72 pages 2 hours read

Tom Standage

A History of the World in 6 Glasses

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2005

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Summary and Study Guide


A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage traces the emergence of six different beverages—beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola—and the roles they played in human history and culture. In doing so, Standage offers a sweeping overview of human history, ranging from the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia to contemporary America that emphasizes the continuities in our approach to drinks and drinking, as well as the changes and discoveries they are associated with.

Beginning with the discovery of beer and its uses in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, Standage discusses the variety of different uses these cultures had for this drink—as well as quenching thirst, it was used as a form of currency and as an offering to the gods in religious ritual. Beer has always been a social drink, and Standage points to the way that raising a glass to someone’s health is a continuation one of the earliest traditions associated with beer. He also notes the part beer played in the movement from a hunter-gatherer way of life to an agricultural one, and in the development of the first systems of writing and accountancy.

In the second section of the book, Standage turns his attention to wine in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. He tells us that, much like beer, it was used in a variety of ways: as an everyday beverage, as a religious offering, as a tool of social differentiation and as a form of medicine. His discussion of the differing attitudes about wine held by the Greeks and Romans, including differing opinions on the correct way to drink it, helps to elucidate the differences between these two societies. Similarly, in a short section on the Islamic prohibition of alcohol, he suggests that particular attitudes to beverages can be a way of distinguishing one culture from another.

Section 3 deals with the history of spirits, or hard liquor, and we learn that the distillation process that made these drinks possible was discovered during the Islamic Golden Age, but that it had spread to Europe by the fifteenth century. Initially, spirits were used medicinally. But once their highly intoxicating properties were discovered, they became popular with ordinary people who drank them for pleasure. The popularity of spirits in Europe coincided with the Age of Exploration, which extended knowledge of them far beyond Europe, to colonies in Africa and the Americas. In fact, rum was a by-product of both colonialism and slavery and came to play a key role in maintaining these systems of oppression and exploitation. Rum also played a part in the struggle for American independence from Britain, proving just how influential drinks can be.

Having considered the significance of alcoholic drinks in shaping human history in the first half of the book, Standage uses the second half of the book to consider the effects of three caffeinated beverages. To begin with, in Section 4, he discusses the role of coffee in the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century. In sharp contrast to alcoholic drinks, coffee, which, like spirits was introduced to Europe from Arabia, made people more alert and energized and, as a result, became popular with businessmen, scientists and intellectuals. This led to the emergence of coffeehouses: male-only establishments where news and ideas were discussed and exchanged. These coffeehouses became so popular that they were a source of concern for the political leaders of the time; indeed, Standage notes that the French Revolution began in a Parisian coffeehouse.

Following on from coffee, Standage turns to tea, and particularly the relationship between tea and the British Empire. While tea was originally drunk in China, Japan and other parts of Asia, during the eighteenth century it became a particularly British drink, so much so that Britain’s former colonies maintain some of the highest levels of tea consumption in the world today. Alongside his discussion of tea’s place in the Industrial Revolution, Standage outlines the way British demand for tea shaped its relationship to China, and brought about the decline of that once great empire. Thus, despite the role tea played in the loss of Britain’s American colonies—in the form of the Boston Tea Party—the desire to control the tea trade enabled Britain to become, for a time, the most powerful nation in the world.

The final section of A History of the World in Six Glasses concerns the development and global spread of Coca-Cola and the close association between that brand and American values. Interestingly, this is the only section that deals with a particular brand—Coca-Cola—rather than a generic drink. Much like the section on tea, Standage’s interest in Coca-Cola is related to his interest in the rise of America as a global superpower and how Coca-Cola was transformed from a nineteenth century patent medicine to a twentieth century symbol of individual freedom.

In the book’s epilogue, Standage chooses to consider the future, rather than the past, and asks which drink will define the next stage of human development. His subsequent discussion of water and the lack of access to safe drinking water in the developing world, points to how what we drink, and how we drink it, continues to reflect social distinctions.

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