A History of the World in Six Glasses

sixglassesA History of the World in Six Glasses
by Tom Standage
2005 / 311 pages
rating 9 – history

Standage is not an historian but rather he calls himself a journalist and author. He specializes in comparing historical events and issues to today’s business methods and technology. (See The Victorian Internet or The Writing on the Wall.). But that’s not what A History of the World in Six Glasses is about. Rather, this book is about how six of the beverages we drink have influenced world history as we know it – or vice versa?

Easy to read, smooth and refreshing, but not watered down and not sweetened – that about describes Standage’s very interesting book, A History of the World in Six Glasses. The “glasses” included in the narrative are beer (Egypt and Mesopotamia) wine (Greece and Rome), distilled spirits (Colonials), coffee (Age of Reason), tea (the British Empire) and soda (America).

On a personal note, I no longer drink alcoholic beverages, although they’re interesting, but zi very, VERY much enjoy a good cup of black coffee or tea – Russian Caravan, oolong, Earl Grey.


sipping beer through straws

The book at least partially lives up to it’s name – it is a very brief world history told in generally chronological order and from a Western point of view. Still, focusing on the drinking patterns of the West is certainly a different perspective and the relationship to world history is made clear.


Coca-Cola Santa

Yes, there’s plenty of “routine” material included to make the tie-in as well as fascinating tidbits of new (to me) material – the specifics about the actual drinks and the impact such things as a ” fine tea service” had on the Industrial Revolution. but I guess that was the point of the book? There’s also a fair amount of debunking included, the origin of tea, coffee in the colonies and the red-suited Coca-Cola Santa Claus to name a few.

One thing Standage doesn’t mention is that coke has half the caffeine of tea and tea has half that of coffee – all of medium strength (generic) and without milk or sugar.

Overall, though, the presentation is so well-done I was often just spell-bound,
enjoying one sentence after another about an intriguing subject and I’d say this book is a good choice for almost anyone from the person with just a tiny interest in history to the academic who enjoys a peek outside his specialty.

There are some nice photos included, a plus. But on the downside, and yes, I guess there has to be one, the source notes are barely adequate even for a “popular” history. I think this is because much of the material is general knowledge and as such really doesn’t need the “source note” kind of treatment. But he could have provided better specifics for the more esoteric beverage-related material even if Standage is not an historian and the book is not really meant for historians. This has to knock the book’s rating down a half-point, sad to say.bw

And I’d like to mention that although Standage is from England, I never found him to either extol the virtues of that country nor bash it, and I found him to be very even-handed about the US – a less than common trait among British writers. That said, the book is essentially West-ocentric in that it never really gives much space to Asia, Africa or South America.

Good reviews:  New York Times 


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