Start a discussion about history, and you’ll be mining a rich topic that runs the gamut of the human experience: battles and conquests, migration and survival, kings, queens, religion – you name it. One topic you probably won’t touch on, though, is beer. Or wine, coffee, tea, spirits, or Coke, for that matter.
It turns out that those six beverages (or at least the first four), had a huge impact on our survival and the development of our civilization. “A History of the World in 6 Glasses” by Tom Standage, is a great look at how beverages that we take for granted today were at the foundation of our development as a people. Beer and wine were accidental discoveries that provided the basis for early survival. Coffee took the place of beer as the morning beverage of choice, and tea laid the foundation for the English empire. But all of them played a fundamental role in the story of us, and how we became who and what we are today.
As we moved from hunter-gatherer to more urbanized settlements, one of the big problems became the disposal of waste and the subsequent contamination of water supplies. When you’re hiking through the jungle, any stream will do to quench your thirst, but as the population became more urban, drinking downstream from the neighbor created some real issues.
Beer was one of the earliest non-water beverages that was safer to drink than water. The fermentation process, and the alcohol content, negated the contamination that was very common in the population. Plus, it contributed to the nutritional well-being of the imbiber, which helped to improve general health. Wine also became an important beverage for the same reason – it was safer than water, and also provided benefits to the drinker in the form of polyphenols, anti-oxidants, and more.
The more fascinating of the four were coffee and tea. Because beer and wine were safer than water, and because they were fairly easy to produce, they were the drink of choice for a very long time- up until the late 16th century in Europe. Coffee originated in the Middle East, and became a fairly common drink in the 15th century. Up until that time, it was very common to start the day with a watered-down glass of beer, and to imbibe beer or wine as a beverage throughout the day.
Coffee changed that; as it became popular in Europe – especially in England, coffeehouses began to appear, and became the center of science, finance, and industry in a fairly short period of time. The reason (as we know today) was simple – a cup of coffee is stimulating, where a glass of beer is not. Men began to congregate in coffee houses to discuss business and the news of the day; coffee houses began to specialize in a particular area of knowledge, such as finance, marine affairs, science, and so on. Lloyds of London started in Edward Lloyd’s coffee house. The London Stock Exchange started in Jonathan’s Coffee House on Exchange Alley. In France, Joseph Priestly (“The Invention of Air”) met Benjamin Franklin and other notable scientists and philosophers in a coffee house.
Because coffee was made from boiled water, it was safer to drink than plain water, and because it stimulated rather than sedated, it became the drink of choice of business men and the intelligentsia alike.
Tea also played an important role in the rise of civilization and the foundation of our country; like coffee, it was safer to drink than water, and like coffee, it provided stimulation from its caffeine content. Tea played a large economic role in the rise of England to power, because it was such a valuable commodity. In the cities, women were not permitted in coffee shops; their venue of choice became the tea parlor, and the custom of afternoon tea became quite common. As the production of tea became more widespread, the cost came down, and it became the beverage of the workingman in England.
This is a great book for anyone interested in the minutia of history – of those things and events that played an important role in the rise of man, and the development of civilization. We tend to think of history as a grand movement from level to level, but – as this book aptly shows – history is more of a series of accidents and opportunities, from which greatness may (or may not) arise.
Best part of the book for me was finding out the truth about Coca Cola! Read it for yourself, and see.