Egyptian slaves were paid in mead. The wine trade spread Greek (and later Roman) culture throughout the known world. Spirits drove the Age of Exploration, including the slave trade into the New World. Coffee fueled the Age of Reason and revolutionary thought. The tea trade shaped British policy at its height. Coca Cola is arguably the symbol in the age of globalization.
To understand the history of the world, it’s not necessary to understand the role drinks played in it, but it certainly helps. A History of the World in 6 Glasses by historian Tom Standage tells the story of humanity from the Stone Age to the 21st century through the lens of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola.
The book walks the reader through the development of these six drinks, and shows how they each came to play such a pivotal role in its age. Often, Standage points out that these drinks (except for cola) were popular because they helped prevent illness, usually due to their anti-bacterial properties, or because the water was boiled during the preparation. But, as cola proves, it’s evident that the drinks effects on mental functions had just as much to do with their propagation as their effects on health.
At times, the author’s historical ties seemed tenuous, put in place simply to fill space. This was especially evident during the conversations on coffee where a large portion of the conversation centered more around the historical events that took place in relation to where it was served than its actual effects on history.
This was in contrast to the histories of the alcoholic beverages, which you could see actually made a tangible historical difference: beer kept humans in the first cities fed; the wine trade spread Greek thought throughout the known world; spirits allowed long-term voyages to become common place. This isn’t to say that these parts were at all boring–the history of the British East India Company and its tea operations across the world was marvelous, as was the entire history of fizzy soda drinks and Coca Cola’s association with American culture during the “American Century”. It’s just that those sections felt as if the author was at times grasping at straws, making connections that weren’t really there.
Still, the book made for an excellent read, and if you’re a history nerd with a penchant for esoteric topics, or just your average pop-history reader (not necessarily “soda pop”, so no pun intended) interested in an easy, entertaining read then you’ll likely enjoy picking this one up.
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