A History of the World in 6 Glasses, Tom Standage

Here is a book that I can get behind. I love beverages. I love coffee, tea, wine, but not beer. I even enjoy an occasional coke. But to understand these beverages, where they came from and how they influenced the world, that is an intriguing proposition.

This book doesn’t disappoint. It begins with beer in the 2nd Millennium B.C. Did you know that workers in ancient Mesopotamia, one of the origin centers of beer, could be paid entirely in beer? In addition, ancient beer wasn’t made with hops and was created entirely by accident.

By the time of the Hellenistic Greeks and then the Roman Republic, wine hadn’t replaced beer. Wine was considered a delicacy at the beginning of the Roman Republic but would go on to become on the most drunk beverages in the Empire. Like today, wine was drunk by the “vintage” or year. The best wine was kept and drunk only by the elites of society. But there was something for everyone, even slaves (who drank a mixture of the sodden wine skins, previously used, and water). Interestingly, the Romans shipped wine to all parts of the Empire during its tenure. Obviously, the stretches of the Empire (England, Germany, the Baltic’s, and other Northern European countries) don’t have adequate climate for growing grapes. After the fall of the Empire, these countries reverted back to drinking beer as their supply of wine ran dry. Even today, the mentioned countries are known for their beer drinking, while the Southern European countries (Italy, France, and Spain) are known for their wine drinking.

As Islam rose in the 7th century A.D. The Koran forbids the drinking of alcohol, so the Muslim majority on the Arabian peninsula needed alternatives to the beer and wine drinking cultures. The answer: coffee. The origins of coffee are not certain, but it did come out of modern day Saudi Arabia. In fact, the term “arabica” when referring to coffee means it came from this area (which may have been obvious to you, but I honestly never made the connection!). Coffee was exported most heavily to Europe when the Dutch East India Company made headway in Indonesia. From here, coffee was exported to Europe and became popular in the salon’s and cafés that typified Enlightenment Europe. Amazingly, coffee helped not only to bring people together, but it was shared over revolutionary ideas (literally: the French Revolution!).

Tea’s history is much more complicated. Originating from China, it was a staple beverage in the East for centuries. When the British began trading with China around the 17th century, they started to rely on a steady tea supply. This in term began a series of conflicts called the Opium Wars. Essentially, the British were exchanging silver for tea and other goods popular at the time. This created a silver deficit. They hatched a scheme that would repay them back much of their loses: instead of off loading their silver, they grew opium and sold it to Chinese middlemen for silver, who then sold the opium for an exorbitant profit. Needless to say, the Chinese weren’t happy. The British also upset a group of colonists in a small port town in North America. After imposing a tax on goods such as tea and later, stamps, the North American colonists of Boston threw boxes of tea into the harbor, inciting what would become known as the American Revolution.

Lastly, coke is the least ancient of all these beverages. But, it is probably the most popular today. The origin story of coke is complicated, but the short answer is yes, there were drugs in the original coke. After a time however, the recipe was revised without these ingredients. Coca-Cola was able to develop a stranglehold on the soda pop industry early because of their revolutionary technique of selling just syrup to soda shops. The syrup would be in bags and then sparkling water would be pushed through to create the magical beverage. This cut costs. Most interesting, Coca-Cola was so influential by the time of World War II that the United States Government gave special permission to the company to continue operations despite the widespread efforts of rationing supplies. They even were allowed to go abroad and Coca-Cola was designated as critical to the war effort. A small bottling plant would follow the US troops wherever they went. After the war, Coca-Cola came to symbolize capitalism and globalism; something the USSR and her friends despised. In East Germany, Pepsi Co. grabbed a portion of the population. After the Berlin Wall came down however, it was celebrated with a bottle of Coca-Cola.

Great book full of information on how beverages really do impact our world.

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