Humans could not live without drinking. Apart from breathing, drinking is one activity humans must do in order to sustain themselves naturally. In fact, not even eating could satiate the feeling of thirst – if a person becomes thirsty, he must get a drink or else he could perish earlier than another person deprived of food does. Water stood as a natural resource humans consume for drinking. Yet, innovation led humans to use water to develop various kinds of drinks. Therefore, Tom Standage bases his book A History of the World in 6 Glasses on the unfolding of world history characterized by six different kinds of books. This review of the foregoing work by Standage presupposes that world history could manifest from the material creations of humans, as it covers the six kinds of drinks deemed historically significant.
The Six Drinks That Shaped World History
Standage noted six kinds of drinks that helped characterize world history – beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola. Chronologically arranged, each of the drinks revolves around its respective historical contexts, including events that figured its usage and its association with certain classes based on prevailing social structures. An outstanding feature of 6 Glasses is its discussion of world history using six kinds of drinks as central themes, for Standage recognized that those drinks have become witness to the development of humans throughout time.
In describing beer as a popular drink among the early civilizations, Standage candidly described it as “a staple foodstuff without which no meal was complete.” An ancient creation dating back to around 6,000 years since its creation, beer emerged as a common drink in several households. Standage noted that beer arose out of early agricultural activities, where humans would harvest grain crops such as barley and wheat and ferment those to create beer. Early civilizations such as the Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Sumerians used beer for a variety of social purposes. Beer has become not just a vital part of meals but also as a drink enjoyed in social gatherings. People would gather in one place and enjoy the company of one another with beer served in common vessels. Growing trading activities also featured beer as a vital product. In exchange for several kinds of items, people would trade for beer especially if they do not have much barley or wheat to ferment. The consumption of beer has grown steadily especially with the growth of urban areas that made water supplies contaminated. When people could not find water as a potable source for drinking, they would readily substitute beer due to its anti-contaminant qualities.
Standage described beer as a drink that featured in several important developments that characterized early world history. Agriculture, in particular, served an important connection to the creation of beer. By discussing that humans discovered beer out of developing agricultural processes, Standage provided an insightful discussion of agriculture partaken by Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Sumerians, among many other early civilizations. At the same time, Standage discoursed about beer as a vital product traded by early civilizations. In that manner, Standage was able to provide an account how people from the early civilizations constructed early concepts of commerce. Hence, a reading of the chapter of 6 Glasses on beer could enable one to gain valuable insights from world history discussions on early civilizations, within which beer emerged as beverage.
The discussion of Standage on world history based on beer undergoes a major transition with the introduction of wine. Being a complete departure from the popular beer, wine exudes an aura of exclusivity. While early civilizations may have created wine at the same time as beer, it nevertheless possesses qualities that largely differ from the latter. The common people of the early civilizations would usually associate themselves with beer, but wine enjoys a heralded status from among higher social classes. Hence, wine soon became an enduring symbol of refinement, prestige and power.
In describing the emergence of wine as a coveted social symbol of early civilizations, Thucydides boldly proclaimed, “the peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine.” Whereas beer has strong associations with the vastly agricultural qualities of the Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Sumerians, wine has stronger connections with the Greeks and Romans - two civilizations known for their vastness and the intellectual discourses of their higher social classes. The growing demand of wine among the Greeks made it a highly popular drink for them, considering that they have acquired the consciousness of being more prestigious compared to the Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Sumerians. Furthermore, wine is just like beer in that it is also cleaner that water, although it has the innate quality of becoming a vital materials for washing wounds. Over time, the popularity of wine as a prestigious beverage grew to the extent that it started to gain varieties in the form of brands. As the Roman Empire collapsed, wine continued its heritage as a drink of aristocrats and other members of the elite under the hegemonic rule of Christianity during The Middle Ages. In the foregoing context, Standage discussed the rise and fall of empires, the prominence of religions and the movement of people across boundaries – all while discussing how wine has influenced those. In one way or another, wine served as a prestigious drink celebrating the esteemed influence of higher social classes.
Clearly advancing from the era of early civilizations, Standage proceeds to the era of colonialism by citing spirits as his next type of drink for discussion. As the dominant drink featuring in colonialist activities, spirits have formed a connection with the negatively perceived violence and oppression characterizing the colonial period. Rum, in particular, became a widely-drank variant of spirits. During the slave trade, rum became the major form of commodity traders would use to acquire slaves. Indeed, for Standage, rum embodied “oppression of the first era of globalization.” At the height of trading activities, sailors at sea would drink grog – a diluted version of rum, in order to maintain themselves against the threat of scurvies. When settlers established New England on the New World – now part of present-day United States (US), spirits were only the kind of alcoholic beverage that were easily available. Given the importance of spirits from among New England settlers, anticolonial uprisings – the largest being the American Revolution, due to policy disagreements have resulted from such kind of beverage. Crucial ideas that helped influence present-day public policy were borne from the importance of spirits to New England settlers.
In the chapter of 6 Glasses on spirits, Standage successfully led a smooth transition from the Greco-Roman and Medieval period-prominence of wine to the onset of colonialism brought forth by the rise of spirits. Slavery in the New World became an overarching theme Standage used to characterize spirits effectively – brandy for the French, rum for the British and pulque for the Spanish. The growth of colonialism as a trend and subsequently, mercantilism and technological developments, stand as important historical circumstances used to portray spirits, which Standage saw as somewhat of a tool for oppression.
Standage discussed the coffeehouse metaphorically as a place where men discussed intellectual ideals and planned revolutions. As the first non-alcoholic beverage discussed by Standage, coffee stood as a safer option for alcoholic beverages. Noted for its health benefits, coffee quickly became a popular beverage since its importation from the Arab world to Europe. At the same time, coffee did not fail to worry women at the time of its popularity – they thought that it would make men less potent, both biologically and in a figurative sense characterized by the growth of coffeehouses that kept them busy over information brokerage. Such was the immense association with coffeehouses to discussions over various kinds of information that governments have grown their worries over those establishments. With freedom of speech being a relatively alien concept during the post-Renaissance period, governments felt threatened over the consequences coffeehouse discussions would bring unto their legitimacy.
What Standage tried to emphasize with his discussion of coffee in relation to world history is its importance as a beverage that helped spark the Enlightenment age. Freethinking gave rise to advancements in the liberal arts, which severely threatened governments – known for their oppressive tendencies that time. Yet, Standage did not fail to discuss coffee as an economic tool, much like his previous discussions on beer, wine and spirits. Standage gave a balanced recognition of that fact, citing the Arabs as a major source of coffee beans and the Dutch and French as known coffee traders in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. Such led to the ready availability of coffee among people in Europe, with men partaking in discussions on the latest news and information on current events and intellectual ideas inside coffeehouses. As Standage would put it, “Europe’s coffeehouses functioned as information exchangesLike modern web sites.” Students, businesspersons, scientists, politicians and writers alike formed most of the population that filled coffeehouses, which spurred the growth of the Enlightenment era towards the peril of oppressive governments.
Standage diverts his discussion from coffee to tea, which served as another non-alcoholic beverage that greatly characterized crucial parts of world history. Tea served as the beverage of imperialism akin to rum, with its differences to the latter being its non-alcoholic nature and its regional origins. China stood as the cradle of tea cultivation, where its use as a beverage has found importance for medicinal purposes. Trade activities along the Silk Road featured the introduction of tea to Europe, alongside the dispersion of the influence of Buddhism. Japan also accustomed itself to tea upon its introduction, eventually making it as a traditional drink of higher social classes characterized by the tea ceremony. However, just as if wine is to beer, tea stood as a luxurious and medicinal non-alcoholic alternative to coffee in Europe. Europeans, particularly the British, eventually saw tea as a vital component of their trading culture with their colonies, making the beverage a symbol of colonial power.
Standage started to uncover various important innovations during the era of colonialism – an aspect that rum, despite its colonialist underpinnings, failed to cover sufficiently. In support of that fact, Standage noted that tea became symbolic of “imperialism, industrialization and world domination one cup at a time.” Tea has become a medicinal commodity that helped solve the inadequacy of medicinal innovation at the time; the necessity of boiling water for its preparation made it a much safer non-alcoholic option to coffee and water. As a cultural tool, tea served several functions such as marriages and afternoon tea sessions. Eventually, tea grew an uncanny connection to activities frequented by females, as one could see through the emergence of teashops for women (a counterpart for coffeehouses flocked mostly by men) and tea parties. At the same time, tea became a favorite beverage of working classes at the height of the Industrial Revolution, where workers would hold tea breaks to take brief time-offs from strenuous factory work. The accumulation of benefits tea possessed enabled the British, being the major trader of tea at the time, to espouse a consumerist culture by marketing tea in various ways. Trade routes and the Industrial Revolution necessitated the growth of railroads and water vessels across tea-cultivating and trading regions. Tea also broke the religious monopoly enjoyed by Christianity, as the regions where such beverage came from also spread religions such as Buddhism and Taoism. Overall, Standage used tea as his thesis for describing the period spanning colonialism, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, with spirits and coffee acting as vital supplements.
Towards the 20th century, Standage successfully encapsulated his discussion of the post-spirits, coffee and tea era through his discussion of Coca-Cola. Initially meant for medicinal purposes, Coca-Cola became symbolic of the supremacy of US through its popularity as a drink enjoyed by many. Coming with the tagline “delicious and refreshing”, Coca-Cola grew vastly in popularity through its qualities as a fizzling drink that instantly gives the feeling of relief from thirst to anyone drinking it. In addition, with the Prohibition still in effect, Coca-Cola became a leisure drink to many people in the US. Subsequently, the growth of marketing activities has found Coca-Cola a viable engine for promotion across the US. The erstwhile isolationist nature of the US quickly dissolved after the end of the Second World War, with Coca-Cola being among the vital tools for promoting US dominance in world affairs. Noted by critics of the US as a tool of capitalism, Coca-Cola has successfully transcended boundaries through its nature as an enjoyable drink, as it figured in the trends of globalization, technological developments and conflicts based on ideology. In sum, Standage effectively used Coca-Cola as the symbol of the modern, globalized and progressive 20th century.
Conclusion and the Next Beverage
Standage became effective in describing world history in a material sense by using six kinds of beverages, having related all those with their respective historical contexts. What made Standage more effective is that he recognized that each beverage have effectively overlapped one another through differences characterized by social class and economic usage. Now, the continuity of world history would lead one to ponder – what beverage comes next after Coca-Cola? The last portion of 6 Glasses notes that the discussion of Standage leads back to the essential beverage, which is water. Standage discussed that with technological advancements, the progression of human populations and subsequently growing demands has led to water becoming a scarcity. Conflicts have emerged due to the insufficiency of water supplies in particular areas of the world, thus presupposing that people may have rediscovered the importance of water per se after their innovations that brought the six kinds of beverages to prominence.
Standage, Tom. A History of the World in 6 Glasses. New York City, NY: Walker Publishing Company, 2006.