Monday, January 25, 2010


A History of the World in 6 Glasses

This was a lot of fun. Tom Standage is a writer for The Economist, and this book, A History of the World in 6 glasses, reads well. It takes you through 6 chapters dedicated to: beer, wine, distilled spirits, coffee, tea, and Coke.

Beer was a big part of the development of domestication and agriculture, and he goes through how it probably developed and what customs still survive. Beer used to be drunk from one huge jar, and everyone would use a straw, so it was a very communal thing - one of the antecedents of the modern "cheers."

Wine he takes through its discovery and the Greek and Roman preference for it. Did you know that "strong wine" for them was a mixture of 2 parts water to 1 part wine? Only insane cultures and Gods drank unadulterated wine without mixing a lot of water with it.

The distilled spirits chapter followed the exploration of the world, sea voyages, and increasing international trade. Rum became a standard daily ration on British Navy vessels, and because they drank it with sugar and lime juice (called grog), sailors stopped getting scurvy. The French sailors, who still drank brandy every day, were more scurvy prone, and Standage attributes some of the Royal Navy's successes to the disappearance of scurvy.

Coffee is important in terms of the Enlightenment and waking up a population that drank beer, wine, and liquor all the time (water was too unsanitary). Once coffee's popularity took hold, and people could drink something that didn't make them inebriated and actually gave them energy and focus, coffeehouses turned into meccas of discovery, discussion, business and science. Newton was inspired to invent calculus after a friend had made a bet at a coffee house about the elliptical orbits of planets. And the dubious story of Gabriel de Clieu is just funny, true or not.

Tea was another import from Asia (coffee came from the Middle East) that caught on in Britain and followed the development of the colonial system. The British imported their tea from China, not knowing how it was harvested. Once they got their hands on some of the actual plants and began cultivation in India, the British East India Company became a very powerful entity in the region with armies, government-like powers, and a huge influence on Parliament.

And Coke brings you to the present, where corporations, branding, globalization, and the relationship between business and government can be explored in an interesting way through the development of Coca-Cola. I don't drink it myself, but if I did, I'd really be interested in how it came about and how the company has operated for the last century.

It's all fascinating, I'd encourage anyone to read it. The contextual treatment of world history was very easily absorbed. For instance, his explanation of the actual reasons Bostonians held the Boston Tea Party would make certain parts of the conservative movement think twice about their ideological mascot - the Tea Act was actually a move to lower taxes but also gave the British East India Company a monopoly to export tea to the colonies. The Tea Party is more of a lesson in the dangers of ties between government and business than a pat anti-tax catchphrase.

You'll never look at your glass, mug, bottle, or tumbler the same way again.

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