Histories of the World in 6 Glasses (compare and Contrast 3 Drinks)
The History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage
‘Tell me what you drink and I will tell you who you are’
The History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage chronicles human history through changing tastes in beverages, spanning from beer to wine to ‘spirits’ (hard liquor), coffee to tea, and ending with Coca-Cola. Although many books have explored human history through the lens of a singular foodstuff, few have used beverages. Yet, as Standage points out in his introduction, although a person can survive without food for a relatively long period of time, without liquids, he or she will perish in days. Beverages also have intoxicating properties which can change the way that civilizations unfold, either causing drunkenness or alertness. And it is perhaps for that reason that so many cultures and nations have defined themselves according to what they drink, more so than what they eat. The British define themselves as tea-drinkers, as do the Chinese. Hard-drinking America is the nation of the cocktail — and Coca-Cola.
The central, driving thesis of Standage’s book is that even more so than food, if you ‘tell me who you drink, I will tell you who you are.’ A civilization’s beverage of choice is revealing because it denotes the environmental and economic pressures to which the society was subject, and reflects existing class divides and social norms. (Consider the divide between beer drinkers and wine drinkers in contemporary America). But the choice of beverage is also a ‘two-way street’ — beverages help shape and create a society. (Consider how the availability of Starbucks and coffee has helped create our contemporary 24-7 society or how the availability of cheap and caloric sodas has contributed to our obesity crisis).
The economics of beer: How the elixir of the gods became the beverage of the poor
Contrary to what most might suspect to be the logical start to his tale — wine — Standage starts with beer. Beer is a surprisingly old beverage, with roots in early human agriculture. It marked the shift from a hunter-gatherer existence to an agricultural lifestyle defined by manufactured tools. Gradually, many tribes abandoned the hunting existence that required humans to rely solely upon nature. The reasons that humans shifted from hunter-gathering to agriculture is uncertain, although it may have to do with the greater availability of food made possible by regular growing, planting, and harvesting (Standage 20). Agriculture ensured a more reliable source of food for a large population — although some have argued that the popularity of beer itself was one reason that human beings became more rooted to the land.
Beer was widespread in the Near East by 4000 BCE (Standage 10). Eventually, the cultivation of cereal grains led to the discovery of the process of fermentation, and unlike wine made from fruit or honey, cereal grains were always available (Standage 15). In ancient Egypt, beer was a sacred beverage, far from how we conceive of it as a kind of ‘everyman’ brew. Beer was the drink of choice of Osiris, the god of the afterlife (Standage 19). Beer even had nutritive properties — it was high in vitamin B, which was often lacking in the diets of farming peoples who had little ready access to meat. And once again, unlike meat, cereal grains have an almost indefinite lifespan for storage (although beer itself does not). Beer was also often safer than water to drink because it was boiled and treated. Also, the beer produced would likely have had a much lower alcohol content than the beer we commonly consume today, so drinking it regularly as a staple food would not have rendered the population unfit for work for the majority of the day.
Thus, although beer was probably loved for its mildly intoxicating properties, its use spanned across applications far more numerous than mere indulgence. “There is no question that the daily lives of Egyptians and Mesopotamians, young and old, rich and poor, were seeped in beer (Standage 23). It should be noted that initially, beer lacked the class resonances it possesses today, but even in the Near East, it eventually began to acquire some of its present-day associations. For example, by the time of the reign of King Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria to commemorate the completion of his country’s new capital at Nimrud, wine was clearly a beverage of the upper classes and used as a sign of the king’s wealth and power. Wine was a kind of exotic drink as opposed to humble beer and various extant Assyrian inscriptions attribute wine to the upper classes (Standage 44-46). “Beer had not been banished,” and was still served in considerable quantities, but there was a clear class divide between the delights of beer and the status attached to wine (Standage 46). Greece imported most of its wine during the early stages of civilization, and it became a ubiquitous beverage at almost every elite party or symposium (Standage 46-47).
Coffee: The politics of the coffeehouse
What proved to be so attractive about beer — its ability to be produced regularly and cheaply, and the fact that even common people could enjoy it — to some extent proved to be its undoing as the beverage favored by the upper classes. The beer vs. wine divide shows the extent to which beverages can be implicated in a web of class resonances. Some of these class markers are intrinsic to the beverage itself, such as the humble origins of beer in grains, while others are not. As wine became increasingly the beverage of the elites and today, a simple bottle of wine, depending on its vintage, can cost hundreds of dollars, even though the difference between a very expensive and a moderately expensive wine may elude the palate of all except the most cultivated connoisseur. It does not matter — the act of consuming something expensive has resonance in terms of one’s display of wealth, in a manner that far exceeds the actual properties of the beverage.
The next fascinating shift in consumption patterns manifested itself in beverages heightened rather than dulled the senses, such as coffee and tea. The move from tavern culture to coffeehouse culture marked a profound shift in the history of Europe. Instead of sites of riot and immorality like taverns, coffeehouses became arenas in which people could discuss higher-order concerns, such as politics. According to Standage, the great revolutions of the 18th centuries can be traced directly to the coffeehouses and the influence they exerted over the elite, intellectual classes of Europe. Rather than stultifying the intellect, they kept people awake — awake enough to debate politics.
This role of the coffeehouse, however, did not begin in Europe. As early as the 16th century in the Middle East, coffeehouses were known as places of gossip. In Mecca in 1524 and 1539, the coffeehouses were closed down as sites of sedition and rebellion (Standage 140). One governor named Kha’ir Beg actually put the drink on trial in 1511 and banned it for several months, although, much like Prohibition of alcohol in the United States, his degree was ineffective and did more to embarrass his regime than to show his power (Standage 138). By the mid-1600s, coffeehouses began to proliferate in Europe and were no longer mere curiosities in which men sipped the beverage in foreign-looking china cups. “As coffee moved West, the Arab notion of coffee as a more respectable, intellectual, and above all nonalcoholic alternative to the tavern came with it — and more than a whiff of controversy” (Standage 142).
Coffee was enthusiastically adopted in London, given that it came to British shores around the time of the Puritan rebellion of Oliver Cromwell. Puritans frowned upon strong drink and an absolute monarchy, and coffeehouses were symbols of republican democracy and opposition to the sexual licentiousness caused by alcohol. Yet despite the notion that coffeehouses were anti-monarchist, many conservatives were also enthusiastic partakers of coffee, and coffee has been praised for its role in restoring Charles II to the throne. “Charles supporters had often met in coffeehouses during Cromwell’s rule,” taking advantage of the liberal attitude towards political discourse in the coffeehouse (Standage 142).
Even after the end of the Commonwealth and the Restoration of the British monarchy, coffeehouses remained political places of engagement. Charles attempted to halt the spread of coffeehouses, fearing their potential as sites of dissent. And it should be noted that not every citizen adored coffee, either. Some called the beverage ‘sooty’ in taste, others opposed it on health grounds, wine-producers loathed it, and women’s groups were organized in opposition to coffee, much as women’s groups would be influential in banning alcohol in America during the era of Prohibition. But “not even the king” could stifle the proliferation of coffeehouses (Standage 146).
Many coffeehouses became known as affiliated with one party or another. Around this time as well, coffeehouses also became fashionable in…