Author Tom Standage uses six beverages as focal points for specific arcs of history. In chronological order of their introduction to Western history these are: beer, wine, distilled spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola. An epilogue looks at the paradox of the popularity of bottled water in industrialized countries where safe drinking water is already abundantly available as opposed to much of the developing world where often neither is readily available.
Drinks have closer connection to the flow of history than is generally acknowledged and a greater influence on its course… They survive in our homes today as living reminders of bygone eras, fluid testament to the forces that shaped the modern world. Uncover their origins, and you may never look at your favorite drink in quite the same way again. (pp. 5, 6)
Like beer, wine probably dates to Neolithic times, though its earliest associations are the classical world. The Greek symposium was ritualized wine drinking, mixing the wine with water to varying degrees depending on how serious the serious the discussion was expected to be.
The distillation process, known in the ancient world, was refined by Arabs around 1000 CE. It later provided sailors with potent alcoholic drinks that were easy to transport. Standage examines their role during the Age of Exploration and colonization—particularly rum, made with the byproducts of sugar cane refining.
In his discussion of coffee, Standage focuses on the rise of the coffeehouses in 17th and 18th century Europe, particularly in Great Britain. They functioned as a social network, with different establishments specializing in different areas—politics, finance, arts, etc. Men (and they were all men) could meet as social equals and exchange ideas and the news of the day. The author also ties these coffeehouses to the Age of Enlightenment and the American Revolution, though less convincingly.
Unlike the history of coffee, the history of tea before its European import is examined in some detail. Nevertheless, the emphasis is once again on tea in Great Britain and how it became an indicator of spreading British/European culture across the globe.
The last beverage is Coca-Cola, which the author sees as a vanguard of spreading of American consumer culture and industrialization.
This is a survey and not intended to be an in-depth study of the topic. It appears at times to be aimed at an audience not overly familiar with history or geography. For example, when discussing beer, which was probably first brewed in Neolithic Egypt and Mesopotamia, the author seems to want to make sure he and his readers are on the same page by explaining that Mesopotamia is the “the land between the streams,” the name given to the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers that roughly corresponds to modern Iraq. (p. 24)
This was by no means a bad book. Indeed, I found it quite interesting and enjoyed following drink as a cultural marker. It was just imbued at times with the feeling of having been written for 8th graders.
*An earlier version of this review appeared on Epinions. Material had been added and it had been rewritten.*