Book Review: Tom Standage's 'A History of the World in 6 Glasses'

A tour of history through the beverages and drinks that define us. Photo: Promo photo

WASHINGTON, March 17, 2013 – Did you know that coffee reduces the rate at which alcohol is removed from the bloodstream, so it does not really make you less drunk, just more alert?  Or that clinking glasses symbolically unites them into one vessel of communal liquid, signifying the universal symbol of hospitality?  

While most people divide history by wars, empires, or ages, Tom Standage divides history by the predominant beverage of the era. In A History of the World in 6 Glasses, Standage takes readers on a tour of times past, through potations and libations. Insightful and impeccably researched, this is a perfect book for those who want to learn a little something about everyday drinks and how they came to be so popular.

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Beginning with beer in Mesopotamia and ending with Coca-Cola, Standage analyzes the social, economic, and political implications that each dominant beverage has had at certain periods in history, and how each came to embody the circumstances and ideas of the era. It’s interesting to note that all these key beverages contain some kind of stimulant: the first three beverages that defined history—beer, wine, and spirits—contain alcohol; the last three— coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola—contain caffeine. 

Beer was used in rituals and drinking it was a hallmark of civilization in Mesopotamia and Egypt. In ancient Greece and Rome, what kind of wine one drank became a mark of wealth, and knowledge of different wines and their properties became a sign of education and culture. In the colonial period, thanks to distillation, spirits became the defining drink of that time, more suitable than beer or wine for transportation over long distances and cheap to produce as so much of it was derived from the large sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean colonies. 

Switching to caffeine, coffee and tea were the beverages that ushered in the Age of Reason and the British Empire, allowing workers to stay alert while performing repetitive tasks in the Industrial Revolution; and, for other reasons, influential in shaping Britain’s foreign policy. Finally, as the U.S. became a more dominant world power, Coca-Cola, that most American of beverages, became the most popular drink in the world.  

For all the importance he gives to these six beverages, however, Standage begins and ends his book with a discussion of the primary importance of water. Before all of these mixed, brewed, and distilled liquid concoctions existed, humans drank water. Today, after the rise and fall in dominance of these six epoch-defining beverages, global drinking patterns are returning focus to the original source of all the others: water. 

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According to the Earth Policy Institute, Americans today consume and average of 30 gallons of water per person annually. This is significantly up from an average of 1.6 gallons per year in 1976. But drinking bottled water is not just a passing craze, like the other drinks detailed in this book have sometimes tended to be. Drinking bottled water carries with it diverse economic, social, and political implications today.  

For instance, bottled water sales are highest in the developed world, where tap water, ironically, is abundant and safe to drink. This is more significant in light of the fact that ounce for ounce, bottled water in the U.S. is more expensive than gasoline, and tap water is more tightly regulated than bottled water. 

For these reasons, according to Standage, “safe water has become so abundant in the developed world that people can afford to shun the tap water under their noses and drink bottled water instead. Since both kinds are safe, the sort of water one drinks has become a lifestyle choice…In contrast, for many people in the developing world, access to water remains a matter of life and death.”  

This book is a fantastic read and very informative. After quaffing this liquid history of man, readers will no longer look at what is in their glass the same way again. Considering that this is a book about drinks—half of which are alcoholic—after reading it, if nothing else, you’ll sound pretty smart at your next cocktail party.   

A History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage.  New York: Walker & Company, 2005. 311 pp. $10.85.

READ MORE Laura Sesana in her regular WTC column: A World in Our Backyard.

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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