Editor's Library: Six quick, Eurocentric glasses in history

Editor’s Library is a new feature in which editor Ryan Murray provides brief reviews and analysis of his reading list from the past month. Some selections are new, some are less new, and others are incredibly not new. Have a recommendation? Tweet Ryan at @RyanERMurray.


A History of the World in 6 Glasses

Tom Standage



Since humans first called it quits on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and hunkered down for a nice, quiet life of agrarian settlement, we’ve found ways to change how we perceive the world.

The most common way to do so, throughout mankind’s history, is by ingesting mind-altering beverages. In Tom Standage’s 2006 book “A History of the World in Six Glasses,” he follows the common thread of six of these beverages: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and cola.

It’s his assertion that these drinks have helped shaped the world as we know it, from the foundation of the first cities in Mesopotamia to colonialism and the Cold War. As a frequent imbimber of several of the above drinks, the book spoke to me as it surely resonates with the coffee-drinking, beer-tasting, wine-appreciating culture of Seattle.

Standage starts with beer, which some scholars believe was first made by accident and only replicated after its pleasing inebriating effects were noticed. Grain, water and yeast are all that is required to make the beverage, and for settled societies it became easy not only to make it, but to store it and celebrate with it. Workers on the pyramids were even paid with beer.

Wine is another ancient beverage, made in the Near East, Greece and the Italian peninsula for millennia. The Romans were outright connoisseurs, able to tell the varietal and vintage of the wine even as they diluted it with water to avoid drunkenness. The Greeks exported wine and their culture across the ancient Mediterranean.

Spirits became relevant in the age of sail, as part of the “triangular trade” of slaves to the Caribbean, sugar to New England and rum and goods back to Africa. The ability to store liquor over long journeys at sea and the high prices it could fetch made it a desirable supply to have tucked in the hold.

Coffee was the drink of the Enlightenment, brought to cafes and salons in France and England after trade increased with the Middle East and Africa. The caffeine-powered focus it brought allowed some of the greatest thinkers of the day to stay up all night and invent gravity or whatever. Nevermind that it was taxed at the point of brewing, so any coffee drunk in a cafe was served later, reheated at the point of sale. Yuck.

Tea was brought to the world stage on the point of a British bayonet, from China (which had held a monopoly on tea for literally thousands of years) to India and from both back to the many outposts of the British Empire. It became so valuable that bricks of tea became standard currency in some parts of the world.

And finally Standage comes to Cola, a brown, sweet beverage made from the kola nut of Africa. Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton created his Coca Cola in 1886, and it has since become the world’s most recognized brand. Pepsi Cola came along decades later and has battled to keep Coke on its toes, competing during the Cold War to get their brands across the first, second and third worlds.

Standage whips through each of these beverages about as quickly as I just did above, which can kind of leave you in a whirlwind. Each of the drinks remains vital to society and culture today, and yet after touching on each one during a brief chapter, we hardly see the impact later on. Beer and wine seem to have no presence in the 20th Century, just as Standage scratches the surface of tea and coffee being enjoyed for millennia in the countries which first cultivated the plants.

This approaches an issue with the book akin to the much-celebrated and much-maligned Jared Diamond book “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” Namely, the book is incredibly Eurocentric. Yes, we learn about beer in Sumerian tablets and Egyptian receipts, but that’s just to get us to the northern Mediterranean, where Standage really gets firing.

Standage is a well-known technology writer for the Economist, and British-born, so perhaps his scope can be forgiven by his own area of expertise. But still, when he discusses spirits and focuses on British North America and Europe almost solely, it seems incomplete. As with coffee, when Standage mentions Ethiopian farmers first discovering the magic beans, the book would have benefited greatly from an deeper exploration into Africa and the Arabic-speaking world.

And with tea, although he clearly explains the origins in China, it’s also clear that the chapter is just a path to explain British imperialism and the experience of that small island with tea.

All told, the book is a whiplash-inducing trip through human history and liquids. Succinct though it is, Standage packs in the facts regarding some of these world-changing beverages before ending with the most simple one.

Water. It’s his assertion (and 11 years later, it appears prescient) that the limited resource of water will shape the world to come.