Review: A History of the World in 6 Glasses, Ch. 1-6

For class C485, Culture, Civilization, and Leadership, we are tasked with reading “A History of the World in 6 Glasses” by Tom Standage.  While the class will only be focusing on chapter 7 forward (modern history), I felt that if it was worth reading the end of the book, it was worth reading the beginning!

The author starts this account of history by laying out the following premise:  The history of the world has been told by archaeologists primarily in terms of materials used.  The Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, etc. all focus on the tools that mankind used in daily life, but history can also be outlined in terms of what mankind has been drinking.

Six beverages in particular – beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola – chart the flow of world history.  Three contain alcohol, and three contain caffeine, but what they all have in common is that each one was the defining drink during a pivotal historical period, from antiquity to the present day.  (Introduction, pg. 2)

Chapters 1-6 outline the alcoholic beverages:  Beer, wine, and spirits. Before talking about each one separately, my initial reaction to this book is that while it is very entertaining, it’s also very academic.  Granted, any book that deals with history needs to be laden with facts and figures, but at times I found myself daydreaming a bit about having a drink, rather than reading about them!  But whether that’s my character flaw, a function of reading history, or otherwise, let’s move on…

  • Beer – One of the world’s oldest beverages, and arguably one of history’s most important.  The discovery of beer changed man from leading a primarily hunter-gatherer lifestyle, to settling down into villages and cultivating cereal grains.  As brewing beer became more widespread, the safe consumption of liquid infused with high levels of Vitamin B and protein (from the yeast) increased health and life expectancy.
  • Wine – Like beer before it, the quantity of wine a man possessed directly translated into wealth.  Wine has an advantage over beer in that 1) it was much more portable per unit of alcohol, and 2) wine tended to keep a whole lot longer.  The Greek people were at the forefront of wine production and culture; the Greek influence on wine is still felt today, as the quality of wine consumed and knowing about the different varieties of wine are A still considered (by some) as indications of status in American society.
  • Spirits (Brandy, Rum, Whiskey) – Knowledge of distillation is thought to have originated in Arab culture, with distilled wine eventually becoming known throughout Europe as ‘aqua vitae’ (water of life).  Brandy was considered the ultimate form of currency due to the high alcohol content, and helped fuel the slave trade in Africa.  But it was Rum, originally known as “kill-devil”, that may have been the most important spirit of them all.  Whereas tea is often said to have been the catalyst for the forming of the United States of America, a punitive tax from England on imported French molasses (and thus Rum indirectly) caused one of the first uprisings from the colonies.

My summaries above only scratch the surface of the geo-political content of these first six chapters.  The main takeaway I’ve received so far is that the history of the world wasn’t just born out of the desire to conquer.  It was the procurement of beer, wine, and spirits that fueled exploration and trade, and consuming these beverages developed cultural traditions that endure to this day.  Unfortunately, these three beverages were also at the forefront of some of the darkest periods of history, mainly as currency for the slave trade from Africa.

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