My sporadic campaign against bottled water continued this week in The Guardian, on Marketplace, and on KQED in San Francisco. My Guardian piece was a good opportunity to take in some of the ideas (such as water taxes and “ethical” water) that were suggested to me after the New York Times Op-Ed appeared. I was also able to make it clear that if you don’t like the taste of your tap water, the next step should be to try filtering it, rather than simply giving in and buying bottled water.

So far I have yet to hear a good argument in defence of bottled water, and I’m not surprised, since there isn’t one. One industry executive suggested to me that the bottled-water companies are really selling “portable hydration” rather than water. But even if this were a good reason to sell water in bottles (drinking fountains also provide portable hydration, as does tap water in a bottle) this does not account for all the bottled water sold. Yes, people buy water in small bottles on hot days. But the bulk of the industry’s sales surely come from people buying big bottles, six at a time, in the supermarket, to drink at home instead of tap water. Surprisingly, nobody has yet advanced what I consider to be the best argument in defence of bottled water, namely that in a consumer-capitalist economy, people should be free to make dumb purchasing decisions: buying dodgy personal-fitness equipment from late-night infomercials, for example. This, of course, is the argument advanced by the tobacco industry. And it’s true: people should be allowed to smoke themselves to death if they want to, or buy water that costs 10,000 times as much as tap water but is really no different, but only if they have all the facts. In the case of bottled water, most people don’t have all the facts. I am doing what I can to remedy that, and if the e-mails I’ve received are anything to go by, people who have more of the facts think again about buying bottled water.

Now for the mea culpa. When writing the Guardian piece I found an error in my NYT Op-Ed. I wrote: “Clean water could be provided to everyone on earth for an outlay of $1.7 billion a year beyond current spending on water projects, according to the International Water Management Institute. Improving sanitation, which is just as important, would cost a further $9.3 billion per year.” In fact, these figures are not to provide water and sanitation to everyone, but to meet the UN’s target of reducing lack of access by half by 2015. I should have written, as I did in the Guardian: “The UN’s goal of halving the number of people without access to clean water and sanitation by 2015 could be achieved for an outlay of around $11 billion a year beyond current spending on water projects, according to the International Water Management Institute.” Mea culpa.

Finally, I have to share a story sent to me by a reformed bottled-water drinker. When living in Paris with her husband, she used to keep a bottle of Evian in the fridge, and refill it from the tap when it ran low. One day her husband complained. “Damn it,” he said, “I wish you’d stop doing that. I can’t tell if it’s the good stuff or if…”. A funny look came over his face as he realised what he was saying, and after that they stopped buying bottled water.

I’ve had a lot of e-mail in response to my attack on bottled water, published as an Op-Ed in the New York Times (and the IHT, where you can still read it). Most people agreed with my stance. I heard from a dentist who pointed out that tap water has another advantage over bottled water that I did not mention: it contains fluoride which strengthens teeth. (That said, many people object to fluoridisation, for reasons I have never quite understood, particularly since some mineral waters contain higher levels of fluoride naturally.) A chemical engineer said he never drinks bottled water, since it is more likely than tap water to contain bacteria, and gets his children to refill water bottles from the tap. And a teacher wanted to know which water charity I recommended giving money to (my answer: Water Aid). Some people complained that their tap water tasted bad; fair enough, but I still recommend a blind tasting. Bottled water can taste bad too. Also, you could always try filtering your tap water. Other people noted that groundwater can be contaminated, so tap water is not always better than bottled water. True; but bottled water is not the answer to bad tap water, or is at least one of the least good answers I can think of. There are all kinds of clever filters being invented out there to deal with arsenic poisoning in particular. That kind of approach makes much more sense than resorting to expensive bottled water shipped around on lorries. I also heard about Ethos Water, an “ethical” bottled water firm; isn’t that a step in the right direction? So I have put answers to all these questions, and a few more besides — Where can you buy Roman wine? Why is my book not published in Britain? — on a new “Six Glasses FAQ” page.

One of the highlights of my recent American book tour was a visit to Starbucks HQ in Seattle. I explained about the coffeehouse internet, and the extent of coffee’s influence on the course of history. As I was leaving I went past the Starbucks Map, which shows how many Starbucks coffeeshops there are in different countries of the world. There are over 9,000, around 6,000 of which are in the US. Since the population of the US is around 300m, that means there is roughly one Starbucks for every 50,000 people. In Britain, in contrast, there are a mere 451 Starbucks coffeeshops. The population of Britain is around 60m, so that works out at one Starbucks for every 133,000 people. In other words, there’s probably room in the British market for twice as many Starbucks coffeeshops as there are at the moment. (Other chains also exist in both countries, of course.) You think that’s scary? In London in 1700, one authority puts the number of coffeeshops at 3,000. The city’s population at the time was around 600,000. So that’s one coffeeshop for every 200 people. The figure of 3,000 is dubious, though, since it comes from a single source. It seems likely that the real figure was more like 1,000. But that’s still a coffeeshop for every 600 people. What is the point of all this number crunching? Simply this. If you think today’s cities are overrun by coffeeshops — something I don’t have a problem with, by the way — the situation 300 years ago was far, far worse. (This all occurred to me today as I was filming with an American TV crew at the Jamaica Wine House — a London pub on the site of the city’s first coffeehouse, established in 1652. They even have an original advertising handbill from that year, “The Vertue of the Coffee Drink”, hanging on the wall.)

I’m a week into my book tour, and things seem to be going well. I’ve done 17 radio interviews, three television interviews, three print interviews and four signings in the past seven days. I’ve been favourably reviewed in The New York Times and got as high as #168 on and #69 on — not that I’ve been checking obsessively, you understand. Amazingly, I got my samples of stone-age beer, Roman wine and sailor’s grog through both Canadian and US customs, and have even managed to get a couple of radio hosts to taste them on air. I squeezed in some sightseeing in Washington, DC (thanks, Kevin) and some holiday with my family in New York. I’ve been lucky enough to find Ommegang beers in several places. Most of all, though, I’ve enjoyed hearing people’s reactions to the book and fielding questions about it.

One type of question comes up quite often: why didn’t I include mead, chocolate, gin, cider or some other drink in the book? It’s a good question. 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. But perhaps I should write that appendix after all.

So, I’m about to go on the road promoting “A History of the World in Six Glasses” in the US and Canada for a couple of weeks. This will mainly involve lots of radio interviews, but also a few bookstore appearances. At some of these events I’ll have samples of ancient beer, Roman wine and grog available for tasting — local licensing laws permitting, that is. And assuming I can get the samples across the Atlantic and through customs without incident. Here are the dates, if you want to come and try them. My favourite is the Roman wine made with sea water.

May 30 – Toronto (University of Toronto Bookstore, 7.30pm
May 31 – Washington, DC (Olsson’s Bookstore, 7pm
June 2 – Boston (Newton Free Library, Newton, MA, 7.30pm) 
June 4 – New York (BookExpo America, Jacob Javits Convention Center, 4pm) 
June 6 – Seattle (Village Books, Bellingham, WA, 7.30pm) 
June 7 – Seattle (University Bookstore, 7pm
June 8 – La Jolla (Warwick’s Bookstore, 7.30pm
June 10 – Calgary (McNally Robinson Bookstore, 8pm)

I was interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered yesterday, mainly about beer in the ancient world, since they were doing a segment on beer. Alas, I was unable to participate in the subsequent on-air tasting, since I did the interview from London. But I was glad to see that the tasting included Anchor Steam, one of my favourite American beers. (For the record, others include Anchor Liberty Ale, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Pyramid Hefeweizen, and anything by Ommegang.) Anchor beer was appropriate for another reason: Fritz Maytag, head honcho at Anchor, is very interested in ancient beer and has recreated ancient Sumerian brews from the original recipes a couple of times. I visited him while researching the book, but he doesn’t have any Sumerian beer available for tasting any more, so I couldn’t taste it.

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