A History of the World in Six Glasses

Thirst is deadlier than hunger. Deprived of food, you might survive for a few weeks, but deprived of liquid refreshment, you would be lucky to last more than a few days. Only breathing matters more. Tens of thousands of years ago, early humans foraging in small bands had to remain near rivers, springs and lakes in order to ensure an adequate supply of fresh water, since storing or carrying it was impractical. The availability of water constrained and guided mankind’s progress. Drinks have continued to shape human history ever since.Only in the past ten thousand years or so have new drinks emerged to challenge the pre-eminence of water. These drinks do not occur naturally in any quantity, but must be made deliberately. As well as offering safer alternatives to contaminated, disease-ridden water supplies in human settlements, these new drinks have taken on a variety of roles. Many of them have been used as currencies, in religious rites, as political symbols, or as sources of philosophical and artistic inspiration. Some have served to highlight the power and status of the elite, and others to subjugate or appease the downtrodden. Drinks have been used to celebrate births, commemorate deaths, and forge and strengthen social bonds; to seal business transactions and treaties; to sharpen the senses or dull the mind; to convey life-saving medicines and deadly poisons. 

As the tides of history have ebbed and flowed, different drinks have come to prominence in different times, places and cultures, from stone-age villages to Ancient Greek dining rooms or Enlightenment coffeehouses. Each one became popular when it met a particular need or aligned with a historical trend: in some cases, it then went on to influence the course of history in unexpected ways. Just as archaeologists divide history into different periods based on the use of different materials — the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, and so on — it is also possible divide world history into periods dominated by different drinks. Six drinks in particular — beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and cola — chart the flow of world history. Three contain alcohol and three contain caffeine, but what they all have in common is that each drink was the defining drink during a pivotal historical period, from antiquity to the present day.

Beer was first made in the Fertile Crescent and by 3000 BC was so important to Mesopotamia and Egypt that it was being used to pay wages. In ancient Greece, wine became the main export of a vast seaborne trade, helping to spread Greek culture abroad. After the fall of Rome, spirits such as brandy and rum, made using a process devised by Arab alchemists, fueled the Age of Exploration, fortifying seamen on long voyages and oiling the pernicious slave trade. Coffee also originated in the Arab world and went on to inspire scientific, financial and political revolutions in Europe during the Age of Reason, when coffeehouses became centres of intellectual exchange. And hundreds of years after the Chinese began drinking tea, it became especially popular in Britain, with far-reaching effects on British foreign policy. Finally, though carbonated drinks were invented in 18th-century Europe they became a 20th-century phenomenon, and Coca-Cola in particular is the leading symbol of globalization.

This book argues that each drink is a form of disruptive technology, a catalyst for advancing culture which demonstrates the intricate interplay of different civilizations. Read this book, and you may never look at your favourite drink the same way again.

See also: “Six Glasses” Frequently Asked Questions

“Tom Standage’s bright idea really is bright: a book that divides world history into beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola Ages. His book is loaded with the kind of data that get talked about at the figurative water cooler… incisive, illuminating and swift.” — The New York Times

“The six glasses in the title allow Standage to tell a zippy narrative around the sequential appearance of various beverages… Vivid and accessible… Many of these stories have been told before… but not with Standage’s populist panache.” —The New Yorker

“Tom Standage’s highly enjoyable chronicle of six beverages that have shaped human destiny is as refreshing as a cool glass of beer on a hot day and as stimulating as that first cup of coffee in the morning… there aren’t many books this entertaining that also provide a cogent crash course in ancient, classical and modern history. In breezy but unfailingly intelligent prose, ‘A History of the World in 6 Glasses’ links each drink to a major social or technological development. Throughout, the author underpins provocative cultural commentary with solid economic and political information.” — The Los Angeles Times

“The book boils through history, effervescing a discipline that some find dry; it spikes the juice of scholarship. (And the epilogue may put you off drinking bottled water ever again!)” — The Washington Times

“A clever, tight retelling of human history as it refracts through six beverages… Standage’s writing flows like water: crisp, clear and deceptively simple. Foodies and readers fond of quirky cultural histories will enjoy this book.” — The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Ingenious… Other historians have applied a similar approach to the history of staples like sugar and salt, but Standage’s use of different drinks is all his own, and he combines a lively writing style with a wonderful collection of anecdotes. His book sparkles like champagne.” — The Montreal Gazette

“Spirited arguments — mixed with more than a splash of historical evidence — present a cogent case for how civilization has evolved through millennia of sippage… Standage stirs up a fun and engaging romp without spilling a drop.” — Wired

“An easy and agreeable read, never seeming discursive or unwieldy, despite the vast amount of ground it covers. I’ll happily raise my glass to that.” — New York Newsday

“Standage has a talent for compressing and enlivening arcane material… a clever way of pulling together many of the main points of world history around the technology and commerce of drink… an enjoyable and enlightening book, so drink up!”— The American Scholar

“Standage’s historical division works fantastically well. His history of the technology and culture of quenching our thirst is a thought-provoking look at what we drink today and how it offers insight into our past.” — The Toronto Star

“Standage starts with a bold hypothesis — that each epoch, from the Stone Age to the present, has had its signature beverage — and takes readers on an extraordinary trip through world history. The Economist’s technology editor has the ability to connect the smallest detail to the big picture and a knack for summarizing vast concepts in a few sentences. In and around these grand ideas, Standage tucks some wonderful tidbits — on the antibacterial qualities of tea, Mecca’s coffee trials in 1511, Visigoth penalties for destroying vineyards — ending with a delightful appendix suggesting ways readers can sample ancient beverages.” — Publishers Weekly

“Technology historian Standage follows the flow of civilization as humanity guzzles a half-dozen prime beverages. He offers a distilled account of civilization founded on the drinking habits of mankind from the days of hunter-gatherers to yesterday’s designer thirst-quencher. History, along with a bit of technology, etymology, chemistry and bibulous entertainment. Bottoms up!”— Kirkus