03 November 2011

Book review: A History of the World in Six Glasses

A History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage, 2005.

I often enjoy reading pop histories, especially if they have a sort of gimmick to them. In this book, Standage looks at how beverages shaped world history.

He starts out with beer, which was invented/discovered by the Mesopotamians around the same time humanity was working out agriculture. The Hymn to Ninkasi was a recipe for beer, and a brewery in California made some based on it. I'd be interested to try it! (The Mesopotamians made a bread of sorts with the malted barley and used that as their beer starter. No hops, at that point.)

Then the Greeks started making wine, which the Mesopotamians called "beer of the mountains," and that became fuel for Greek philosophy. The Romans and early Christians adopted the drink, and wine became important for ritual.

The Age of Sail and colonization brought sugar plantations, which brought molasses, which brought rum. Rum bought slaves in Africa, slaves produced sugar, and the byproduct of sugar refinement--molasses--was turned into rum. The colonists in the inland US, where buying molasses was too expensive, turned to corn and rye to make whiskey (bourbon and rye, respectively).

Coffee was very popular in the Muslim world, where alcohol was forbidden, but with the advent of rationalism in the 17th century, people wanted a drink that increased their mental acuity rather than make them drunk. Coffeehouses became clearinghouses for news (the internet of its time), and people held discussions in them. The London Stock Exchange grew out of a coffeehouse!

The Chinese kingdoms and empires of the tenth century had spread tea throughout Asia, but the British Empire popularized it through the world. Tea became the drink for the masses in England.

The sixth glass is Coca-Cola, which, for better or for worse, parallels the rise of American power. (Standage entitles one chapter "Globalization in a bottle.") Unsurprisingly, Coke became popular in the US during Prohibition. It went to Europe and North Africa with the troops in World War II, and after that, there was no stopping it.

As an epilogue, Standage asks what the next beverage to shape human history will be. Water, he says. He's probably right; much conflict today is about water use and water rights, and that's not going to go away.

I enjoyed the book, and if you like pop histories, you may, too. It's not extremely in depth (at just over 300 pages, including endnotes, index, and references), but there are always the sources he drew from.

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