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A History of the World in 6 Glasses

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage.

This got recommended at Lunacon at more than one panel I was at.  The title is a bit hyperbolic.  The six drinks discussed are indeed significant in the history of beverages, and their adoption occured at otherwise historically significant times, but sometimes they were just harbringers, or even merely coinciding -- though sometimes they were indeed movers and shakers in history.  Then, the drinks by themselves can be fascinating.

Beer is the first, and obviously, the least well-documented, since it predates writing.  We don't even know if mead or wine might have been actually first.  But we have archeological evidence of humanity's beginning to harvest grains and store them, and soon after, they must have made two discoveries.  One is that grain that is wetted and allowed to start sprouting becomes sweet -- a rare treat in that time.  The other was that a mix of water and grain would, after a few days, become alcoholic.  Great stuff, because it was safer than water to drink, and when drunk before the fermentation ended, would contain suspended yeast, full of good nutrition.  "Beer and bread" were standard for laborers, and Enkidu's savage state was marked by a lack of knowledge of those two dishes.  Beer making advanced with such discoveries as keeping on using the same tub made better beer -- it would contain yeast from the last time.  And we have very early pictures of two men drinking from a pot with straws, necessarily because of all the flotsam in the drink.  Mesopatmia treated drunkness more humorously, and Egypt more gravely, with many injunctions against it, but both civilizations drank.  (I think some of this is more speculative than it is treated.)

Later, they also started to drink "the beer of the mountains" or wine.  There was a time when it was fantasically expensive, and people would float it down river from the mountains and then break up the rafts and sell them for a tenth of what they had originally cost, because the price of the wine would justify it, and for a few centuries it was tribute, but it grew less expensive, partly because the Greeks were shipping it everywhere.  (Whereupon he goes into the technicalities of feasting and wine with Romans and Greeks -- the Romans would graduate the vintages at a feast by status, and once a man was caught because his host sent out a slave to buy a better vintage because he could not give his high status guest his own wine.)  And the continuation of wine throughout the Middle Ages.

Which also saw the development of alchemy, and the refinement of distilling arts until we get spirits.  And its connection with the slave trade.  And its discovery of rum -- handily made from the byproducts of making sugar.  Great Britain tried to ban the importation of molasses from the French islands to the American colonies, which would have raised prices and limited supplies, because the molasses from the British islands was not only inferior but insufficient for the amount of rum drunk.  Not that America didn't have its own problems, especially when people inland began turning to whisky, which needed local, not imported, ingredients.

Coffee was discovered in Arabia, where some people tried to ban it as an intoxicant for its mental effects.  And spread to Europe despite horrors from occasional physicians.  Boiling the water made it, like all the alcoholic drinks, safer than water, and it was very popular with the information classes of the day, the expanding class of clerks, for instance.  Coffee houses became important centers of trade and discussion, and even scientific lectures.  The Stock Exchange began in a coffee house, though they had to leave when a broker complained of exclusion from a public location.

Tea was introduced to England by Charles II's bride, and it took a while to really take off, because it was more expensive, but it did manage.  It was even better than coffee, because of its anti-bacterial properties which meant that even boiling the water had some help.  The age of its discovery in China was somewhat exaggerated in the records, and for a time under the Monguls, it was not as important because the emperors prefered their own drinks, but it spread again after that dynasty.  It also spread in England, where a merchant named Twinings actually opened a tea store next to his coffee shop so women, who couldn't go into the coffee shop, could buy the tea.  His company's logo is still in use -- the oldest continually used logo.  Tea lead to other effects, too, such as that which the tea tax had the American colonies (though it didn't cause tea to be supplanted by coffee, because the supply was restored after the war ended, and not until the mid-nineteenth century did coffee take over), and the opium trade to China, because the East India Company was finding the rising price of silver cutting into its profits, and China was not interested in other goods.  And then the company began to raise tea in India, devastating the China tea trade, and contributing to China's instability.

And finally there is Coca-Cola, originally a patent medicine made by a man who promulgated a lot of them, and urgently needed a temperance one -- without alcohol.  It depended on the invention of sparkling waters, which were first treated as medicinal, and then sold with flavors but still with the virtuous aura.  It's no accident that soda fountains were a feature of drug stories.  Coca-Cola spread quickly part because they just sold the syrup and the druggists loved it.  Then, as a headache remedy, it had an intristically limited audience.  It went for Refreshing, instead.  The Pure Food and Drug Act at first looked good for it, removing some rivals, but then there was a big law suit accusing it of being contaminated by containing caffeine -- and sold to children, even, unlike tea or coffee.  They won.  The judge ruled that it was not a contaminant because it was part of the recipe.  Still, Coca-Cola agreed not to use children in its ads, which help explain its use of Santa Claus in ads.  Whereupon it managed to weather the repeal of Prohibition, and the Depression, and a new rival,  During World War II, they were setting up plants on the military bases so that service men could get it as the standard price.

It concludes with an epilogue about bottled water -- back to the beginning, when we had no other beverages.

There have been a lot of interesting wrinkles in the history of drinks.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 5th, 2012 02:54 am (UTC)
I listened to this as an audiobook and really enjoyed it. Very interesting! I also listened to An Edible History of Mankind by the same author. It was really good, too, although longer and drier toward the end.
Apr. 6th, 2012 12:49 am (UTC)
sounds cool
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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