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A History of the World in Six Glasses

Cover of A History of the World in Six Glasses

A History of the World in Six Glasses

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Whatever your favourite tipple, when you pour yourself a drink, you have the past in a glass.

You can likely find them all in your own kitchen -- beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, cola. Line them up on the counter, and there you have it: thousands of years of human history in six drinks.

Tom Standage opens a window onto the past in this tour of six beverages that remain essentials today. En route he makes fascinating forays into the byways of western culture: Why were ancient Egyptians buried with beer? Why was wine considered a "classier" drink than beer by the Romans? How did rum grog help the British navy defeat Napoleon? What is the relationship between coffee and revolution? And how did Coca-Cola become the number one poster-product for globalization decades before the term was even coined?

From the Hardcover edition.
Whatever your favourite tipple, when you pour yourself a drink, you have the past in a glass.

You can likely find them all in your own kitchen -- beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, cola. Line them up on the counter, and there you have it: thousands of years of human history in six drinks.

Tom Standage opens a window onto the past in this tour of six beverages that remain essentials today. En route he makes fascinating forays into the byways of western culture: Why were ancient Egyptians buried with beer? Why was wine considered a "classier" drink than beer by the Romans? How did rum grog help the British navy defeat Napoleon? What is the relationship between coffee and revolution? And how did Coca-Cola become the number one poster-product for globalization decades before the term was even coined?

From the Hardcover edition.
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Excerpts-
  • Introduction Introduction

    Vital Fluids

    There is no history of mankind, there are only many histories of all kinds of aspects of human life.
    Karl Popper, philosopher of science (1902—94)

    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 to ensure an adequate supply of freshwater, since storing or carrying it was impractical. The availability of water constrained and guided human­kind's progress. Drinks have continued to shape human history ever since.

    Only in the past ten thousand years or so have other beverages emerged to challenge the preeminence 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 beverages 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 lifesaving 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 to divide world history into periods dominated by different drinks. Six beverages 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 one was the defining drink during a pivotal historical period, from antiquity to the present day.

    The event that set humankind on the path toward modernity was the adoption of farming, beginning with the domestication of cereal grains, which first took place in the Near East around ten thousand years ago and was accompanied by the appearance of a rudimentary form of beer. The first civilizations arose around five thousand years later in Mesopotamia and Egypt, two parallel cultures founded on a surplus of cereal grains produced by organized agriculture on a massive scale. This freed a small fraction of the population from the need to work in the fields and made possible the emergence of specialist priests, administrators, scribes, and craftsmen. Not only did beer nourish the inhabitants of the first cities and the authors of the first written documents, but their wages and rations were paid in bread and beer, as cereal grains were the basis of the economy.

    The flourishing culture that developed within the city-states of ancient Greece in the first millennium BCE spawned advances in philosophy, politics, science, and literature that still underpin modern Western thought. Wine was the lifeblood of this...

About the Author-
  • Tom Standage is the technology correspondent for The Economist. His previous books include The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers and The TURK: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine. He lives with his wife and daughter in Greenwich, England.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from April 11, 2005
    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. He explains how, when humans shifted from hunting and gathering to farming, they saved surplus grain, which sometimes fermented into beer. The Greeks took grapes and made wine, later borrowed by the Romans and the Christians. Arabic scientists experimented with distillation and produced spirits, the ideal drink for long voyages of exploration. Coffee also spread quickly from Arabia to Europe, becoming the "intellectual counterpoint to the geographical expansion of the Age of Exploration." European coffee-houses, which functioned as "the Internet of the Age of Reason," facilitated scientific, financial and industrial cross-fertilization. In the British industrial revolution that followed, tea "was the lubricant that kept the factories running smoothly." Finally, the rise of American capitalism is mirrored in the history of Coca-Cola, which started as a more or less handmade medicinal drink but morphed into a mass-produced global commodity over the course of the 20th century. 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. 24 b&w illus. Agent, Katinka Matson.

  • The Gazette (Montreal)

    "Ingenious. . . . [Standage] combines a lively writing style with a wonderful collection of anecdotes. . . . His book sparkles like champagne."

  • Financial Post "A wonderful synthesis of the march of time. Standage has that uncanny ability so rare in a writer to connect the smallest details to sweeping changes in history."
  • The New York Times "Standage's bright idea really is bright. . . . Far from being frivolous, the author has legitimate points to make. . . [He] manages to be incisive, illuminating and swift."
  • The Toronto Star "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."
  • Winnipeg Free Press "Lucid [and] energetic. . . . In A History of the World in Six Glasses, Standage reaches beyond the commonplace to uncover universal significance. . . . Entertaining [and] thought-provoking."
  • Publishers Weekly "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."
  • Kirkus "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!"
  • Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman and The Map That Changed the World "Fascination, obsession, inquiry, storytelling, and literary magic at its best."
  • The New York Times Book Review "Standage is a terrific writer."
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    Doubleday Canada
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