- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 25, 2005



By Tom Standage

Walker, $25, 311 pages


Histories come in every size, shape and color. A turgid treatise probes the dim past to discover Truth; a panegyric uses History to prove whatever point the orator picks. A history text can even gambol through the human story with a specific goal and aim “to demonstrate the complex interplay of different civilizations and the interconnectedness of world cultures.”

Tom Standage’s “History of the World in 6 Glasses” is such a romp, offering a systematic chronology of human affairs from a specific viewpoint — in this instance through a prism, the prism of drink. Mr. Standage posits that major moments or stages of civilization have had dominant beverages, potables that reflected technology and affected human character. He likewise argues that beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola in turn have altered or determined history.

It is an engaging thesis, slightly spurious but useful as an organizing principal, a vehicle for approaching history per se. Mr. Standage’s primer on the first major cusp — the prehistoric/historic divide — argues that recorded time was launched (one might say lubricated) by the invention of beer. This in turn resulted from the domestication of cereals. Civilization — “living in cities” by his definition — resulted from the use of grains which were only marginally useful for hunter-gatherers because they cannot be consumed as they grow in nature but must be processed: collected ear by ear, husked, cooked.

Mixed with water, grain becomes gruel which is edible itself. Thick gruel spilled on a hot rock or left in the sun, becomes bread; thin gruel left in any container ferments into beer. In either case, raw grass becomes edible, nutritious; it can be stored for use later. As beer becomes important nutritionally to a little community, it gets woven into the social fabric. Coming full circle, as proto-agriculture enabled beer, beer advanced agriculture and thus civilization. “Farming paved the way for the emergence of civilization by creating food surpluses, freeing some members of society from the need to produce food and enabling them to specialize in particular activities and crafts, and so setting humanity on the path to the modern world,” writes Mr. Standage, a technology editor at The Economist.

“Storing surplus food in the storehouse was one way to ward off shortages … . Ritual and religious activity, in which the gods were called upon to ensure a good harvest, was another. As these two activities became intertwined, deposits of surplus food came to be seen as offerings to the gods, and the storehouses became temples … .”

One thing leads to another: “To ensure all villagers were pulling their weight, contributions to the common storehouse were recorded using small clay tokens, found throughout the Fertile Crescent from as early as 8000 BC. Such contributions were justified as religious offerings by administrator-priests who lived off the surplus food and directed communal activities,” in the author’s kaleidoscopic summary. “Thus were sown the seeds of accountancy, writing and bureaucracy.”

Oversimplifications notwithstanding, Mr. Standage’s six examples are instructive as he draws tangents to illuminate, for example, the public health benefits of several beverages as they gained wide use. Because of their alcohol content, beer and wine deterred some waterborne diseases. Likewise the tannins in tea have profound antibiotic properties; he suggests the beverage that reached England around 1650 and inundated the nation within a century virtually eradicated dysentery from London by 1796.

In the realm of economics, he argues the demand for tea became a principal market force that drove the growth of the British Empire, while the consumption of this stimulant in the place of intoxicating beer hydrated a more sober and productive work force in the new mills that powered the industrial revolution. Too bad this simplifying view avoids complicating factors, such as gin, which also flooded Britain with staggering effect among workers.

Speaking of spirits, Mr. Standage focuses on whiskey, which became a product of choice for farmers in the young United States in part because it increased efficiency in marketing grain. Farmers recognized long before our Whiskey Rebellion that a packhorse could carry four bushels of raw grain to market but 24 bushels in distilled form. In a nation chronically short of specie, the stuff first made from corn in Bourbon County, Kentucky, served as cash. “Even clergymen were paid in whiskey.”

How soon we let our own prejudices blur the facts of our origins; witness John Adams’ testimony about the role of rum in the birth of the nation: “I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence.” Likewise Mr. Standage reveals that George Washington oiled his campaign for the House of Burgesses with “twenty-eight gallons of rum, fifty gallons of rum punch, thirty-four of wine, forty-six of beer and two of cider — in a county with only 291 voters.” (Yes, and Mount Vernon produced whiskey later.)

Most of Mr. Standage’s chosen drinks had their strongest effects in economic terms, particularly trade, and he saves his most exhuberant narrative for the history of Coke, “unquestionably the drink of the twentieth century, and all that goes with it: the rise of the United States, the triumph of capitalism over communism, the advance of globalization … . As well as being associated with America, Coca-Cola also encapsulates the trend toward a single global marketplace: in a word, globalization.”

Tracing Coke’s evolution from a drugstore tonic to the world’s most recognized trademark, just as he had traced tea’s growth from exotic herb to ubiquitous balm, the book boils through history, effervescing a discipline that some find dry; it spikes the juice of scholarship. (And the epilogue may put you off drinking bottled water ever again!)

In sum, this is a gently didactic book, speculative history for layfolk, a selective sampler that offers some interesting insights if not a definitive study (albeit some of it told as soberly as an academic paper). That Mr. Standage uses an indefinite article, “A History … .” not “The History of the World… .” implies a reasonable perspective. Certainly one might study the course of human events through fruits, fabrics or modes of transportation, say A History of the World Via Kayak, Caravel, Rickshaw, Railroad Sedan and SST. So be it, this thesis happens to view instructively the panorama of history through drink; I say skoal!

Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press, Inc., is the author of a prehistory of North America and of an authoritative history of Colonial Williamsburg.

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