“Six Glasses” FAQ

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.

34 thoughts on ““Six Glasses” FAQ

  1. I’m doing a presentation using 6 Glasses at the World History Conference in Salem MA. I use 6 Glasses in my classroom. I am presenting as part of a panel entitled Merchants of Inebriation. Program is available at http://www.thewha.org.

    I would like your permission to use several of your blog posts in the lesson introduction I am writing for teachers who might use the lesson.

    I will be honored to provide you a copy of the completed lesson. I’ve just ordered Edible History, so I may even include some references to it.

    1. Fine with me! I’m glad to hear you find my 6 Glasses book helpful, and I hope you like Edible History.

  2. Hi! Our local library has your book checked out until the first of April but there’s a rumor that you’ve quoted John Ciardi in it. The whole “fermentation and civilization are inseparable” thing. I’ve been trying to track down the poem in which he said that but I’m having no luck. Were you able to find it? All that I can find is that it is attributed to him but not when/where he actually wrote it.

    1. I’ve simply quoted him saying that as an epigraph. I can’t remember where it came from — possibly another book on drinking — but I don’t have the entire poem from which it comes, if that is where it comes from. Sorry!

  3. Hi! I have been suggesting to many friends that they read your book, and one friend in particular brought up a question about your reference to “date palm wine”. She has spent many years in Africa, and is familiar with palm wine as it exists today, but was curious about wine made from dates. We weren’t able to find any references to wine made from dates, only to wine made from date palm sap. Can refer us to a source for info about wine made from dates, and not from the fermented sap of date palms?

    1. Thanks for your comment. I refer in the book to date-palm wine, made from fermented date syrup. I should probably have said sap, not syrup. I didn’t mean to imply that the wine was made from the dates themselves.

  4. I can only find five drinks you mention…(Beer, Wine, Coffee, Tea, and Cola) am I crazy or just oblivious?

    1. The six drinks are beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and cola. Spirits includes eau de vie, brandy, rum and whisky. (Figuring out that I ought to do spirits as a single drink — since they all rely on the technology of distillation — was a crucial step in structuring the book.)

  5. DOES ANYBODY HAVE THE ANSWERS TO THE A.P. World History Summer Assignment for 2010?
    That would help me TONS!

    Here are the questions from the Assignment:
    1. According to Standage, how did the Fertile Crescent get its name?
    2. How is beer production an example of plant domestication?
    3. What effect did storing grain have on hunter-gatherer societies?
    4. How was beet used by the Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations?
    5. How did farming pave the way for the emergence of civilization?
    6. What did drinking wine symbolize in ancient Greece?
    7. What role did wine play at the symposium?
    8. What did drinking wine symbolize in ancient Rome?
    9. What was a convivium and how did it reflect social status?
    10. Why do Christians drink wine and Muslims do not?
    11. From which advance civilization did Europeans get the “science” of making spirits?
    12. In what ways was the “discovery” and use of distillation important to the rebirth of science in Europe?
    13. How did spirits advance/accelerate colonialism?
    14. In the 18th century, how did spirits help Britain become a more superior navy than France?
    15. How did spirits help build America? (from getting the colonies off the ground to establishing our independence to the consolidation of power by the Federal government?
    16. What were the negative effects/use of spirits?
    17. Who did Europeans get coffee from and how did it spread to Europe?
    18. What was the significance of people switching from alcohol to coffee?
    19. Describe coffee’s effect on the global balance of power (in terms of commerce).
    20. How did coffee play a pivotal role in the scientific revolution?
    21. How did coffee play a role in the “financial revolution”?
    22. How did coffee play a role in the French Revolution?
    23. “If the sun never set on the British Empire, then it was always __________ somewhere.”
    24. What were the health benefits of tea?
    25. Which conquering people established the largest contiguous land empire in history?
    26. Compare and contrast Europe with China in terms of balance of trade, civilizations, etc.
    27. How did the relationship between the government of Britain and the British East India Company change over time?
    28. What was American’s unique contribution to manufacturing?
    29. Why is the 20th century referred to as “the America century”?
    30. How did Coca Cola become an American icon?
    31. What was meant by Cola-Colonization?
    32. Is Coca Cola an appropriate symbol of globization? Why or why not?
    33. What evidence does Standage use to support his thesis that water has emerged as the beverage of the future?
    34. Do you agree with his thesis? Explain and provide rationale.

    1. Here’s a radical thought. The answers to all of these questions are in the book. You could always read it! It’s not very long.

      1. oh that makes me laugh 🙂 thank you tom standage! i read your book for 9th grade summer assignment and really enjoyed it even though i went in with a terrible attitude and procrastinated until i only had a week to finish it. So thank you for making the book pleasurable to read.

  6. hi i read your book this summer for my upcomming ap world history class and was wondering if water is the global drink of the future? and what ways would you like your book to be used in a world history class room? thanks for your time

    1. Thanks for your message. Yes, I still think water is the drink most closely aligned with the forces that will shape human destiny in the 21st century. For example, as I observe in the book, climate change will alter the patterns of precipitation and agriculture, for example, possibly leading to wars over access to water and fertile land. As to your second question; I am thrilled that my book is being used to teach world history, and to make people think about history in new ways; that was my intention when I wrote it. Best, Tom.

  7. Dear Tom,

    I did read your book in a German translation and I liked it a lot.

    I have only one comment on a specific point on beer production, which is given falsely at least in the German translation (2nd edition from 2007, Artemis&Winkler).
    In the appendix “Searchin for old beverages” it is explained, that “beer” is made with hop and “ale” without. That this is the difference between two types of beer, and sorry I know only the German expression “obergärig” and “untergärig”, i.e. beer types where after the fermentation the yeast is on top of the beverage or on the bottom of the tub.
    But clearly this is not the case. The type of yeast is the reason for these two different beer types and not the adition of hop which is in both types, i.e. both the beer and the ale is normally made with hop. I think, this fault is not a translation problem and should be corrected for the next edition.

    Another point should be adapted as well, it is the following sentence in a book printed in 2007: “According to demografic studies more than half of the world population will live in towns in 2007”. This is in the Epilog.

    Again congratulations for this book and I will read others from you and sincerely Ernst

    1. Thanks for your comment. In the appendix I am referring to the distinction made in the medieval period between hopped beer (beer) and unhopped beer (ale). Obviously that is not how the terms are used today; instead we use beer as a general term, nearly all beer contains hops, and we distinguish (as I note in the next sentence) between top-fermented beers (ale) and bottom-fermented ones (lagers). So the use of the word “ale” has changed. I did not mean to imply that the medieval usage still pertains today. Best, Tom.

  8. Dear Tom,
    I read this book for school, and to be honest at first I thought it was just going to be one of those school books that I have to force my self to read. Although as I went along, I began to enjoy it, and realized that each drink truly does have a unique story. Thanks for this book!

    Would you say that each drink describes different time period? If so what would be the time period for each?

    1. I’m glad you liked it. I suppose the time periods are something like:
      Beer 10,000 BC – 870 BC
      Wine 870 BC – 1000 AD
      Spirits 1000 AD – 1660
      Coffee 1660 – 1789
      Tea 1789 – 1886
      Cola 1886 – 2005
      Water 2005 –
      Of course, they overlap in several places. I listed the dates on the contents page at one stage, but took them off.

      1. Thanks! I just have one more question sorry, what would you say was happening in Greece and Rome during the emergence of wine? I guess I’m just trying to figure out that time period because everything else seems to have a general category it fits into, like coffee and the age of reason.

      2. Um… that would cover the golden age of Greece and Rome! The height of Greco-Roman culture!

  9. Hello Tom!

    First off, congratulations on your book being such a success.
    I’m sure a large portion of the success comes from students like me reading it for a History class.

    I guess I’ll just say it without pretense. I have to write an essay answering the question, “How is the idea of ‘civilized’ used in the book?”

    I’ve read the book carefully and took notes on each chapter, so I hope I’m not accused of being lazy. It’s just that your book is a history book, and I’m not sure if YOU used the idea of civilization in a particular way. I would assume any reference of civilization in the book would be how a certain culture (e.g. the Romans) viewed it, not you.

    Can you help me out here, Tom?

    1. Thanks for your message. I saw that question and wondered what answer was expected. I suppose I’d say that “civilised” is used in a couple of ways. Firstly, there’s the Mesopotamian pride in being beer-drinking city-dwellers; that meant they were civilised in a way that other peoples (ie, hunter-gatherers) were not. Then the definition of civilised, at least as it relates to drink, shifts under the Greeks and Romans; wine is civilised, and beer is not. Wine is more sophisticated, and each stratum of society has its own wine — even the slaves at the bottom of the pile. The Romans were so civilised, indeed, that even slaves drank a sort of wine (a drink reserved for the elite in Mesopotamia and Egypt). Later on, the British associate tea and tea-drinking with their own brand of civilisation. So drinks are used as symbols of sophistication and civilisation in all these cases; but the drinks in question, and the contexts in which they are consumed, are rather different.

      1. Ah, you put it into a whole new perspective for me. I didn’t think drinks besides wine (Romans condescending to those who did not drink wine) could symbolize sophistication. Thanks a lot!

  10. Hi Tom!
    I really enjoyed reading your book, but I have a few questions about the drinks you used. Is there any specific reason why milk in particular didn’t make it in the book, or are the reasons the same as chocolate, gin, cider, and mead? Also, why did you chose to leave water out until the very end? It could have been the drink of the past, as well as the drink of the future.

    1. Good questions. I didn’t think milk was historically important, and its production doesn’t require human intervention (unlike my six drinks). As for water, my point was that beer and the other drinks became popular, in part, because they were safer alternatives to water, a point I make right at the start. Today we know how to make water safe. So we’ve come full circle — water is the zeroth and the seventh drink. As I put it, “The history of drinking has come right back to its source.”

  11. Mr. Standage,

    Thank you for your book you have written. It really was an exciting book for me to read as teacher of history at the high school level. Recently, I just got a class set donation to my class from donors choose (www.donorschoose.org), and I am designing a research project based around your book, where the students will research a beverage of their choosing (gatorade, horchata, etc.). Also, I am working on getting a school set of kindles donated with your book on each one to help them with this project at http://responsibly.com/campaign/mr-skinner-needs-kindles-follow-history-through-6-cups. I was reading your FAQ above, and was wondering what are some other drinks (non-alcoholic) that you would be fun things for students to research.

    1. Thanks for you kind words. Other non-alcoholic drinks that may be worth investigating, but are not covered in my book, include iced tea, hot chocolate, root beer, Dr Pepper, 7Up and ginger beer. I didn’t include milk or fruit juices because they occur naturally in a read-to-drink form; all these other drinks require human intervention, which is where the interesting social and cultural influences come into play.

  12. Dear Tom,
    I have read your book over the summer. And i was just wondering if you had mentioned any way beer relates to politics and i just missed it…. but if you didn’t can you please help me find a relation. Thanks!

    1. Well, in the book beer is associated with agricultural surplus/centralisation/bureaucracy. Politically, the “beer era” covers the shift from egalitarian hunter-gatherers to a top-down, stratified society dominated by a small ruling elite. I actually go into this in more detail in “Edible History”, in part 2; how agriculture leads to societal stratification and the division into rich and poor.

  13. Hi,
    Like pretty much everyone else here, I really liked the book and am intending to read edible history when I have a bit more free time. I also had a student do a project based on the book, and he came up with some interesting material on coca-cola’s operations in Europe during the second world war. However, I have a question about the second beverage — wine. It seems to me that wine is more a product of Mediterranean history than world history. As far as I know, making an alcoholic beverage from grapes wasn’t popular in China or India at that time. I think they made grain alcohol and fermented the juices of other fruits.
    Lots of places made beer or beer-like substances (you can make beer from sorghum), and once global trade was established, spirits, coffee, tea and cola could all be global beverages, but wine seems really regional to me.
    Is there any other beverage you can think of that might fit into that time period (roughly 1000 BC to 1000 AD)? Or is the fact that at least some grape wine was being made outside the Mediterranean enough to make this the “wine age?”

    1. It’s a fair criticism that wine’s significance is rather regional. Wine was important in the Mediterranean but not in China or India at the time. So calling that period the “wine age” is Eurocentric of me. Guilty as charged!

  14. I liked the book, even though I didn’t think I would, but why must teachers assign so much work on it? I lost most my summer on this book. I have worked non-stop for the past two weeks and am still not done. Then I learned today my teacher stole the questions off the internet. I enjoyed the book, but I’m not sure I will think twice about burning it and the assignment because of the mental, physical, and social pain it has caused me.

  15. Mr. Standage,
    Hi! I just wanted to say that I am in the process of reading your book, and I am really enjoying it. Reading this is part of a summer assignment for my AP Euro course, and if I am being completely honest I don’t know that it is something I would have sought out on my own- but I’m extremely glad that I got the chance to read it. I have always found history fairly intriguing but oftentimes reading material for school is less than exciting, so when I started reading your book I was pleasntly surprised. I had never considered how much of an impact drinks had on the course of history, and it is interesting to read about how various beverages inspired different changes within society. Thank you for making my summer work more bearable and opening my eyes to a new aspect of human history!

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