From Standage we learn that the earliest of these beverages were critical to the establishment of organized human societies. They served as important water purification systems, and also as the earliest forms of hard currrency.

    We also learn why Greeks added water to their wine, why England became a tea drinking society, and while France embraced coffee. The discussion of Coca-Cola and its role in the globalization age is one of the best I’ve read on the subject of the ever more intergrated global economy.

    Standage comes full circle with an Epilogue on plain old water, and the potential in certain regions of the globe for future political and military conflicts over the control of this limited and valuable resource.

  13. Marcus Tullius Wardo
    November 14th, 2010 at 22:17 | #13

    Rating

    While this book is History Light, it is nonetheless a good read packed with a lot of very entertaining facts. Standage’s premise — that six beverages are emblematic of six eras in man’s history — is overreaching, and he is guilty of manipulating his facts to suit his premise. The second and third sections, on wine and distilled beverages, are the weakest as a result of Standage’s adherence to his premise, and would have been much better if he had just presented each of those sections as a straightforward history of the beverage in question. Also, Standage’s insistence on his theme causes him to leave out some good stories that would have fit nicely into the book, such as leaving out the early 18th Century gin craze in England and Holland, because it would have messed up his timeline and fallen in the era of Coffee rather than Distilled Spirits. But these are quibbles. Standage’s presentations of the stories of these six beverages are excellent, well-researched and written to entertain. The first and last sections, on beer and Coca-Cola, are the strongest and full of interesting information, and his concluding chapter (in which he names his candidate for the next epoch-defining beverage as clean drinking water) is timely and thoughtful. This book is worth reading.

  14. Not Your Concern
    November 15th, 2010 at 05:02 | #14

    Rating

    The title of this book might make you think this is just about the history of some beverages.

    Yes you learn how beer came about, wine, etc. But what makes this book most fascinating is how it connects everything with society both past and present. Each section is entertaining and goes on some relevant tangents giving some insightful tidbits about things such as the Industrial Revolution, the Greek way of life and how coffee fueled important ideas and revolutions. Some portions are very funny and entertaining while some parts are very serious and might give some some readers a different take on how their beverage consumption might affect someone a thousand miles away.

    Bottom line: this is a fascinating book that really makes you think a little differently each time you fill whatever cup, mug or glass you’ve got in your hand.

    [AND OF COURSE ...what better way to relive history than to drink the appropriate beverage along with their corresponding chapter(s)?]

  15. M. McDonald
    November 16th, 2010 at 06:42 | #15

    Rating

    Do you ever wonder where some people find the most interesting things to say at parties — like how tea aided longevity in China or raised life expectancy in Europe ?

    Well it is this kind of book that drives that knowledge. Standage has created a very enjoyable, brisk read that is definately for fun and to load up on fun facts.

    By telling the world’s history in six glasses (see below) Standage covers alot of ground and sure he misses alot, but its still fun non-the less.

    1) Beer — a basis for why people replaced hunting with farming

    2) Wine — the civilizer of Greece and Rome

    3) Hard Spirits — slavery, the American Revolution

    4) Tea — the life sustainer and improver

    5) Coffee — the fuel for the enlightenment

    6) Cola — particularly Coca-cola the expression of cultural dominance.

    Sure you have heard some of these stories before, but this book presents history in a fun and entertaining light. So when you go to order your next beer know that you are engaging in high civilization even in a sports bar.

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