Last September in Toronto, I was browsing in a bookshop (as you do) when I noticed a book called A History of the World in 6 Glasses. Looking at the blurb on the back, I learned that this was world history with a twist - the twist being that this book was the history of the world looked at through six beverages that have had a powerful influence on human history. I'd never heard of the author, who I presumed to be either Canadian or American. The book's premise sounded good, so I bought it.
I'd paid $21 for it; only later, when I read all of the blurb on the back, did I realise that the author, Tom Standage, is British (as well as several books, he has written for the Grauniad and the Torygraph). The book that I'd bought is published in Britain with a regular retail price of £9:99, and I didn't need to check the exchange rate to realise that by buying it in Canada I'd paid a little bit more for it!
Now I like the idea of history as seen via a specific item or set of items - somewhere in my book collection is a book about how cod changed the world, while the usually superb 'last word' section of The Week had an extract last week from a new book about how humanity has come to be heavily dependent on chicken. There are also books out there about how condiments like salt and sugar have changed the world.
Standage has chosen six drinks that between them tell the story of human history, from the Stone Age to the present day. The drinks are three alcoholic beverages and three caffeinated ones: Beer, wine, spirits (a rather vague term, but bear with him), coffee, tea and Coca-Cola (now we're into specifics), with two chapters on each. It's a brilliant read.
Beer, I learned, dates back to c.10,000 BC and was discovered in the area known as the Fertile Crescent - that part of the world (Egypt, up the Mediterranean coast to southern Turkey and across the Euphrates and the Tigris to the border between Iraq and Iran) where people first took up farming and established large-scale settlements. A crucial discovery at that time was that gruel made with malted grain (itself caused by the near-impossibility of storing grain in watertight storage pits) would, if left sitting around for a couple of days, ferment. Beer came to be a highly important beverage in ancient civilisations, and from the start the emphasis was on socialising - since its origins, beer has always been a social drink (although the ancient practice of people drinking it with straws out of a large pottery jar has fallen by the wayside) as well as being seen as a gift from the gods and as such used a lot in religious rituals - in Ancient Egypt, the story of a mix of water and fermented grain being left out in the sun was attributed to Osiris, who among other things was responsible for agriculture. The Ancient Egyptians were buried with, among other thing, beer (sieves for beer-making were found in Tutankhamen's tomb). It also contributed to the origins of writing; some of the earliest written documents are Sumerian wage lists and tax receipts on which the symbol for beer is one of the most common words.
The origins of wine are also lost in pre-history although it is said to have originated from the Zagros mountains (located in modern-day Armenia and northern Iran), where wild vines grew; Mount Ararat is nearby, so the Biblical story of Noah planting the first vineyard after the flood (and getting drunk on the results) does reflect wine's origins in this part of the world. Wine, though, came into its own in Ancient Greece where it was first produced on a large commercial scale and played a key role in the development of Western civilisation. The Greeks drank it mixed with water (only Dionysius, the god of wine - renamed Bacchus by the Romans - could drink it neat), and the symposia, where rational enquiry was pursued via adversarial discussion (the results, among other things, being the concept of democracy), were wine-fuelled. To the Romans, wine production was a sign of civilisation and in this respect it's worth noting that they planted vines wherever they went, which was how wine came to be first produced in Britain. It also became tied up with the origins of Christianity - Jesus's first miracle was turning water into wine, and wine was served at the Last Supper which in turn led to its central role in the Eucharist. Linked to this is a reaction against wine that came with the rise of Islam.
Ironically, it was in Arab-controlled Spain that wine started to be distilled, which brings our story to spirits (indeed, the word 'alcohol' is of Arabic origin). Originally used for medicinal purposes (hence why it was known as aqua vitae - water of life - which was translated into uisge beatha in Gaelic - the origin of the word 'whisky'). Distilled booze came into prominence during the Age of Exploration as spirits, being more compact than beer and wine, could be better transported on ships and so was used as a trading good, the taxation and control of which would have big implications on the course of history. The rise of sugar plantations in the West Indies led to the making of rum from the otherwise useless by-product that was molasses; it was given to newly-arrived slaves to subdue them and was adopted by the Royal Navy. Admiral Vernon hit upon the idea of diluting the daily rum ration with water and mixing it with sugar and lime juice - a primitive cocktail which became known as grog and led reduced instances of scurvy among sailors so dramatically that it allowed the Royal Navy to become the most dominant maritime force of the 18th and 19th centuries (and, incidentally, led to British sailors being nicknamed 'limeys'). Rum was also produced in the American Colonies, as importing molasses from the West Indies was cheaper than importing brandy and wine from Europe, and grain and vine production was sufficiently problematic to limit beer and wine production. The colonists mostly used molasses from the French islands (there was more of that), and the British government's attempts to force the colonists to import it from the British islands led to higher taxation of the French product, resulting in increased smuggling and also increased resentment against British rule.
At around the same time, another drink with origins in the Muslim world took Europe by storm. From the unknown Ethiopian goatherd who noticed the effect of the berries of a particular plant on his goats and reported this to his imam (or possibly the man from Mocha who claimed to have been guided to a coffee-plant in a vision), coffee became the social drink of choice in a civilisation where alcohol was banned, and in the seventeenth century it spread to Europe. Pope Clement VIII is said to have insisted on tasting it before approving it (appropriately, therefore, the first European to approve of coffee was Italian), and by the 1660s coffee-houses were big in London; despite attempts to suppress them, they were a hit and led to innovations such as the penny post (started because so many people used coffee-houses as a mailing address) and the publication of Newton's Principia - which resulted from a heated coffee-house discussion between Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren in 1684, the content of which was retold by Edmond Halley to Isaac Newton a couple of months later. As well as scientific advancement, the London coffee-houses also fuelled the world of finance; Lloyd's of London, one of the world's leading insurance markets, started out in a coffee-house, and Jonathan's Coffee House on Exchange, where stockbrokers met, became the Stock Exchange. Coffee made it out to the Americas thanks largely to a French naval officer called Gabriel de Clieu who unofficially took a cutting from the only coffee-plant in Paris (owned by Louis XIV) to the West Indies; he planted it at Martinique, and descendants of this plant later flourished throughout the region. Back in France, coffee powered the Enlightenment, coffee-houses being the meeting-place of choice for Parisian intellectuals; Voltaire, Rousseau and \Diderot were regulars at the Cafe Procope, which was also frequented by Benjamin Franklin. They became centres of revolutionary thought, and on 12th June 1789, Camile Desmoulins gave a speech outside the Cafe de Foy which led to the Storming of the Bastile two days later; the French Revolution had, quite literally, began in a coffee-house.
Tea, meanwhile, originated in China in or around c.2700 BC (the Emperor Shen Nung is credited with having been the first person to brew-up) and came to Europe during the Age of Exploration. It was introduced to England by Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese princess who married Charles II. He evidently preferred the company of several mistresses, but his wife had brought as part of her dowry a chest of tea (it was also as a result of this dowry that Bombay became an English possession). She loved the stuff, which quickly became fashionable among the upper classes as a result. By the end of the 1660s, the East India Company was importing tea from the Far East. Tea would remain a luxury item until well into the 18th century, but as it became more plentiful it became a hit with the rest of the population (in time, this would lead the British to develop tea plantations in India as a means of maintaining supply). When the Industrial Revolution started, mill-owners looking to increase productivity hit upon the idea of ensuring that the workers could have access to a drink that wasn't alcoholic and could fend off hunger during long shifts; thus was that great British institution known as the tea-break created. Over in America, resentment at both a tax on tea and the East India Company's monopoly on the tea trade led to increased smuggling, and when the British government slashed the tea tax a group of Boston smugglers (fearing for their livelihood) dressed up as Mohawks, forcibly boarded three of the Company's tea-carrying ships and emptied their contents into the harbour. Similar 'tea parties' followed; this led to the Coercive Acts which only served to enrage the colonists further, prompting the American Revolution.
The last of the six drinks is, appropriately for the 20th century, more of a brand than a drink. Invented in Atlanta in 1886 by a maker of patent remedies (ie. quack medicines - hugely popular in the US in the late 19th century) called Joseph Pemberton, Coca-Cola started out as a wine infused with coca leaves and kola nut extract; a non-alcoholic version was developed after the sale of alcohol was banned in Atlanta due to pressure from that singularly intemperate movement that was called temperance. Originally sold as a syrup to soda-fountain owners, it was first bottled in 1899 - following which, sales exploded as it could now be sold just about anywhere, and following a legal case in 1911 it was allowed to be sold to children - thus bringing caffeine to a group of people who previously hadn't drank tea and coffee. Father Christmas first appeared drinking the stuff in 1931 (although, contrary to what I'd previously thought, images of him wearing red pre-date this), and ity unexpectedly did well out of the ending of Prohibition by being promoted as a mixer. Then came the Second World War, during which wherever the GIs went, Coca-Cola went too. General Eisenhower was particular keen that this taste of home should be accessible to his soldiers, and bottling plants were set up at all American bases. By the end of the war, Coca-Cola had established itself on every continent. Even General Zhukov, the Soviet Union's greatest general, got the taste for it after he met with Eisenhower, although he had to have it a colourless version specially made for him so Stalin wouldn't find out. The cola wars followed (rivals Pepsi got a foot behind the Iron Curtain which Coca-Cola never managed, although this helped them to benefit from the fall of the Berlin Wall, and when Coca-Cola went into Israel to avoid a boycott by the Jewish community in the States, the Arab world went for Pepsi), and today Coca-Cola is not only one of the most recognised brand in the world, but it is apparently the second most commonly understood phrase in the world, after 'OK'.
Standage ends his superb book with an epilogue in which he looks to the future, and finds it in a drink that has defined human development but has at times seldom been drank in its pure form due to the fact that it has, for most of human history, been contaminated; water. Bottled water is the new big thing in the Western world, and in the developing world access to water remains a matter of life and death. It, more than anything else, is seen as the most likely source for future conflict in the Middle East (having previously been a crucial but largely overlooked factor in the Six Day War), while it is also seen as a potential source of conflict among the ex-Soviet states in Central Asia. But it can also promote co-operation, as seen by the agreements on the management of the Indus (India and Pakistan) and Mekong (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam) rivers.
This, in short, is a superb book that I cannot recommend highly enough. I'm not sure if I will ever look at certain drinks in the same way again.