World History is a long and complex topic. Though many accomplished authors such as Bill Bryson and H. G. Wells have attempted to condense history into a single book, very few have succeeded. There is just too much of it. Attempts to boil down the last 10,000 years have resulted in either superficial books with very little depth, or great textbook like tombs too inaccessible for the casual reader.
Happily, A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage succeeds where others have failed. Standage’s book does this by sacrificing the breadth of every possible topic for an impressive depth and focus. Instead of trying to sum up the complete history of man, this book spotlights a single topic, in this case beverages, and then takes the reader on a journey through time to see how his topic interweaves the past. Standage is a delightful writer, mixing his light hearted style with exceptional historical savvy not just on the topic of drinks, but throughout.
Despite my now positive opinion of this book, I have to confess that when I first picked up A History of the World in 6 Glasses, I did not expect to enjoy it. Not only am I skeptical of any book claiming to sum up the antiquity of man in 300 pages or less, but I myself do not drink any of the 6 beverages this book discusses. As such, learning the history of these drinks did not sound immediately appealing. However, what I quickly learned is that this book is not a history of 6 drinks, but rather just as the title states, a history of the world, told through the story of 6 drinks. As the book points out in the introduction, second only to air, liquid is the most vital substance to man’s survival. The availability of water and other drinking sources have “constrained and guided humankind’s progress” and “have continued to shape human history”. Throughout time, beverages have done more than quenched our thirst; they have been used as currencies, medicines, and in religious rites. They have served as symbols of wealth and power, as well as tools to appease the poor and downtrodden.
A History of the World in 6 Glasses is broken down into six sections, one for each drink, the first of which is beer. Man’s first civilizations where founded on surplus cereal production, much of which was brewed. Ancient day beers were high in vitamin B, a vitamin previously only obtained through meat. This allowed the population to focus their nutrition efforts more and more on cereals, effectively ushering in the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers. Additionally, because early beers were boiled (to convert more starch into sugars), the beer was significantly safer to drink than water. This significant improvement in lifestyle “freed a small fraction of the population from the need to work in the fields, and made possible the emergence of specialist priest, administrators, scribes, and craftsmen.” Not only did beer nourish man’s first civilizations, but in many ways, made them entirely possible.
Wine, the next beverage in the book, played a major role in the flourishing Greek and Roman cultures. As wine did not originate from the Mediterranean, the Greek’s desire for this drink opened up vast seaborne trade, which spread their philosophy, politics, science and literature far and wide, and still underpins modern Western thought. A History of the World in 6 Glasses points out how these advancements originated and grew at formal Greek drinking parties, called symposia. The Romans, who absorbed much of Greek culture, continued the strong use of wine. As the book notes, if you trace the wine drinking areas of the world on a map, you will find you have traced the Roman empire at its height.
After a thousand years of hibernation, Western civilization was awakened by the rediscovery of ancient knowledge, long safeguarded in the Arab world. However, in an attempt to circumvent this Arab monopoly, European monarchs launched massive fleets into the sea. This age of exploration was greatly enhanced by the Arab knowledge of distillation, which made a whole new range of drinks possible. A History of the World in 6 Glasses describes how these condensed forms of alcohol (namely Brandy, Whiskey and Rum) were so popular, especially in the new American colonies, that “they played a key role in the establishment of the United States.”
The fourth beverage presented in this book is coffee. Because of its sharpening effect on the mind, coffee quickly became the drink of intellect and industry. Replacing taverns as the sophisticated meeting place, the coffeehouse “led to the establishment of scientific societies and financial institutions, the founding of newspapers, and provided fertile ground for revolutionary thought, particularly in France.” A History of the World in 6 Glasses goes on to recount the intricate effect coffeehouses had on Victorian culture, going so far as to dedicate an entire chapter to what the book calls “The Coffeehouse Internet”.
Even though the inception of tea date back many thousands of years, it didn’t take hold upon western culture until the mid-seventeenth century. Once established as England’s national drink, the importing of tea from first China and then India led to trade and industrialization on an unprecedented scale. A History of the World in 6 Glasses describes the immense power of the British East India Company, which “generated more revenue than the British government and ruled over far more people”, wielding more power than any other corporation in history. This imbalance of power had an enormous, far-reaching effect on British foreign policy, and ultimately contributed to the independence of the United States.
Like most of the drinks discussed in A History of the World in 6 Glasses, Coca-Cola was originally devised as a medical drink. More than any other product, Coca-Cola has stood as the symbol of America’s “vibrant consumer capitalism”. Rather than shrink at the challenge, Coca-Cola took full advantage of the challenging times it found itself in, gaining ground through the depression, and then traveling alongside our soldiers into WWII, becoming a global phenomenon. According to the book, Coca-Cola still accounts for “around 30 percent of all liquid consumption” today.
A History of the World in 6 Glasses makes it clear that the history of mankind is a history of our consumption. Whether we are drinking “liquid bread” in Mesopotamia, pondering revolution in a Coffeehouse in Paris, or throwing tea leafs into the ocean in Boston, these drinks have had a profound impact on who we are. As Standage says in the introduction to his book “They survive in our homes today as living reminders of bygone eras, fluid testaments to the forces that shaped the modern world. Uncover their origins, and you may never look at your favorite drink in quite the same way again.” I highly recommend this book to anyone thirsty for knowledge about the world around them… or even if they’re just thirsty for a good drink.