A History Of The World In 6 Glasses Summary and Study Guide

Tom Standage

A History Of The World In 6 Glasses

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A History Of The World In 6 Glasses Summary and Study Guide

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A History of the World in 6 Glasses is a nonfiction historical journey through humanity’s relationship with drinks. In this book, Tom Standage uses six drinks—beer, wine, hard liquor, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola—to detail key periods in human history, from Mesopotamia to the Cold War. Each drink that is associated with each time period acts as a symbol for the economic, political, and cultural movements that shaped and influenced the time period.

Beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt

Standage begins by discussing the role beer played in the world’s most ancient civilizations. After nomadic tribes began settling into a settled, agricultural lifestyle, they cultivated wheat and barley for bread. They soon discovered that, if left exposed, these grains took on an intoxicating quality. Civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt experimented with this fermentation process, developing many types of beer and ale, some to drink in social settings, some used for religious rituals. Beer was used as a form of currency in both cultures, and both believed beer was a gift from the gods. In this section, Standage establishes alcohol’s key importance in the building of new, settled communities, showing how beer held social, religious, and economic significance in the cradle of civilization.

Wine in Greece and Rome

Wine has existed since the Neolithic period, but became more accessible to common people after vineyards made wine easier to produce and therefore lower in cost. The Greeks believed the wine illuminated truth and could accurately test a person’s character and reveal their flaws. Greece’s cultural influence spread the practice of drinking wine far beyond its own borders, duly affecting the emerging empire of Rome. Roman farmers improved Greek vineyard practices, and wine was easily available to all social classes, with class defined by the quality of the wine drunk. Wine is mentioned extensively in Roman literature and was vital to religious ceremonies, including Christian communion. Muslims were forbidden from alcohol, primarily because it separated them from Christians. As the Roman Empire disintegrated, trade routes slowed. Wine was still grown in southern Europe, where the climate was hospitable, but beer became the drink of choice in cold Northern Europe, a division that still exists today.

Spirits in the Colonial Period

During the Islamic Golden Age, scientists discovered a new wine distillation technique which led to the creation of hard liquor. By the 15th century, distilled wine, sometimes known as “aqua vitae” or “water of life” was purely a pleasure drink. Through European exploration, distilled wine spread to Africa and the Americas, where the slave trade was booming. Slaves were often exchanged for alcohol. Distilled alcohol required sugar, and a new alcohol was born out of combining sugar cane byproducts: rum. Rum quickly became the most popular currency on the African coast. American colonists relied on imported wine and brandy until rum production began and thrived. England enacted taxes designed to protect English sugar producers from competition with colonial producers, something which contributed to the American Revolution. After America became its own nation, westward migration began and exchanged rum for whiskey. Colonists and settlers plied Native Americans with alcohol in order to weaken their ranks and ultimately take over their ancestral lands. In this section, Standage shows how alcohol could be a source for monumental change, such as revolutions, but also be the cause of human subjugation.

Coffee in the Age of Reason

The 17th century  was an age of enlightenment, critical thought, and rational inquiry. Coffee was immensely popular, as it was thought to sharpen the mind. Coffee had been used in the Middle East for hundreds of years, but took time to become a favorite drink in Europe. Coffee shops emerged as centers for political debate and intellectual discussion. Unlike inns and pubs, these discussions were not dulled by intoxication or drunkenness. Coffee shops were the perfect place for revolutions to be planned, and indeed, the French Revolution was launched from a Parisian coffee shop. Coffee’s particular properties and non-alcoholic nature led to its particular importance and influence in 17th century political movements. While coffee has become commercialized, coffee shops are still a center of social activity.

Tea and the British Empire

Tea was the consummate drink of the British Empire, consumed by the king and his servants alike. Originally brought to England from China in the early 16th century, tea was once a luxury item, but strong trade routes and England’s growing empire lessened the costs. Tea was a part of every advance the British Empire made. As industrialization took over, factory workers were given tea breaks during their shifts. The high taxes on tea was a key factor in America declaring its independence from England, with the Boston…

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