Book Review: “A History of the World in Six Glasses”

Book Review: “A History of the World in Six Glasses”


I seem to be in a phase where I like books that show me the hidden life of the everyday things all around us, especially food and drink. A few years ago I read “Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany”, by Bill Buford, which started me on this quest, which was followed by several more books, including “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, by Michael Pollan. Most recently I read “The Search for God and Guinness”, by Stephen Mansfield.

Now, I’ve finished “A History of the World in 6 Glasses” by Tom Standage, which connects the span of human history to 6 different beverages that affected history culturally, politically, anthropologically, nutritionally, and economically. The six, in rough order of their era of greatest influence, are beer, wine, whiskey, coffee, tea, and cola. More broadly, you could have called the book “A History of the World in Two Brain-Altering Chemicals: Alcohol and Caffeine.”

It is a fascinating look at how these drinks sometimes have been responsible for pivotal moments in history, causing one civilization to rise and another to fall. While human affairs are much more complicated than one factor can explain, we can’t deny that one of the reasons ancient tribes turned from peripatetic hunting-gathering to more stationary agriculture was the need to cultivate grains for beer, for instance.[1]

Most the drinks had origins–or at least early primary uses–in religious rituals, especially beer, wine, coffee, and tea. Whiskey and cola, which were much more modern inventions were just consumer products. Eventually, all of them made the leap to common use. What made them significant was their eventual ubiquity, even if at first they were reserved to the elites.

There were also some very interesting anecdotes, such as the story of how coffee came to Europe from the Middle East. Some theologians rejected it as a Muslim invention, thus of the devil, while others embraced. So a decision had to be made.

Shortly before his death in 1605, Pope Clement VIII was asked to state the Catholic church’s position on coffee. At the time, the drink was a novelty little known in Europe except among botanists and medical men, including those at the University of Padua, a leading center for medical research. Coffee’s religious opponents argued that coffee was evil: They contended that since Muslims were unable to drink wine, the holy drink of Christians, the devil had punished them with coffee instead. But the pope had the final say. A Venetian merchant provided a small sample for inspection, and Clement decided to taste the new drink before making his decision. The story goes that he was so enchanted by its taste and aroma that he approved its consumption by Christians.

Other sources claim he said: “This devil’s drink is so delicious…we should cheat the devil by baptizing it.” True or not, I will be sure to thank Pope Clement VIII and pray for him every day over my morning cup of joe.

Another interesting tidbit concerned the importance of tea to the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 18th and 19th century. As labor became less about individual craftsmen and more about unskilled workers who could maintain machines in monotonous repitition over long hours, tea and tea breaks helped them to remain alert and concentrate. Likewise, even as the factory workers were gathering together in closer working and living conditions, waterborne illnesses became almost extinct, not just due to the boiling of water for tea, but for the phenolic acids–the tannins–in the tea itself.

Infants benefited too, since the antibacterial phenolics in tea pass easily into the breast milk of nursing mothers. This lowered infant mortality and provided a large labor pool just as the Industrial Revolution took hold.

In fact, every one of the six drinks was considered for both their positive and negative effects on society. Coffee led to 16th-century coffeehouses that were the locus of the Scientific Revolution that led to the Enlightenment, democracy, free-market economics, and more. The Chinese stranglehold on tea production and insistence on Westerners buying it with silver, not trading it for Western goods, led to the creation of the opium trade from India that eventually destabilized China in the 19th century, which last through the 20th century until the rise of Communism.

While these six beverages can’t be said to have caused the most important and decisive moments of history, they often played significant roles in moments that caused the course of history to go in one direction and not the other. If not for the wine it exported, would Greece have risen to a great culture that brought us philosophy and so much else?Without tea or rum/whiskey, would Great Britain have become the empire on whose flag the sun never sets? Maybe, maybe in a different form or in a different time, but undoubtedly different.

“A History of the World in Six Glasses” was a fun and quick read that makes me want to delve more into the various individual elements it presents. Which is the best kind of book, isn’t it?

  1. Standage points out that of course the grains were also used for bread too, but bread and beer were nearly interchangeable in most places, two phases of cooking of the same product. Beer was “liquid bread” and bread was “solid beer.”  ↩