Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I have read some pretty serious (and often challenging) non-fiction this year, so it was nice to take a step back and read something a bit more lighthearted. Not fluff, exactly, but something not as heavy or long.


A History of the World in 6 Glasses (Yes, it uses the numeral. No, the style guides do not approve…) isn’t anything like a true history of the world, of course. Rather, it traces the influence of six specific beverages during particular eras in the history of Western civilization.

The book is divided as follows:

First is beer, which, as the book points out, wasn’t invented, but rather discovered. Once humans learned to harvest and cook cereal grains, it was only a matter of time before something left out a bit long fermented. From there, beer became a major factor in the establishment of cities, accounting, and more. This period and beverage are associated (by the author) with the first known human civilizations: Mesopotamia. It was interesting that the first writing and the first records of beer went hand in hand. Once beer was discovered, it became subject to accounting, with the towns keeping records of how much grain people contributed, and giving them a proportional ration of beer. Later, as jobs became more specialized, the ration was specified by class, sex, and age. In what would turn out to be a constant for all the beverages in this book, beer functioned as a currency, and as a form of payment for labor.

Next is wine, which, although (like beer) discovered rather than invented long before, is truly associated with Greece and Rome. From the Greek Symposium - the gathering of freemen as equals to drink and discuss the ideas of the day - to the Roman obsession with fine wine as a status symbol and medicine, wine is intertwined with Greco-Roman society in a way that beer was not. (And beer was for the plebes, not the aristocracy, at first. Later, as prices fell, it became more universal.) While Greece and Rome do fit this vision, I do have to mention the strong role that wine played in the history of Israel too: between sheep and wine, you have most of the great metaphors of the old testament. Another fascinating book that focuses on that part of history, I recommend Divine Vintage. I found the history in this section particularly fascinating, as those elements of Greco-Roman culture are usually a sideline in other discussions.

The third is that of distilled spirits. Ironically, the first four of these beverages originated in the Middle East. Although Islam generally rejected the use of alcohol (although that is, shall we say, complicated, as the book points out…), it was Arabic alchemists that can be said to have invented the distillation of alcohol. (In fact, “alcohol,” like “algebra,” is an Arabic word. Alcohol meant a distillate of any sort - ethanol is “alcohol of wine.”) Originally used in chemical reactions, distilled alcohol also found a use as a solvent and as a base for medicinal preparations. It also turned out to be both tasty and an effective means of intoxication.

The author, however, doesn’t look at the early history of distillation as the era associated with hard liquor. Rather, he ties it to the Colonialist period. There are several excellent reasons for this. First, because hard liquor is easier to preserve - and transport - it made for an excellent shipboard form of booze. Most famous, of course, is the ration of Grog given to British sailors. This mixture of rum and lemon or lime juice turned out to be the cure for scurvy, and helped the British Navy become the dominant water power of its time.

However, there is also a seriously dark side to this. Rum is made from molasses, a byproduct of sugar production. Sugar was then produced largely in the Caribbean, on plantations dependent on slave labor. This led to an unholy triangle. The Caribbean sent molasses to the American colonies (particularly New England), who then made it into rum, which they then sent to Africa, where it was used to purchase slaves, which were then sent to the Caribbean (and the southern colonies too.) By the mid 1700s, rum production accounted for no less than 80% of New England’s exports, and formed the largest industry in its economy. So New England certainly can’t claim innocence when it comes to blame for slavery. Actually, come to think of it, New England was kind of like the Columbia of its time, supporting itself in significant part on selling intoxicating drugs...just saying.

The fourth drink also originated in the Middle East, which initially made it suspicious to Europeans. It had the advantage of being a stimulant, rather than an intoxicant, which made it acceptable under Islamic law. But this advantage also meant that it was the perfect drink for the Age of Enlightenment. Just as wine lubricated the Greek symposium, coffee was the perfect drink for the European coffeehouse, where political ideas were discussed, and culture bloomed. No less a character (and revolutionary) than Jonathan Swift said he was “not yet convinced that any access to men in power gives a man more Truth or Light than the Politicks of a Coffee House.” Naturally, those men in power were deeply distrustful of these dens of dissent. While English coffee houses were important, their role in France and the French Revolution was crucial. It is unlikely that the ideas would have spread as they did without them. I found particularly interesting that one significant problem in France before the revolution was the exemption of the ultra-wealthy and the Church from taxation. We are still fighting over that question today, with the actual tax burden (once you factor in all taxes, not just income tax) falling heavily on the lower and middle classes, and most loopholes benefiting the most wealthy.

Coffee eventually spread around Europe and to the Americas as well, but while it was popular in England initially, it would be supplanted by the fifth drink: Tea.

It is unsurprising that tea would be associated with the British Empire. However, it is important to note that tea more properly belongs to the civilizations of China and Japan (and even India) than it does to Britain. However, given the book’s focus on Western history, and the important role that tea did play in the Empire, the choice is defensible. I did want to mention the glossing over of the role tea played in the eastern world. To the author’s credit, he did give some important background information on the history of tea.

The Opium Wars naturally enter the book here, as the export of opium was necessary (at least it seemed at the time) to balance out the trade deficit with China. Hey, that’s two cases already where the Anglo-Americans sold drugs to other countries....

One additional interesting tidbit in this section is that each of the first five beverages were at some point restricted in access to exclude women. Beer was originally for male rulers, only later being issued to women and children. Wine was for men - wealthy men originally - and only later for women. It wasn’t until recently that women could drink whisky in public without risking their reputation. Coffee was believed to harm women more than men - and most of the coffeehouses were, naturally, men only. Tea too was originally off limits to women. The tea houses were male only, and women could not purchase tea themselves, but had to send a male servant to do so. This state of affairs didn’t survive the Feminist movement, however, and women eventually came to be important and influential consumers of tea.

Also fascinating is the history of the East India Company, perhaps the most dominant corporation of all time, wielding tremendous political power. At one time, its taxes accounted for an astounding 10% of all revenue to the British government. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that it pretty much got its way. Except in the case of those pesky American colonists who had the audacity to rebel and start a war and all. (My wife has an ancestor who threw tea in Boston Harbor, for what that is worth.) The whole sordid history is a good lesson on why it isn’t a good thing when corporations control government.

The final beverage is Coca-Cola, which is (surprise!) associated with 20th Century American Consumerism. And really, it is still the world’s most recognizable brand, and the one thing you can find pretty much everywhere in the world.

The history of the beverage is pretty fun, of course. It was originally a “patent medicine” during the heyday of unregulated snake oil remedies. And it contained cocaine, as did plenty of “medicines” - including those marketed for children. (Yep, and heroine and morphine too…) It was the combination of the remedy with chilled soda water and a brilliant shift in marketing from a cure to a refreshment that gave it the boost it needed to succeed.

It also came at a crucial junction in a uniquely American history. The Temperance movement was gaining steam, and there was a lot of political pressure to suppress the saloons and alcohol consumption. Coca-Cola was perceived as a culturally acceptable alternative; and the soda fountain at the drugstore a wholesome counterpart to the dark and sordid bar. The rest is history.

Well, there were a few hiccups. For example, the lawsuit filed by the US Government, claiming Coke was harmful to children, and should be restricted. Unsurprisingly to any student of American history, the government pearl clutching was joined by the religious fundamentalists, who claimed that (and you must have known this was coming…) the caffeine in Coke promoted illicit sexual activity.

There were some intriguing sections on the partnership of the US military and Coca-Cola in spreading Coke around the world. It certainly was a comfort to the servicemen and women, and endured more than, say, cigarettes. On the one hand, it is kind of an uncomfortable form of cultural imperialism. But on the other, Coke is pretty benign as far as things go. Certainly less so than production of, say, coffee, sugar, or bananas. In any event, I am not really a soda sort of person. It’s a rare treat, but not something I would bother with in France or England.

In fact, Coke is really the only one of the six drinks that I do not consume with some regularity. More than anything, that is because sugar and my body do not play well together, and I feel better when I limit my intake. And, I was born too late for the heyday of American consumer culture, I’m afraid. My generation really pioneered the more globalist and eclectic consumerism, partaking more of traditions from around the world than from the most recognizable American brands.

One more fun factoid from this book that doesn’t really fit elsewhere. In the first century BCE, there was a whole industry devoted to “universal antidotes,” preparations of wine and herbs and chemicals that would (allegedly) give immunity to poisons. In the legend, King Mithradates was given such a mixture by Galen himself, with the result that he became immune to all known poisons. This proved to be a disadvantage, however, when his son overthrew and imprisoned him. The logical solution at the time was suicide, rather than disgrace. But how? He eventually had to bribe a guard to stab him to death.

This book is fun rather than academic, to be sure. That said, the information is accurate and supported by primary sources, from what I can determine. It is intended to give an amusing yet informative account of the role of these important beverages in history. Perhaps the most important point is that each in its own way has been a weapon against tainted water, from the boiling of beer and coffee, to the natural antiseptic qualities of wine, tea, and liquor, to the sterile preparation methods of Coca-Cola. Access to each has had health benefits in that sense, from allowing humans to live in close proximity without dying of dysentery, to being a reliably germ-free liquid on the battlefield.

Standish mixes a good combination of science, history, and sociology with an intriguing narrative. Hard to beat that for a light summer non-fiction read.  

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