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Global Libation
By Margaret Black

A History of the World in 6 Glasses

By Tom Standage

Walker and Company, 311 pages, $25

In A History of the World in 6 Glasses, Tom Standage celebrates six commonplace beverages—beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola—each as “the defining drink during a pivotal historical period, from antiquity to the present day.” Well, yes and no. For history here, we’re mostly talking about Western history, but all the same, the conceit is amusing, and Standage deftly summarizes a staggering quantity of intriguing information.

He begins with the obvious—that “thirst is deadlier than hunger.” As long as Paleolithic hunter-gatherers moved around, they fared reasonably well. But when they began to stay for longer periods in one place, water supplies quickly become contaminated. So from the dawn of Neolithic farming to scientific water treatment of the late 19th century, people always sought alternatives for drinking. Indeed, the ways in which the six beverages protected health is one of the most intriguing aspects of the book.

The actual discovery of both beer and wine predate written records. Humble beer won the first popularity contest and dominated the long transformation of humans into farming people. Since bread and beer both came from the same grain-turned-into-gruel (“Bread was solid beer, and beer was liquid bread”), some archaeologists even postulate that farming developed to ensure the supply of beer, not food. The wide variety of grains, growing under a wide variety of conditions, meant that fermenting them into beer was truly a global phenomenon.

Beer was for drink, for conviviality, for religious ceremony, for value. Sumerian records track payments of beer to different levels of workers and functionaries, and the first written recipe is for making beer. It was often consumed communally—a marvelous seal from about 4000 BC shows two people sipping beer through straws from a giant jar. Back around 2350 BC, a groom’s family would bring beer to the bride’s family as part of the bride price. And an Egyptian proverb from 2200 BC states, “The mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer.” Some things haven’t changed.

Wine, though equally ancient, was not universally available because wine grapes didn’t grow everywhere. At a gigantic royal feast in ancient Assyria, wine appears as an expensive elite drink, consumed privately, out of individual bowls. Several hundred years later, the Greeks turned wine into a hugely successful commercial product, but they also made it the drink of civilized discourse (demoting beer to the thoughtless working class). “Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever,” says Aristophanes. Standage holds that wine, always watered, mediated the symposia of the Greek world, which in turn generated the philosophical argumentation that produced everything we know and love in Western thought.

The conquering Romans absorbed the Greek love of wine, but without the tiresome intellectuality—“Baths, wine and sex ruin our bodies,” says an inscription, “but what makes life worth living except baths, wine and sex?” Roman fondness carried over with the Christian West, where wine has remained popular to this day, maintaining the same class difference vis-à-vis beer that it had at Assyrian Ashurnasirpal II’s big party.

And so the author goes. Spirits, achieved through distillation—a process acquired from the (largely) alcohol-eschewing Muslims—makes a durable drink for the Western voyages of exploration. Then coffee (also via the Muslims), the “drink of reason,” creates the British coffeehouse, making possible modern scientific thought and the alert, caffeine-driven development of capitalism. Tea follows, becoming the nonalcoholic beverage of sober industrialization and the bulwark of empire. And finally, Standage recounts the saga of Coca-Cola, the emblem and embodiment of America and globalization.

The book sails perilously close to simplistic young-adult writing at the start, but the information is so engaging that you’re swept along. The author’s contemporary quotes are terrific, and his delight in places like the British coffeehouse is infectious. He’s a mine of anecdotes, like the one about the special colorless Coca-Cola (to look like vodka) that Harry Truman authorized the company to send to General Zhukov right after World War II.

The author’s final touch is one of his nicest. Standage tells where to find contemporary drinks that taste like those he discusses. Some Africans produce authentic neolithic beers; some Italians still make Roman wines. And, if you’re tempted, “the nearest equivalent to the dubious [tea] blends of the eighteenth century is probably low-cost teabags.”

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