top of page

A History of the World in 6 Glasses: Book Review

A History of the World in 6 Glasses, Tom Standage (2005), specifically on beer, wine, rum (plus whiskey and other similar alcohol), coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola.

Chapter 1: Beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Beer probably did not exist before 10,000 BCE. It entered the archaeological record, pictograms, and written record in Mesopotamia, all by 6,000 years ago. A compelling piece of evidence was a pictogram from a seal in Mesopotamia showing two figures drinking beer through straws from a large pottery jar.

Mesopotamia was ideal for people, with strands of wild wheat and barley, plus wild sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle. Northern Africa (the “Green Sahara”) got hot and dry after the last ice age about 12,000 years ago and people migrated into the Fertile Crescent. Wild wheat and barley were made edible by pounding and then soaking in water. The grains have starch, which when heated releases starch into “gruel” which thickens it and make it palatable. Conveniently, the grain will keep for months as long at its stays dry. People improved how they collected, processed, and stored the grain. The ability to store large quantities encouraged people to stay in one place.

If the gruel was left sitting for days, it became a bit fizzy and intoxicating, basically a form of beer. Before pottery, the beer could be stored in baskets lined with pitch, leather bags, animal stomachs, bowls hollowed out of wood, large shells, or stone. Using the same container gave more reliable results, as the yeast took up residence. Beer was a social drink, with pictograms showing people drinking out of the same pot with straws. Early on, straws were useful given the sediment floating on top. But their use continued after filtering became common.

The process of fermentation must have seemed magical as did the intoxication. Beer must have been a gift from the gods. Egyptian mythology had Osiris preparing grain with water, forgetting about it after leaving it out in the sun. He returned to the gruel after it had fermented and was pleased with the taste. So, he passed it down to humans. That was probably how beer was discovered, but a god must get the credit.

“Tempting though it is to attribute the adoption of agriculture entirely to beer, it seems most likely that beer drinking was just one of many factors that helped to tip the balance away from hunting and gathering and toward farming” (p. 20). The beer was nutritious. The yeast improved the protein and vitamin content and, unlike water, was safe to drink. This was because the water was boiled as part of the process and the bacteria killed off various parasitic agents.

Farming spread in the Fertile Crescent as improved irrigation made farming possible over increasing areas and the number of plants grown expanded. Animals were domesticated beginning with sheep and goats. Conveniently they provided wool and milk, meaning fewer of them would be slaughtered for meat and skins. Pigs were not so lucky. Food storage was done in large communal buildings, suggesting that leaders had control over the food production and distribution. Records began with clay tokens.

Chapter 2: Civilized Beer. As cities grew larger and people more specialized, increasing numbers became elites (priests, rulers), craftspeople, proto-engineers, and administrators. The majority were still peasants working in the fields about at subsistence levels. “By 3000 BCE the city of Uruk, the largest of its day, had a population of around fifty thousand and was surrounded by a circle of fields ten miles in radius” (p. 24). According to legend, Gilgamesh was the ruler of Uruk. The Epic of Gilgamesh stressed the importance of beer and bread to distinguish them from barbarians. Effectively, they were methods of payment in lieu of money.

Standage belied surplus barley, wheat, sheep, and textiles were collected as offerings to the gods, effectively taxes paid to the elites. Much of this probably was used for municipal improvements like roads and improved irrigation, while some directly benefitted priests and rulers, including temples or ziggurats. Scribes (proto accountants) kept track first with tokens then clay tablets, inventing Cuneiform script in the process. The oldest written documents dated from 5400 years ago in Uruk. These records included standard rations of bread, beer, dates, and onions, plus some meat, fish, and additional vegetables like chickpeas, lentils, turnips, and beans.

In Egypt workers were paid in beer and bread. They would consume some and trade the rest using the barter system. The builders could have been farmers during the flood season.

Modern beer adds hops, which happened from the 12th to 15th century. Unhoppped beer is ale. Beer in sub-Saharan Africa probably is close to Neolithic beer, thick, opaque, where sorghum is soaked until it sprouts (malted), while unmalted grain is boiled into a thin gruel, then the malted sorghum added and left until it becomes alcoholic, then filtered. Egyptian beer came from malted barley and unmalted emmer.

Wine in Greece and Rome. Chapter 3: The Delight of Wine. Standage begins with the feast of Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria about 870 BCE for his new capital, Nimrud: ten days of feasting by almost 70,000 people, serving thousands of cattle, sheep, lambs, gazelles, ducks, geese, fish, eggs, and more. He served vast amounts of beer and wine, when wine was rare, expensive, and drunk only by elites. It had to be imported from wine-growing lands of the mountainous east. “Wine and its associated drinking paraphernalia became emblems of power, prosperity, and privilege” (p. 46).

Wine was first produced in the Zagros Mountains, roughly Armenia and northern Iran, where wild Eurasian grapes grew, by 6,000 years ago. When and how this happened remained unknown and wine could have been produced thousands of years earlier. Story one from the Bible is Noah planted the first vineyard on Mount Ararat. Pottery chards with reddish residue were dated to 5400 BCE. Wine is the fermented juice of crushed grapes because natural yeasts in the grape skins turn the sugars to alcohol.

Vineyards and wine making moved west to the Fertile Crescent and further west to Anatolia and Greece. Wine was limited in Mesopotamia and Egypt, which expanded trading but still limited to elites. Herodotus would later mention the importance of wine delivery by boat. In relatively infertile mountain areas like Canaan and Greece, vineyards and olives became major products, with wine and olive oil exported to neighbors. It remained a status symbol primarily for elites. Date-palm wine became a substitute for common people, because palms were cultivated in Mesopotamia.

Greece became known for philosophy and democracy, perhaps born because of the Socratic method at symposiums—basically wine drinking parties, the subject of various Plato Dialogues. Greek historian Thucydides claimed: “The people of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learnt to cultivate the olive and the vine.” The Greeks were the first to produce wine on a commercial scale, then traded at sea for other commodities. Class distinction was based on wine quality, slaves drank wine, but of low quality. The Greeks mixed wine with water, which Standage later noted did not change the taste but did delay drunkenness.

The Greek wine jars called amphorae provided archaeological evidence for Greek wine trade, as far as France in the west, Egypt to the south, Crimea in the east, and the Danube north. The Etruscans were major importers.

Chapter 4: The Imperial Vine. Romans dominated the Mediterranean by the second century BCE, borrowing the Greek alphabet, myths, and government rules leading to a republic. The Greek wine god Dionysus became Bacchus. Retired soldiers often became farmers with land as “retirement payment,” often with vineyards. Romans adopted Greek winemaking techniques as it became part of elite culture. That meant they imported grains. Wine was shipped as far as India. Their amphorae handles proved valuable to archaeologists.

Wine was received at Ostia and merchants transferred the wine up the Tiber to Rome warehouses, then sold to retailers. Wine was sold to commoners by the jug. Nobles arranged to have wine delivered. The best wine was Falernian from an Italian wine growing region near Naples (Neapolis). Wine was served based on status at the Roman banquet, convivium, based on patrons and clients. Herbs, honey, and other additives concealed the inferior wines’ imperfections.

Galen was physician to Marcus Aurelius, believing illness was caused by imbalance of four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Bloodletting was a common “cure.” He used wine to disinfect wounds.

Mediterranean wine drinking survived Rome, in part because it came to be associated with Christianity and the Eucharist, plus Jesus’ wine-making miracles. Wine on Church land was a source of revenue. For Islam Alcohol of all kinds became “an abomination devised by Satan.”

Spirits in the Colonial Period. Chapter 5: High Spirits, High Seas. Around the year 1,000, Cordoba was the most cultured city in western Europe, with public libraries. Islamic scholars built on the knowledge from Greece, India, and Persia, developing the astrolabe, algebra, and modern numbers, and mastered the compass for navigation, plus distillation, initially to make perfumes. It worked on distilling because alcohol has a lower boiling point as is released as vapor. Distilled drinks were a compact way to ship alcohol; they also were commonly taxed. When they arrived in Europe they were readily consumed. Distilled wine became a medicine as “aqua vitae.”

In northern climates where beer was common, grains were distilled as whiskey. Following Arab techniques including irrigation and water-powered mills, sugar became a good produced and processed on Atlantic then Caribbean islands. The use of slavery made sugar production a major export industry. Columbus took sugarcane to the New World. Slavers wanted brandy and other alcohol for slaves.

Barbados was settled by English colonists by the early-17th century, soon growing sugarcane using slaves. They used the molasses to make rum, which they rationed to the slaves mainly to blot out their hardships. Rum replaced beer on Royal ships, mixed to water, sugar and lime producing grog. The lime prevented scurvy. The French used wine (eau-de-vie), which did not prevent scurvy—possibly a reason the British won at Trafalgar in 1805. Rum was based on products and people from around the world: “Rum was the liquid embodiment of both the triumph and the oppression of the first era of globalization” (p. 111).

Chapter 6: The Drinks That Built America. Woodrow Wilson quote: “New England made the rum which was the chief source of her wealth—the rum with which she bought slaves for Maryland and the Carolinas, and paid her balances to the English merchants” (p. 112). Virginia was expected to supply Mediterranean goods such as olives for England. The climate was too cold. The second colony was Plymouth, partly because the crews supply of beer was running low before they could get to Virginia. Virginia turned to tobacco, then rum became available: by itself for the poor, as a punch for better offs. New England started importing molasses and distilling it to export.

Rum distillers found that slavers were a good market for rum (from French islands), resulting in the Molasses Act of 1733 to tax foreign imports. The result was smuggling. Colonists defied more British laws. After the French & Indian War, Britain tried to pay off some of the massive debt by increasing duties on molasses and other taxes. The end result was the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. Rum was the preferred drink of the soldiers. The war disrupted the supply of molasses. It was replaced by whiskey, distilled from grains, and make cheaply anywhere. Transportation became less of an issue. The other advantage was whiskey was easier to transport than the raw grains. Hamilton imposed a federal excise tax on whiskey to reduce the national debt, which was poorly designed especially for inland settlers. The Pennsylvania frontier was particularly opposed. The result was the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, easily put down but cost almost as much as the tax collected. The Mexican distillation resulted in mescal (tequila in that city) made from agave.

Coffee in the Age of Reason. Chapter 7: The Great Soberer. The Reformation reduced the authority of the church. Coffee, introduced in 17th century Europe, became a preferred drink to promote sharpness and clarity for scientists and other desk jockeys. “This coffee drink hath caused a greater sobriety among the Nations” (1660).

Coffee was discovered in 15th century Ethiopia. Legends included the goatherder noticing the affect on his goats and passed the beans to the local Iman who dried them and created a drink. Or: Omar was condemned to die near Mocha, Yemen and survived on coffee berries. In any case it became popular in Yemen and producing a hot drink a Yemeni invention (another legend has a Sufi scholar the inventor). Coffee reached Mecca and Cairo by 1510 and became a social drink in coffeehouses.

European merchants took an interest and Pope Clement VIII declared it acceptable to drink (and not evil). Coffeehouses opened in England by 1650 (Oxford) and Amsterdam in the 1660s. Coffeehouses were approved by the puritanical Oliver Cromwell over taverns. Armenian Pasqua Rosee opened the first coffeehouse in London in 1652. London coffeehouses reached over 80 before the Great Fire of London in 1666, even more were built after that.

The Islamic world had a monopoly on coffee production, mainly from Yemen. They did sell coffee to the Dutch who figured out how to steal a coffee tree, grow them in Amsterdam greenhouses, then establish coffee plantations in Java. It expanded to the French West Indies (the Dutch gave a specimen to Louis XIV in 1714). Brazil later became the major coffee supplier.

Chapter 8: The Coffeehouse Internet. European coffeehouses became the meeting place for merchants, scientists, politicians, and others. They could be meeting spots for specific trades, like Lloyd’s (insurance underwriters rented booths here and auctions were held for ships and their cargoes). The penny post in London happened in 1680 and coffeehouses became a common mailing address. Scientist Robert Hooke had so many interests he visited 60 separate coffee houses in London. An arrogant soul, he claimed to have discovered any number of ideas first mentioned by others like Isaac Newton. Hook may have started the ball rolling on Newton’s description of gravity based on the inverse-square law. Newton went on the write Principia.

Another customer was diarist Samuel Pepys. At Oxford they became “penny universities,” the price of a cup. Stocks were traded near the Royal Exchange which eventually led to the London Stock Exchange, which included joint stock companies. Adam Smith did much of his writing at the British Coffee House in London. Paris had 600 coffeehouses by 1750. Unlike Britain, they were open to women. Voltaire was another major coffee drinker, as was Denis Diderot (of encyclopedia fame, compiled at the Café de la Regence, a Paris coffeehouse).

French aristocracy and clergy, perhaps 2% of the population, were exempt from taxes. When French finances became chaotic, the Assembly of Notables (clergy, aristocracy, and magistrates) was supposed to sort it out. Years later the French Revolution was instigated in 1789 at the Café de Foy by Camille Desmoulins: “To arms, citizens, to arms!” The Bastille was stormed.

Tea and the British Empire. Chapter 9: Empires of Tea. “Having won over the British, tea spread throughout the world and became the most widely consumed beverage on Earth after water. The story of tea is the story of imperialism, industrialization, and world domination, one cup at a time” (p. 176).

Chinese myth has emperor Shen Nung brewing the first tea around 2700 BCE. Tea comes from the dried leaves, buds, and flowers of Camellia sinensis, found in the jungles on the India-China border, spreading in China perhaps by Buddhist monks as a meditation aid. Legend has Lao-tzu of Taoism called tea an ingredient of the elixir of life, but the first reference to tea came from the first century BCE during the Han Dynasty. Tea was popular enough by the fourth century CE to cultivate the camellia. China came to export silk, tera, paper, and ceramics. It is safe after boiling plus the tannic acid kills bacteria. Given the large volume, paper money was created as was a tea tax (780). It was not favored by the Mongol dynasty, but returned during the Ming dynasty (1368-1844).

Europeans reached China early in the 16th century, selling silk and porcelain for gold and silver. The Portuguese established a trading post in Macao. The Dutch brought the first tea to Europe in 1610, which reached England in the 1650s. It was too expensive to have much impact. The British tea craze started in the 18th century when the price was low enough for ordinary people. It started when the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza of Portugal married Charles II in 1662. Then the British East India Company brought some tea from the Dutch in the 1660s and they started importing it. It became readily available after the British established trading posts in China early in the 18th century, and tea eventually reached 60% of the company’s total trade (and the duty about 10% of British government revenue). Tea rooms became open to women and elaborate tea parties became afternoon meals.

Chapter 10: Tea Power. Richard Arkwright built the first modern factory, a spinning mill, powered by a waterwheel and machinery. The result was cheap British textiles. Tea breaks became a perk of factory workers. Dysentery declined in Britain. Josiah Wedgwood made pottery tea sets using mass production including steam engines. Richard Twining focused on the marketing of tea using a standard label, the beginning of consumerism. The demand for tea also increased the demand for sugar. Tea smuggling reduced the sales of the East India Company’s sales resulting in stockpiles and losses and duties owed to the crown. The Tea Act of 1773 gave the company the right to ship tea directly to the American colonies avoiding the British duty. American merchants depended on smuggling. The net result was the Boston Tea Party at the end of 1773. Britain closed the port of Boston, with the result being the American Revolution.

After the war, Britain reduced the tea duty, which improved the profits of the company. However, most East India Company revenue came from Indian land taxes. They traded Chinese tea for opium produced in India, although opium was outlawed by the Chinese government. The Chinese crackdown resulted in the Opium War of 1839-42, as the Chinese found out how superior European weapons were to China’s. Britain seized Hong Kong and freed up several ports for trade. “The independence of America and the ruin of China; such was the legacy of tea’s influence on British imperial policy” (p. 212). It was only after Britain revoked the East India Company’s monopoly on Chinese trade that they decided to grow tea in India. Plantations were established and run poorly. Multiple tea companies set up shop in India and production expanded. India and China produce most tea today after decades of instability.

Coca-Cola and the Rise of America. Chapter 11: From Soda to Cola. “Coca-Cola, consistently one of the world’s most valuable and widely recognized brands, which is universally regarded as the embodiment of America and its values. For those who approve of the US, that means economic and political freedom of choice, consumerism and democracy, the American dream; for those who disapprove, it stands for ruthless global capitalism, the hegemony of global corporations and brands, and the dilution of local cultures and values into homogenized and Americanized mediocrity” (p. 225).

Joseph Priestley investigated gas from fermentation vats, CO2. He figured out how to make sparkling water. Apothecary Thomas Henry was the first to sell carbonated water as a medicine in the 1770s and suggesting using it with lemonade. Jacob Schweppe was a partner in another carbonating venture. Adding sodium bicarbonate produced soda water. Benjamin Silliman sold bottled water in the US by 1807 through a fountain into glasses. Soda fountains became standard in pharmacies. Syrups were made using strawberries, raspberries, pineapples, or sarsaparilla (in the US the later was made from the dried root of sassafras and birch oil).

Coca-Cola was invented by pharmacist John Pemberton in 1886. Pemberton was a patent medicine maker, where alcohol, caffeine, opium, and morphine were common ingredients. Advertising was used for selling, and slogans and logos were important. Pemberton was not overly successful. He started using coca in 1884 which had some cocaine, inventing French Wine Coca. Then he added kola extract, a nut from West Africa with some caffeine, trying to create a “temperance drink” with the bitterness masked with sugar. The idea was to create a medicinal soda-water drink, which was named with the two ingredients: Coca-Cola. He had partners and associates, some of whom focused on marketing, which made ownership a confusing issue. It was a hit, but ownership rights were challenged. Pemberton apparently sold much of his rights to others, then set up a new company claiming ownership. Asa Candler was another medicine maker and bought out other parties. Pemberton died in 1888, so Candler consolidated his control.

Candler sold the syrup to other pharmacists, eventually to every state. Then he allowed a couple of people the right to bottle Coke, relying only on selling them the syrup in 1899. Rather than bottling Coca-Cola he sold the bottling rights but including a percent of the profits. The distinctive glass bottle was introduced in 1916. Coke was sued by the government over the cocaine and caffeine. Coke dropped the cocaine and reduced the caffeine based on an out-of-court settlement. Santa drinking coke started in 1931. Pepsi was created in 1894 but became competitive with Coke in the 1930s because they sold a 12 ounce bottle for the same nickel as the coke’s 6 ounce, then cola became a generic term.

Chapter 12: Globalization in a Bottle. Coke established 64 military bottling plants to serve GIs. Coke became a global brand after World War II, when the US became a superpower. Soviet General Zhukov asked Coke to make the drink without coloring so it resembled vodka, which they did, sealed with a red soviet star. Coke became associated “with the broader Western values of freedom, democracy, and free-market capitalism” (p. 257). Also everything wrong with capitalism according to the Soviets. Pepsi was able to expand beyond the Iron Curtain. When the Berlin Wall came down, crates of coke were among the consumer items wanted by the East Berliners. Coke again entered US foreign policy on bottling in Israel, when they had a big market with Arabs. Pepsi took the other side.

Globalists want unfettered free trade and the ability to set up factories in poorer countries. Globalist opponents point to the exploitive nature creating low wage jobs and unemployment at home. The Economist discovered that the consumption of coke correlated with the countries’ wealth and development and political freedom. Sales of carbonated beverages peaked in 2004 and declined ever since. Of course, coke and pepsi own the major bottled water brands.

Epilogue: Back to the Source. The six drinks reduced the problem of water contamination, a problem tackled recently. The WHO noted that 80% of all illnesses are caused by waterborne diseases. In 2008 half the people lived in cities, that 6,000-year transition.


bottom of page