Q. I read your diabtribe against bottled water in the New York Times. My local tap water tastes horrible. Are you saying I should drink it anyway?
No, I’m just saying you should conduct a blind tasting against some bottled waters and see if you can really tell which is the tap water. You may find that many bottled waters also taste horrible when you are not looking at the pictures of glaciers or mountains on their labels. (I found Voss, which is sold in cylindrical bottles at Nobu, particularly unpleasant. My own tap water, in contrast, tasted good, and was very similar to Fiji water. So I drink tap.) You could also try using a filter, and see if that changes your opinion of tap water. My main point is that anything makes more sense than drinking bottled water that has been expensively transported around the world and costs hundreds or thousands of times as much as tap water. Give your tap water a chance — it may surprise you.
Q. I also read your diabtribe against bottled water in the New York Times. If I wanted to switch to tap water and give the money to a water charity, who would you recommend?
I give to Water Aid, but I’m sure there are many other charities that also support water projects. The thing about Water Aid, though, is that they concentrate on such projects exclusively. I originally thought about advocating a tax on bottled water, with the proceeds being used to fund water projects. The problem with this approach is that it’s very difficult to “ring fence” tax revenues in this way. Worse, it would then be up to the government in question to decide which water projects to support. Governments are hopeless at making such decisions: they attach unreasonable conditions, fund projects that favour domestic vested interests, and generally mess things up. After the Op-Ed appeared, I heard from Ethos Water, who sell bottled water and donate some of their profits to water projects — a sort of “fair trade” approach. (The company is now owned by Starbucks, where you can buy their water.) This is, I concede, better than a tax-based approach. But it does not address the unnecessary environmental costs imposed by drinking bottled water (transport; refrigeration; the manufacturing of plastic bottles, which requires a lot of water; and the need to dispose of those bottles), so I think the best approach is just to drink tap water, and give the money you save to the water charity of your choice.
Q. What gave you the idea for this book?
I was reading a Sunday newspaper article about Napoleon, and it mentioned his favourite wine while he was in exile: Vin de Constance, a South African dessert wine. It hadn’t occurred to me before that Napoleon, whom I usually imagine striding around on a battlefield, would also have had trivial personal preferences like this, so he suddenly seemed more human. It turns out that Vin de Constance was pretty popular in the 19th century; it’s mentioned by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. You can even buy it today — the original vineyard, in Konstantia, is making the wine again. I went there and spoke to the winemaker. It turns out that when they decided to revive the vineyard, which had fallen into disuse, they bought an old bottle of the wine from the late 18th century, drank some of it, and put the rest in a mass spectrometer to try and work out what blend of grapes it was based on. The wine is now sold in a replica of an 18th century hand-blown bottle. I know, I’m getting away from the point here. The main thing is that I started to wonder what other historical figures had drunk, and whenever I went to a museum I wondered what the people who had made the objects on display had been drinking, and so on. So I looked into the history of drinking and found that different drinks had been popular in different periods, and that was the idea for the book.
Q. Why divide up history using six drinks?
Well, just as archaeologists divide history up into the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and so on, I have divided up the history of humankind by drink. I start with beer in the Neolithic period, and then proceed through wine in Greece and Rome, spirits in the Age of Exploration, coffee in the Age of Reason, tea and the British Empire, and ending up with Coca-Cola, the rise of America, and globalisation. All of these beverages emerged as the dominant drinks in particular historical periods, illuminate the links between different cultures, influenced the course of history in unexpected ways, and are still drunk today. It’s history through the bottom of a glass: my aim is to make you see your favourite drink in a new, historically informed light.
Q. Is this just a coincidence? Why do drinks mirror the flow of history?
I think it is because they are so universal. Everyone has to drink. Each drink tells us about the priorities of the people who drank them: who drank what, and where they got it from, tells you a lot about the structure of society. The Egyptians who built the pyramids, for example, were given daily rations of bread and beer; so were temple workers in ancient Mesopotamia. The Romans were very concerned with status, for example, and had a different kind of wine for everyone from the mightiest emperor to the lowliest slave. The notion that wine is the most civilized and intellectual drink is a hangover, as it were, from the Roman period. Thousands of years later, the English became addicted to tea. Part of its appeal was that it was shipped from China; so its consumption encapsulated Britain’s global reach and power.
Q. What does all this mean for people today?
These six drinks are all living relics of bygone eras. When I drink beer now, I feel as though I am connecting with my inner Sumerian. The Sumerians were quite a fatalistic lot, by all accounts. Their view of the afterlife was pretty dim; they believed in having fun while they could. That’s a beer-drinking mentality! Similarly, many aspects of wine drinking derive from Greek and Roman customs; spirits are associated with hardship, as they have been since colonial times; coffee is associated with business, networking and innovation; tea is regarded as genteel and civilized, which is how the British saw themselves; and Coca-Cola is quintessentially American. So I hope people will appreciate the history behind these drinks, and how their associated customs are in some cases hundreds or thousands of years old.
Q. What is a technology editor doing writing about this topic?
My previous books all looked at a historical technology in the light of a modern one. By comparing the 19th-century telegraph boom with the internet boom of the 1990s, for example, I was inviting readers to see the present in the past, and the past in the present. It’s both a way of understanding history better (through our familiarity with modern technologies) and way to understand the impact of modern technologies better (by learning lessons from history). In this book, I’m doing a similar thing: each drink is really a technology, and the introduction of each drink, and the story of why it displaced the previous drink, is really a tale of the social impact of technology, which is what I’m interested in. Most drinks were water purification technologies, and many doubled as currencies, status symbols or medicines. But we still drink them today. So I’m still linking the past and present, and this book is not as different from my previous books, or my day job covering technology at The Economist, as it might seem.
Q. Did researching this book involve a lot of drinking?
A fair amount, yes. I drank traditional folk beer in South Africa, and visited a Roman vineyard in France where they make wine fermented with salt water. It’s actually quite pleasant. I also visited a distillery in the Bay Area and, er, researched a range of spirits. I found that my drinking habits changed while writing the book. I started out as a wine buff — the book was originally intended to be a history of the world in several glasses of wine, but I soon discovered that other drinks were just as important. As I researched each drink, I tended to drink more of it: I became particularly fond of tea for a few months. I ended up being far more interested in beer than I was when I started, and having never been terribly interested in spirits, I also became fond of thick, dark rum.
Q. Where can I get authentic ancient drinks?
You can buy King Cnut Ale, which is like a stone age beer, from St Peter’s Brewery. You can buy Roman wine from Mas des Tourelles though they only seem to take French credit cards. I would recommend the Turriculae, made with sea water. It sounds horrible, but it’s great.
Q. Why didn’t you include mead, chocolate, gin, cider or some other drink in the book?
My original plan was to write an appendix on the drinks that didn’t quite make it but, er, the appendix didn’t quite make it either. The short answer is that those other drinks do not align with important historical forces in the way that my six drinks do. Chocolate was popular at the same time as coffee, for example, particularly in the south of Europe. But the action at the time was in England and the Netherlands, where coffee accompanied the scientific and financial revolutions of the period. Similarly, the gin epidemic that took place in London during the early 18th century is quite well known in Britain — there have been a couple of recent books about it — but was a local anomaly that resulted from deregulation of distillation in an attempt to prop up demand for cereal crops, and did not have any broader geopolitical implications. Mead is probably as old as (or older than) beer, but its production could not easily be scaled up, unlike the production of cereal grains, which is why the Egyptians and Mesopotamians drank beer. And so on. In the British edition of the book, I have explained this in a new foreword.