Saturday, February 6, 2010

Review: A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage

In Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses, civilization is what civilization drinks: “Just as archaeologists divide history into different periods based on the use of different materials—the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, and so on—it is also possible to divide world history into periods dominated by different drinks.”

Standage starts with beer, which was fundamental to early agricultural civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt. As the liquid form of plentiful grains, and safer than the local water to drink, beer was a staple of diets. It was also a popular form of payment and currency. By its ubiquity, beer became, and to a large extent still is, the drink of the everyday worker.

In contrast, wine was emblematic of Greek and Roman civilizations, which stratified wines by type and age. Everyone drank wine, but the elites had elite wine, the commoners had common wine, and so on in between. This association of wine with connoisseurship persists today, as does the Mediterranean region’s cultural preference for wine as its main social drink.

The other four epochal drinks are distilled spirits (their bang-for-buck compactness made them a key trading currency in the Age of Exploration), coffee (the Age of Reason played out in coffeehouses), tea (British Empire), and Coca-Cola (the American Century and globalization).

Each drink gets a cultural biography that explores “the ramifications of who drank what, and why, and where they got it from.” Standage covers that territory broadly, visiting the histories of agriculture, religion, philosophy, and commerce (among other topics) at opportune moments.

So, for those interested in an offbeat, eclectic take on history, A History of the World in 6 Glasses should slake thy thirst.

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