Book summary of A History of the World in 6 Glasses


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A History of the World in 6 Glasses

   Tom Standage

Bloomsbury

336 pages; Average reading time 4 hours 45 min

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Reading books helps Sanjana gain that knowledge and be better equipped to approach problems with a deep and meaningful perspective.

 This handcrafted book summary will help you learn

  • How beer became one of the reasons for early man to start farming?
  • How wine became the aristocrat’s choice?
  • How whiskey led to an American rebellion?
  • How the industrial revolution was fuelled by tea?
  • How Coca-Cola spread globalisation?

Do not miss some great videos embedded in this book summary, including how Don rediscovered a legendary Coca Cola advertisement in Mad Men.

Cheers to you

Drinks have a closer connection to the flow of history than we give them credit for and a far more significant influence on its course. The history of agriculture, philosophy, religion, medicine, and commerce are all vital in the understanding the history of who drank what. The six beverages highlighted in this book demonstrate the complex interplay and interconnectedness of different cultures of the world, surviving in our homes today as living reminders of the bygone years.

1. Beer

 

Let’s settle down for the sake of beer

The beer was discovered, not invented. After the end of the last ice age, around 10,000 BCE, the gathering of wild grain became widespread in a region known as Fertile Crescent, which provided unusually rich pickings of wild cereal grains for the groups of human hunter-gatherers. Although hunter-gatherers had previously led semi-settled lives, the ability to store cereal grains began to encourage people to stay in one place. The result was the first permanent settlement.

Cereal grains took on greater significance as it was discovered that the grain soaked in water, so that it started to sprout, tasted sweet; and this soaked grain water, if left sitting around for a couple of days, underwent a mysterious transformation. It became pleasantly intoxicating, in short, turning into beer. Over the next few thousand years, beers of different strengths and flavours were made for separate occasions.

No beer? Let’s grow some!

Starting around 9,000 BCE in the Fertile Crescent, people began cultivating barley and wheat, instead of merely gathering wild grains. This could have happened due to diminished amounts of available food, or a higher demand for new sources of food. Or perhaps once beer had been discovered, there was greater desire to ensure the availability of grain, by farming. Beer drinking was probably one of the factors that tipped the balance towards agriculture.

Sumerian depictions of beer from the third millennium BCE generally show two people drinking from a shared vessel through straws, probably because sharing a drink is a universal symbol of trust and hospitality. Even today, the clinking of glasses symbolically reunites the glasses into a single vessel of shared liquid.

The two earliest examples of civilisation were the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian cities. Both the cultures came about because of an agricultural surplus, in particular, an excess of grain, which freed administrators and craftsmen from having to produce their own food and funded public works such canals and temples.

Worked hard? Here’s beer for you

From early literary works, we infer that Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages, making them fully human. Beer was just as important in the Egyptian culture. Researchers found some Egyptian literature where beer was mentioned more than any other food. Several varieties of beer are also mentioned in the Pyramid Texts from around 2350 BCE. Egyptians and Mesopotamians alike saw beer as an ancient, God-given drink that formed part of their cultural and religious identity, and had great social importance.

In the two civilisations, barley and wheat and their related forms, bread and beer, became more than just staple foods-they were widespread forms of currency. Large numbers of identically sized bowls found at Sumerian sites seem to have been standard units of measurement. The workers who built the pyramids were paid in beer, as indicated by records found in a nearby town. The use of bread and beer as wages meant that they had become synonymous with prosperity and well-being.

While beer is no longer used as a form of payment, toasting someone’s health before drinking beer is a remnant of the ancient belief of its magical properties. Beer’s association with friendly, simple social interaction remains unchanged, as it has brought people together since the dawn of civilisation.

 

2.  Wine

 

Aristocrats’ choice

Wine was first produced between 9000 and 4000 BCE, in the Zagros Mountains region, where the presence of the wild Eurasian grapevine and the invention of pottery led to the production of wine. Wine remained an elite drink, however, as evidenced by it not being listed in ration tablets for slave workers or lower-ranking officers.

The reigns of Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal and his son marked a turning point. Wine became increasingly fashionable, and its availability grew. But it could only have become an everyday drink among the very rich, while everyone else drank its substitute, date palm wine.

Greece’s presumed superiority over foreigners in the fifth and sixth century BCE was apparent in the Greek love of wine. Wine was consumed at formal drinking parties, or symposia, where drinkers would try to outdo each other in wit, poetry or rhetoric. The climate of Greece was ideal for viticulture, making wine widely affordable throughout the region.

As wine became widely available, what kind of wine you drank became an important part of who you were. Wine buffs were interested in the place of origin and the age of the wine. What mattered even more than the choice of wine, was the way you drank it. Drinking a fine wine without mixing it with water was considered barbaric. Not drinking wine at all was considered just as inappropriate. At heart, the symposium was dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, an outlet encapsulating the best and worst elements of the culture that spawned it.

A Greek & a Roman walked into a bar….

With its social divisions, its reputation for cultural sophistication, and its encouragement of philosophical enquiry, wine embodied Greek culture. Wine has maintained its status of the most sophisticated of drinks, thanks to its association with the achievements of Ancient Greece.

By the middle of the second century BCE, the Romans had displaced the Greeks as the dominant power of the Mediterranean basin. Yet, the Romans, like many other Europeans, liked to show their own sophistication by appropriating aspects of the Greek culture. Wine offered one way to resolve this paradox.

The Romans were proud of their origins of a nation of simple farmers. Cultivating in vineyards was honest and down-to-earth, but the wine that resulted was a symbol of civilisation. Thus viticulture provided a way to reconcile the Roman values of frugality and simplicity with Greek sophistication.

Sorry sir, that wine is not for you

The Romans embraced Greece’s finest wine and winemaking techniques, producing wine and transporting it all over the Roman Empire. The Romans regarded wine as a staple, consumed by the royalty like Caesar and the slaves alike. Guests at a Roman banquet, convivium, were served different wines depending upon their position in society. Preservatives & additives were be added to cheap wine without affecting its taste, possibly even to improve it. But such additives were added to only inferior wine to conceal their imperfections.

In northern Europe, wine could not be produced locally, and therefore beer predominated instead. The distinction between beer in the northern Europe and wine in the south is still prevalent.

The symposium and convivium live on in the modern suburban party, where wine fuels discussions of certain topics, in a slightly formal atmosphere. The selection of wine reflects the importance of the occasion, and the social standing of the host and the guest. In some ways, the ancient Roman would not feel out of place, at least regarding drinking habits, in the modern day world.

 

3.  Rum & Whiskey

 

Let’s distil some happiness

One of the many achievements of Arab scholars was a technique that gave rise to a new range of drinks: distillation. Distillation equipment dating back to the fourth millennium BCE has been found in northern Mesopotamia, but it was only in the eighth century BCE that this process was routinely applied to wine. Distilled drinks provided a durable and compact form of alcohol.

Aqua vitae, or distilled wine, was an excellent new medicine that could be drunk or applied externally to the affected part of the body. Over the course of the fifteenth century, it began to change from a medicinal drink to a recreational one.

Hey man, let’s get high on sugar

Sugar, originated in Polynesia was introduced to Europe by the Arabs, was cultivated by the slaves from Africa. Sugarcane planters from the island of Barbados learned to ferment the by-products of the sugar making products, and then distil it to make a potent alcoholic drink, which could be made cheaply, and without any reduction in the sugar output. This is now known as Rum.

Rum spread throughout the Caribbean and then beyond. Slaves were encouraged to get used to it so that they could withstand the hardships imposed on them. Rum distilled from the waste product was consumed both by colonists and their slaves. It also became popular among sailors, being adopted as a substitute for a beer on Royal Navy ships in the Caribbean. Its immediate significance was as currency, as it could be used to buy slaves.

We will fight for whiskey

England’s plan to establish colonies in North America was to be able to supply Mediterranean goods. But the harsh climate meant that these crops wouldn’t grow. Furthermore, they had to contend with disease, famine, and constant battles. Among such hardship, securing reliable alcohol supply was of great importance. In the second half of the seventeenth century, rum became available. It was far cheaper, and stronger, and quickly became the colonists’ favourite drink.

Rum was the drink of the colonial period and the American Revolution, but many young citizens soon started favouring another distilled drink. Whiskey could be made almost anywhere and did not depend on imported ingredients that could be taxed or blockaded. Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, imposed a federal excise duty on the production of distilled drinks to pay off the vast national debt. The inland settlers refused to pay up and organised coordinated resistance.

President George Washington requisitioned thirteen thousand militiamen to demonstrate the pre-eminence of the federal government, and so the rebellion crumbled. While both the rebellion and the excise failed, the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion established that the federal government couldn’t be ignored.

Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, did his best to cultivate vineyards in America but failed. Wine lacked the American connotations of whiskey, an unpretentious drink associated with independence and self-sufficiency. Both rum & whiskey, popular drinks today, carry with them the dark legacy of slave trade.

4.  Coffee

 

I think, therefore I will have coffee

In the 1600s, pioneers such as Francis Bacon in England rejected blind faith in ancient texts in favour of the restoration of science. The spread of this new rationalism was mirrored by the spread of coffee that promoted sharpness and clarity of thought thus becoming the preferred drink of scientists and intellectuals. Coffee came to be regarded as the antithesis of alcohol, sobering rather than intoxicating, the epitome of modernity and progress, the ideal drink for the Age of Reason.

Coffee originated in the Arab world, reached Mecca and Cairo by 1510. It soon became a social drink, embraced as the legal alternative to alcohol, but some religious leaders objected that it was intoxicating, and therefore prohibited. Yet coffee failed to produce any such effects, even when consumed in large quantities.

Shortly before his death in 1605, Pope Clement VII tasted a cup of coffee and was so enchanted by its taste and aroma that he approved of its consumption by Christians. Within half a century, coffee soon became commonplace in Western Europe, taking the Arab notion of the coffeehouse as a more respectable alternative to the tavern.

Coffee & gossip

Until the end of the nineteenth century, Arabia remained the unchallenged supplier of coffee in the world, but soon its monopoly was broken by the Dutch, who briefly became the world’s leading commercial power. Next came the French who began exporting coffee, only to cede to Brazil, which became the world’s dominant coffee supplier.

Coffee seemed to be tailor-made for London of the 1650s and the 1660s. Coffee houses quickly became the central place for social, commercial and political meetings. They were vibrant sources of information. It became a common practice to use a coffeehouse as a mailing address. The coffee-house had become the Londoner’s home.

Rumours, news, and gossip were carried between coffeehouses, and occasional runners would flint to one coffeehouse from another to report significant events. The diaries of intellectuals are littered with coffeehouse references, as they became venues for discussions, negotiations, and even scientific experiments. The spirit of innovation and experiment gave rise to new business models, one of the examples being Lloyd’s, the world’s leading insurance market.

We’re French. Bring on the revolution

In contrast, French coffeehouses were subject to strict government oversight. With tight curbs on freedom of the press, there were far fewer sources of news in France, which led to the emergence of handwritten newsletters of Paris gossip, passed around on scraps of paper, passed along with coffeehouse discussions, as they became centres of revolutionary thought. Ultimately, it was at Cafe de Foy, on the afternoon of July 12, 1789, that a young lawyer named Camille Desmoulins set the French Revolution in motion.

Coffee and the Internet

Today, coffee remains the drink over which people meet to discuss, develop and exchange ideas and information. Given the history of coffee houses as places of idea exchange, it is interesting that the most famous coffee brand of today, Starbucks, is headquartered in Seattle, where the some of the largest internet companies in the modern world are also located.

 

5.  Tea

 

It began in China

According to Chinese tradition, the first cup of tea was brewed by the Emperor Shen Nung, dated to 2737-2697 BCE. Tea spread throughout China during the Tang dynasty, a time when China was the largest, wealthiest and most populous empire in the world. The idea of the tea ceremony was, however, taken to its highest heights in Japan, where the Chinese knowledge of tea was brought into the country by a Buddhist monk in 1191.

It was in 1610 that a Dutch ship brought the first commercial consignment of tea to Europe, where it was a novelty. Ultimately, it was Britain that emerged as the most tea loving European nation, with momentous historical consequences.

Colonialism over some fine tea

A factor in the rise of tea was the role of the British East India Company. The company’s first tea imports from the East Indies arrived in 1699. However, only when the company established trading posts in China, did tea become less expensive, and more widely available. At its height, the duty on tea accounted for 10 percent of the British government revenue, which gave the East India Company an enormous political influence.

Tea became sociable with the invention of new ways to consume it, both in private and public. Knowledge of tea and its ceremonial consumption at home became a measure of one’s sophistication. For the poor, tea gradually became an affordable luxury, and then a necessity.

The industrial revolution, powered by tea

Just as intellectuals and businessmen had taken to coffee in the seventeenth century, the workers in the new factories of the eighteenth century Industrial Revolution embraced tea. Tea helped industrialisation along in some ways. Unlike beer, it did not dull the mind but sharpened it, and improved the workers’ concentration when operating machines. The natural antibacterial properties of tea improved the nation’s health and provided a significant labour pool just as industrialisation took hold. It also stimulated commerce by increasing the demand for crockery and bringing it to be a flourishing new industry.

Of tea and opium

Other Western nations took up to a century to catch up with Britain’s industrial progress. The Chinese were not interested in trading tea in return for any European goods, because of which the East India Company had to pay with silver, which resulted in lower profits for the company. Another commodity which was regarded as valuable by Chinese merchants was opium. The East India Company saw opium as an easy way to trade with the Chinese. Since opium was an illegal drug, the company devised an elaborate policy to keep from being seen in the opium trade.

Exports of opium to China reached 1,500 tonnes a year in 1830. Rampant corruption, a withering economy, and soaring opium consumption caused a once mighty Chinese civilisation to crumble. Such was the legacy of tea’s influence on British imperial policy, and through it, on the course of world history.

Britain has remained a nation of tea drinkers ever since. And around the world, the historical impact of the British Empire can be seen till today. Tea played a key role in the creation of the Commonwealth world.

 

6.  Coca-Cola

 

Refreshing soda

Joseph Priestley, an English clergyman and scientist, discovered soda water in a brewery in Leeds, in 1767. One of the theories about soda water was that it might be a useful medicine. In the US, soda water moved from scientific curiosity to commercial product with the help of Yale professor Benjamin Silliman. He began selling bottled water in 1807 in Connecticut.

In May 1886, a pharmacist who lived in Atlanta, Georgia, invented a drink. John Pemberton began working on a drink containing coca and kola, masking their bitterness by using sugar, and dispensing it as soda water flavouring.

If you are happy, have some Coke

Ultimately, after Pemberton’s death from cancer in 1888, Asa Candler secured the rights to Coca-Cola. Until 1895, it was still being sold as a syrup and a primary medicinal product. But selling it as a refreshing drink gave it a universal appeal. Sales were also driven by the introduction of bottled Coca-Cola. The 1930s brought three challenges to the might of Coca-Cola: the end of the prohibition on alcohol, the Great Depression, and the rise of a vigorous competitor, PepsiCo.

Coca-Cola advertisements depicted a happy, carefree, world, providing an association with glamour and escapism, which helped it prosper during the depression. It was also advertised as a family-friendly alternative to beer and alcoholic drinks.

By the end of the 1930s, Coca-Cola was stronger than ever, becoming a national institution. Having taken over the United States, it was ready to take over the world, going wherever the American influence extended.

The rise of the American patriot

As the United States mobilised for the Second World War in 1941, Robert Woodruff, the president of Coca-Cola declared that any soldier would get a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents, wherever he is, and whatever it costs the company. This effort not only linked Coca-Cola to patriotism and support for the war but also helped soldiers maintain their morale, as it reminded them of home.

Conversely, the Axis powers, Germany and Japan, denounced Coca-Cola as an example of everything wrong with the US. After the Allied victory in 1945, the military bottling operations stayed in place for three years, during the period of reconstruction, after which the production reverted to the civilian realm.

Coca Cola & the Cold War

Coca-Cola’s failure to establish itself in the Soviet-bloc countries proved to be an advantage. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, presaging the collapse of communist regimes and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. As East Germans streamed through the cracks in the Berlin Wall, they were greeted with Coca-Cola, which was seen as exotic and foreign, and thus became a symbol of freedom.

Coca-Cola’s close association with American values counted against it in the Middle East. But by the late 1980s, the Arab boycott of Coca-Cola finally crumbled, and the company began making inroads into Arab markets.

Globalisation & Coca Cola

Indeed no single product is more representative of globalisation than Coca-Cola, operating in more than two hundred territories. Coca-Cola is said to be the second most commonly recognised phrase in the world, after OK. The desire to protect its global brand makes Coca-Cola extremely wary of bad publicity, and far more accountable. Globally, the company supplies 3 percent of humanity’s total liquid intake. Coca-Cola represents the twentieth century and all that came with it-the rise of the United States and capitalism, and subsequent globalisation.

From beer to Coca-Cola

For our Neolithic drinker, beer might be a connection to the future; for us, it is a window to the past. When you next raise some beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, or Coca-Cola to your lips, think about how it reached you through space and time, and that there is history in its swirling depths, along with little alcohol and caffeine.

 

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