2012 Reading books reading Resources

Reading 2012: A History of the World in 6 Glasses

August 8, 2012

Whilst mostly drinking water, I enjoyed reading history through a new lens via Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 GlassesFor every history teacher who has had to listen to the “history’s so boring” line from their students, this book will handily prove that the opposite is true. Standage delves into history and delivers more than just dry facts and dates. This unique history presents how these important six beverages became integral to human existence and flourishing and have maintained their place in our world. 

Although each beverage is presented in the order of it’s introduction to the world, the book also makes an excellent continued history to show the way it has remained a part of human existence even as new drinks arose in popularity.

The history begins in ancient Mesopotamia with the discovery of beer. Although it was a bit different than our modern version, many elements remain the same. As civilization moved from hunter-gathering to a more agricultural society, the introduction of grain cultivation brought about a number of dietary changes.In the process, both bread and beer were introduced, and “bread was solid beer, and beer was liquid bread.” Much of the beer in its beginning was quite full of sediment, and so it was usually drunk communally with each drinker using his own straw.

From beer, the history moves on to wine, which flowed (pun intended) out of Greece and Rome, and took elements of those cultures with it as it moved through the rest of the world. Spirits are the final of the three alcoholic beverages before the book moves on to three important caffeinated beverages that were introduced in the more modern eras: coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola.

Some of the history is somewhat surprising: beyond the fact that the origens of beer and spirits were both rather unknown to me prior to this book, I was surprised to learn the key role tea played in the opium wars between the British Empire and China (and how that consequentially led to China further walling itself off from the rest of the world). Other parts are quite sad, such as the role spirits played in the slave trade.

One particular excerpt from this section was quite telling of the greed that trumped all else (106-107):

“The [sugar] industry was heavily dependent on slave labor. Ligon ran into the religious logic used to justify slavery when a black slave, to whom he had explained the workings of a compass, asked if he could convert to Christianity, “for he thought that to be a Christian was to be endued with all those knowledges he wanted.” Ligon relayed this request to the slave’s master and was told that slaves were not allowed to convert–since, “by the Lawes of England…we could not make a Christian a slave”–so any slaves who were allowed to convert would have to be freed. And that was unthinkable, since it would have stopped the lucrative sugar business in its tracks.”

Each of these six drinks share a common history of exposing or exacerbating  human greed and conquest, yet each also has some element of unifying and bringing together people and ideas.  All of these beverages were, and are, also much more than just an enjoyable beverage. Most of them were important in providing a potable form of water, for use medicinally, or to serve as a form of payment, and even to stimulating inventions and world-changing ideas. Without each of these beverages, our world would look very different than it does today.

This book will likely lend helpful background information to any historical reading or study. Just yesterday, while reading a biography of George Washington, information I’d learned from this book about rum and spirits and the surrounding history provided a helpful enhancement for just a couple of sentences discussing Washington’s drinking of “grog” and later on, on discussion of slavery and spirits.

Thanks to Tom Standage and his toast human history, I doubt I will ever look at (or drink) any of these six beverages quite the same again.

(I’ve also been reading The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child: Volume 1: Ancient Times: From the Earliest Nomads to the Last Roman Emperor here and there with our girls. For those who use The Story of the World as a homeschool textbook/resource, A History of the World in 6 Glasses would likely make a fascinating and helpful supplement.)

Table of Contents

  • Beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt
    • 1. A Stone-Age Brew
    • 2. Civilized Beer
  • Wine in Greece and Rome
    • 3. The Delight of Wine
    • 4. The Imperial Vine
  • Spirits in the Colonial Period
    • 5. High Spirits, High Seas
    • 6. The Drinks That Built America
  • Coffee in the Age of Reason
    • 7. The Great Soberer
    • 8. The Coffeehouse Internet
  • Tea and the British Empire
    • 9. Empires of Tea
    • 10. Tea Power
  • Coca-Cola and the Rise of America
    • 11. From Soda to Cola
    • 12. Globalization in a Bottle
  • Epilogue: Back to the Source
  • Acknowledgment
  • Appendix: In Search of Ancient Drinks

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  • Johanna Hanson August 8, 2012 at 9:37 am

    How fascinating. I love history from different angles like that.

  • Esther Saint August 9, 2012 at 1:13 am

    Wow. This is so fascinating. Reading the table of contents makes me really want to read this!

  • Erik Klaustermeyer August 13, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    As on who has partaken “firewater” from different areas of the world I can tell you that it is definatly an aquired taste. I like to experience new cultures and new things and almost universally every culture seems to claim some sort of alcoholic beverage as their own. It is as a defining part of heritage as sports or art. People hold their own beverages in such high resolve that it is illegal for others to make it. An example would be that champagne comes only from France. Anything else is simply called sparkling white wine. But I love how you can point to this as a meaningful part of the history of the developed world.

    • Keren August 13, 2012 at 6:28 pm

      You should read this book if you get a chance, Erik. I think you’d enjoy it for the emphasis on both culture and history. In the appendix, the author also details how the original forms of these beverages differ from our modern versions, and how to make/find versions that might most replicate the tastes and experience of the ancient versions.

      Related to “People hold their own beverages in such high resolve that it is illegal for others to make it,” which was briefly alluded to (e.g., different kinds of tea, wine labels, and Coca Cola vs. Pepsi and other beverages), was that many of these beverages were taxed or used as a form of currency.

      • Erik Klaustermeyer August 13, 2012 at 7:36 pm

        I will definately put this on my “to read” list. I have serious reservations however on drinking some of the old brews like homemade mescal or viking honey mead due to the incedents of blindness that always seem to accompany these home brews.
        What I really like though is the historical explantions of meanings of these drinks… whiskey = water of life
        vodka = dimunative version of water (voda)
        But what I find most interesting is how europeans pair their food with certain beverages. Some of the reasons are to enhance flavor or to retain a historical accuracy. Whatever the reason you have excited a curiosity that must be “quenched ” by this book !