Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses gives a light, high-level history of six beverages that all had an impact on human history or development. I’m a big fan of four of them – beer, distilled spirits, coffee, and tea – and won’t turn down the fifth, wine. Only the last of the six Standage covers, Coca-Cola, seems out of place, both based on my personal tastes (I’ll only drink it if I have a headache and can’t have more coffee) and on its status as a thoroughly artifical beverage protected by trade secrets.
Standage has to stretch on occasion to make some of his historical connections, but in general he’s treading on safe ground, especially with beer and liquor, because their development or discovery had substantial economic impacts on the societies that consumed them. Beer was originally both a natural byproduct of grain storage and a safer alternative to water in an era when bacterial contamination was not understood; liquor, notably rum, drove international trade routes, agricultural production in the Caribbean and Latin America, and the slave trade with native kingdoms in western Africa. Wine was an essential part of the symposion, the Greek ancestor of the cocktail party, where great discussions took place in an atmosphere of convivial drinking … and probably excessive drinking, too, although Plato seems to have left that part out of his Dialogues.
Standage connects coffee to the academic cafe culture of western Europe, particularly London, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the coffee was bad, prepared in large pots in advance and reheated to order, but these cafes, each of which was devoted to a specific subject or area, hosted conversations that led to great advances in areas from science to philosophy. Tea, like coffee, brought medical benefits, especially since water had to be boiled to make the beverage, and became the drink of choice in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a shift that led to the British colonization and development of India (for their own purposes, of course, and only after they’d wiped out the subcontinent’s native textile industry) … as well as playing a role in our own revolution against the crown.
Where Standage lost the plot a little was with his shift to an overtly commercial product, Coca-Cola, which was the product of a handful of accidents and experiments and did, as the legend has it, once contain cocaine – the name comes from its onetime use of both the coca plant and the kola nut (a natural source of caffeine) as flavoring agents. The Coca-Cola company did play a role in the post-World War II trend of globalization, but its role was hardly as essential or as organic as those of the other five beverages in the book, and unlike the other drinks Standage covers, cola has no redeeming health qualities and is unhealthful even in small quantities.
A History of the World in 6 Glasses concludes with a prediction, in Standage’s epilogue, that the next beverage to direct human history will be the first one: water, with the need for clean, reliable water supplies directing political strategies and conflicts over the next century. That could have earned a larger chapter, similar to the discussion of the topic in Empires of Food, as it’s going to be a significant issue all over the world, including in the southern half of the United States. I also wish Standage had spent some time discussing the chemistry of each beverage, or more details of its production; he focuses far more on the history aspect of each drink than the scientific or culinary angles. The idea of “notes” in different beverages, widely used in discussions of wine but popping up more and more in reviews of beers, coffees, and even chocolates, derives from the differing chemical composition of the raw materials, which is usually a function of the soil and temperature where those materials grow. Those specific characteristics help drive the higher ends of the markets for each product, which in turn represents a path for coffee and cocoa farmers (and perhaps farmers of other crops) in developing countries to earn an actual living from their work, the kind of economic development that Standage discusses in a historical context in his six primary sections.
Next up: I’m about a quarter of the way through Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. I’m not sure this lawsuit is ever going to be settled.