A History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage

Eight stars

A well-written book is sure to quench the thirst of a curious reader, full of facts or action that keeps them coming back for more. But, how did people throughout history quench their literal thirst and how do the beverage choices made throughout history help define the advancements the world has seen since its inception? Tom Standage seeks to answer these and many other questions as he examines how six beverages (beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola) help to explain global advancements since humans first inhabited the earth. Standage takes readers as far back as possible to explore how beer could have influenced history so completely. A combination of water and cereal grains, beer was an accidental discovery that exemplifies the sedentary nature of humans. Crops took time to grow and required people to stay in one place for a period of time. The fermentation process also took a period to develop, which required people not to roam freely across the land. Beer could be made and consumed by anyone, which differed greatly from wine. More of a high-class beverage, wine was much more complex to make and costly to consume. As Standage explains, it was developed by the Romans and Athenians, who modified it and created lavish drinking parties around its consumption. Standage also argues that wine helped propel Christianity around the world, as the beverage is at the heart of the religion’s central symbolic theme of the Blood of Christ. Moving from simple fermentation to a more complex system called distillation, spirits came onto the scene and served to propel the world ahead even more. With use of scientific brewing and the addition of sugar to help the naturally impeded yeasts found in fruits or grains, spirits were a more complex and fiery beverage. The need for sugars helped to foster its cultivation, which was back-breaking work. What better way to have sugar harvested than through the use of slaves, which Standage explains helped bring spirits to the New World. Caribbean sugar cane was cultivated by African slaves, creating a tumultuous time in history to facilitate the creation of many new and interesting beverages. An equally popular drink in the form of coffee emerged, which created an enlightenment of sorts. Coffee became the drink of academics and the intellectual, as they would gather to discuss their ideas at coffee houses well in the night. The fostering of discussions, much as wine had done for the Romans and Athenians, came from coffee and, to this day, the correlation between the beverage and higher understanding is accepted. Tea, on the other hand, proved not only to be a drink that brought about medicinal properties, but helped Britain cement its power in the world. While the British Empire gained in importance, the British East India Company developed a worldwide supply of tea and marketed it as best as possible. This power remained strong for centuries, as the British remained at its centre. However, all good things must be replaced with something else, leaving Coca-Cola to move from a pharmaceutical remedy to the drink of America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its production skyrocketed and was soon symbolic of America, which developed into freedom before long. American troops all over the world sought the beverage and wherever the US military found itself, freedom was said to be as well. Standage talks at length about the Soviet push-back against Coca-Cola, though the Iron Curtain was no match for the power of the mighty soda pop. In a book that leaves the reader’s head spinning as they reach for their beverage of choice, one can only wonder what the next big drink will be, and how its impact will shape the future. Standage posits his guess in the epilogue, but you’ll have to read to find out. Recommended to those who love history told through a unique lens, as well as the reader who loves to learn as they are entertained.

I quite enjoy looking at history and world events through unorthodox means, particularly when I had not thought to do so myself. Tom Standage does a masterful job at creating this perspective and fills this book with a great deal of information that can be interpreted in many ways. While I only skimmed the surface of his discussions in the paragraph above, the fact that six mere beverages can truly tell so much about how humans have evolved over time is amazing. Standage uses concrete examples to substantiate his arguments and keeps the discussion interesting at all turns. He has little concern about offending, as he speaks openly and frankly at every turn. His attention to detail is like few other books I have read in the past and the fact that topics flow so easily makes the book even more interesting. With twelve strong chapters (two on each beverage), Standage explores the history of the beverage and then discusses its social, political, and economic impact on the world. This permits the reader to better understand his arguments and almost demands taking a step back to see how the pieces all come together. I am pleasantly surprised about how ensconced I was with the arguments presented and can only hope that his other works on the subject of world history are just as captivating. Now then, I need a Guinness to synthesise some of what I read… or maybe a dark roast coffee…. no, a strong tea! Well, while I decide, go find this book and see what you think for yourself.

Kudos, Mr. Standage, for an amazing read. I can only hope other adventurous readers take the time and enjoy this as much as I have.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons