A History of the World in 6 Glasses
The New York Times Bestseller presents an original, well-documented vision of world history, telling the story of humanity from the Stone Age to the 21st century through the lens of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola. For Tom Standage, each drink is a kind of technology, a catalyst for advancing culture by which he demonstrates the intricate interplay of different civilizations.
By Tom Standage
Bloomsbury, 2005; 284 pages
($17 U.S. Paperback).
Food and drinks are an essential part of life. Most books about history focus on time periods and iconic people or events. Tom Standage takes that a step further in his book A History of the World in Six Glasses. Standage not only identifies key historical events, but delves into the beverages that were present at that time. Standage is an author and journalist living in Greenwich, England. Standage has held a variety of jobs at The Economist where he is currently the deputy editor, according to his website. In addition to A History of the World in 6 Glasses, he is the author of 5 other books, including An Edible History of Humanity, which focuses on food and agriculture techniques throughout time.
Standage has an easygoing sense of humor that comes out in this book. Standage shares on his website what inspired him to write the book. He remembers reading an article one Sunday morning about Napoleon that mentioned his favorite wine. After finishing the article, he realized Napoleon had a trivial wine preference much like his own. That little fact made the French military leader seem much more relatable.
“I started to wonder what other historical figures had drunk, and whenever I went to a museum I wondered what the people who had made the objects on display had been drinking, and so on. So I looked into the history of drinking and found that different drinks had been popular in different periods, and that was the idea for the book,” Standage shares. He offers so much information in each section of his book that it’s rare a reader will agree with everything. he jumps from different time periods throughout the book which can make it difficult to follow.
The book is broken into six sections. Each section is roughly 30 to 40 pages packed full of information. Sections of the book include, “Beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt”, “Wine in Greece and Rome”, “Spirits in the Colonial Period”, “Coffee in the Age of Reason”, “Tea and the British Empire”, and “Coca-Cola and the Rise of America”. Those main sections are further broken down into shorter chapters. The purpose of the book is to document key points in history, and the popular beverages associated with those times. Standage begins each chapter with a quote pertaining to the time period and beverage being discussed. The beginning of chapter two, Civilized Beer, begins with an Egyptian Proverb, c. 2200 BCE, “The mouth of a perfectly content man is filled with beer.”
That style of writing sets the tone for the reader and shows what time period he will begin with. Each section is so rich in history that it can be too dense at times. However, the book has a nice flow to it. Even though each section and beverage is so different, Standage finds a way to relate them. He explains how beer led to wine and then wine led to more sophisticated spirits. Each drink showed status in a culture, and affected the economy in specific ways. Whether he’s discussing the tax on tea or the original medicinal uses of Coca-Cola.
Standage doesn’t defend why he chose the six different beverages, but it’s clear that each one represents different eras. He also did an extensive amount of research for the book, which is proven in the 10 pages of references at the end. The structure of the book might frustrate certain readers. For example, he’ll focus on Mesopotamia and beer, then jump to the influence of wine in Greece which makes it difficult for the reader to keep up. Also, A History of the World in 6 Glasses reads more like a textbook. The sections are so rich with historical facts that don’t blend together at times.
It’s easier to read one section one night, and a different one the next night. Dive into the section on Colonial Spirits and learn how, “spirits provided an escape from hardship–both the self-imposed kind experienced by the European colonists and the far greater hardships they imposed on African slaves and indigenous people” (127). The book discusses important historical events and the beverages that were popular in that time period. So setting the book down after reading about the importance of rum in North American colonies and New England, before you begin the section on The Coffeehouse Internet is a smart idea.
One section rich with description and history is Wine in Greece and Rome. Perhaps one of the most comical quotes was at the beginning of chapter four by Corpus Inscriptionis VI, 15258, a collection of ancient Latin inscriptions. “Baths, wine and sex ruin our bodies. But what make life worth living except bath, wine and sex?” That isn’t the focus of the chapter, but it shows how prevalent wine has been throughout history. When wine was first discovered in 870 BCE, it was a symbol of status for the elite.
One of those elites was King Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria. Legend says, he served 10,000 skins of wine at his feast. The cost of just transporting wine down from the mountains made it ten times more expensive than beer. Standage paints a vivid picture of Ashurnasirpal’s Mesopotamian manner with his descriptive writing style. “Its seven magnificent halls had ornate wood-and-bronze doors and were roofed with cedar, cypress, and juniper wood. Elaborate murals celebrated the king’s military exploits in foreign lands” (43). Standage seamlessly connects the different drinking habits in Greece and Rome; explaining that romans viewed wine as a universal staple, “it was drunk by both Caesar and slave alike” (75).
Whether Standage is explaining the untold story of Coca-Cola or the triumph of coffee in the mid 1600s, he takes the reader on a journey. He explains time periods depicted in history books with a creative twist. The book shows that food and drinks have always played such an important part of our everyday lives. In the introduction of the book Standage says, “these beverages survive in our homes today as living reminders of bygone eras, fluid testaments to the forces that shaped the modern world. Uncover their origins, and you may never look at your favorite drink quite the same way again” (6). After reading through the different sections, the reader will gain a far better understanding of drinks that are more rich in history than they might think.
If you would like to order his book online here’s a link: A History of the World in Six Glasses
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