Monday, December 16, 2013

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage

I recently listened to A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage, (Thanks, Audible Black Friday sale!), a fascinating book. The author's basic thesis involves the way six beverages have been instrumental to key movements and developments in Western Civilization. Since the first five out of these 6 beverages are particular favorites of mine, this was a natural for me. Also, I love history, particularly the history of food and drink. Here are some of the interesting things I learned!

Beer: I'm a big craft beer drinker and it was news to me that beer was--though probably not the first alcoholic beverage created, the first to be a staple. Its widespread consumption is ancient Mesopotamia coincided with the shift from hunter/gatherer society to an agriculture based model. Apparently the beer they drank was pretty different from the beers of today, since it contained no hops.

Wine: Wine was probably invented/discovered before beer, but it was more difficult to produce--since it had to be in a climate where grapes could be grown. The ancient Greeks used wine to one-up their neighbors in the Middle East, and wine became a symbol of their intellectual superiority--largely due to the fact that it was often consumed at symposia, even though these often resembled modern frat parties more closely than the intellectual discussions described by Plato! Greek wines were also probably very different than our wines today.

Spirits: This was one of the weaker parts of the book. I couldn't glean a central thesis, because this chapter was unfocused. Spirits are of more recent date than beer and wine--because the technique of distillation came later. Their role in eighteenth century economics--rum in the triangle trade, especially--is also touched on.

Coffee: I knew next to nothing about early European coffee culture, so this may have been my favorite part of the book. Coffee's popularity began with Muslim cultures, where alcohol is forbidden, so a non alcoholic beverage that provides a stimulant was welcome. The thing I found so interesting though, was that during the Enlightenment period in London--coffee houses were everywhere--and that people used them as the essential meeting places, to exchange ideas, receive messages, and often conduct business transactions. Next time you sit at Starbucks doing work and sending messages from a computer, you can feel that you're taking part in a 350-year old tradition!

Tea: This was interesting, but head less information that was new to me. Tea's cultural importance was as the symbol for British Imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Tea was brought to Europe from China during the 16th century and planted in India by the British. It represented to worldwide scope of the British Empire, and as all American children learn in school, its symbolic representation of that empire made it an ideal player in a famous demonstration of the independence of Britain's American colonies, the Boston Tea Party.

Cola: Probably my least favorite of these 6 beverages, but still a very interesting segment. Like tea in the British empire, Coca-Cola has been the symbol of America as the 20th century super power. I was very interested to learn about the history of carbonated water and the different flavor mixes that would be added to it at turn of the century American drugstore counters. Coke and its major rival, Pepsi also played key roles in late 20th century political conflicts--both the Cold War and the various Arab/Israeli conflicts.

I learned a lot and was always entertained by this book. My only complaint is that it was too short! The segment on spirits especially seemed to get short shrift. I wanted more! And I would have liked to see him follow each of the beverages up to the present day, rather than just focusing on them only in their respective moments.