A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage

The Kindle version of this book is on sale for $1.99 today (Aug 24)

A History of the World in 6 GlassesTakeaway: Most drinks have become popular because safe water was not available.  

It is interesting in the epilogue, that the author talks briefly about the rise of the bottled water.  It is ironic that at a time when water is safer than ever and easily available for more people that many people are now returning to water as a primary drink, but by purchasing the most expensive version of it.

This book is a look at six different drinks and their history.  The drinks are Beer, Wine, Distilled Spirits (a bit broad), Coffee, Tea and Coca-Cola.  On the whole this was an interesting book that gave lots of tidbits and thoughts about how these drinks affected history.

The problem with the book is that there was nothing that really tied the whole book together.  There could have been several over-riding themes, such as, rise of empires or nations and the relation to these drinks, or the lack of safe drinking water and the way that humans have adapted, or innovation and history of drinks.  This book was also very focused on the western, English-speaking world.  Asia was introduced, but only in relation to Europe and England in particular.

Each section seemed to have its own theme.  The beer chapter focused on beer as a reason for early settlements in the fertile crescent.  (Not a new argument for me, I first read about beer as a reason for the rise of civilization in God and Guinness.)  In the wine chapter, the focus was on the ceremony and way that Greek society viewed wine as a civilized drink that must be consumed in particular ways.  The Distilled Drinks chapter was a bit more scattered and introduced the problems of drunkenness, the connection to the slave trade, taxes, economics and early globalization problems.

The last three chapters (the caffeinated drinks as opposed to the alcoholic drinks) were more connected and focused on the rise of global empires that were associated with the drinks.  Coffee was associated with the rise of the Enlightenment and early European empires.  As people started keeping time and waking up for work at particular times, they started drinking coffee and a particular culture (one that primarily excluded women) arose around the coffeehouses that was different from the taverns.  Coffee houses were the basis of early stock exchanges, insurance houses, and revolutions.

The English empire was tightly bound with the rise of a Tea culture and it really was the first big product to be globalized.  Even the very poor were able to afford a product that was grown on the opposite side of the world by the late 19th century.

The Coca-Cola chapter was associated with the rise of the American global power but also associate with general western freedom and capitalism, not just America.  I have seen a couple of reviews that complained that this chapter was an advertisement for Coke instead of a history of colas in general.  There is some point to this, but Coca-Cola is the iconic soda.

It is interesting, and a point that I hadn’t really thought about before, that each of these drinks are inherently safer to drink than water (at the times the drinks were first becoming popular.)  Even small amounts of alcohol in a drink will help clean it of bacteria and other impurities.  Coffee had to be boiled, which killed off a lot of the bacteria and tea has a small antibiotic effect even if the water is not boiled (although it usually is).  And even now people that travel internationally drink soft drinks because that water may not be safe for them to drink directly.  Water really is important and the root of all of these drinks, but if it is not safe, water is a prominent way of distributing disease.

I don’t want to disparage the book too much.  If you like random facts and some history, you will probably enjoy the book.  But it could have been better.

Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook Note: Kindle Edition is only $1.99 right now and is lendable so you can look on Lendle. Also Audiobook is discounted to $2.99 with purchase of Kindle Book 

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