A History of the World in 6 Glasses

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage is a non-fiction historical novel, whose main purpose is to show the surprisingly pervasive influence of certain drinks on the course of history. Then it takes the reader on a journey through time to show the history of mankind through the lens of beverages.

The thesis of the novel is that through history certain specialty beverages have affected more than just the diet of people and changed political aspects, economic standings, religious ceremonies and social views throughout human history. Standage clearly favors the subject written about and offers no information or analysis to disprove the thesis of the novel. Tom Standage is an author of 3 other novels, which are also historic analyses, which support his information and research provided in this book. Standage’s professional background gives novel its authority.

A History of the World in 6 Glasses is broken down into six sections, one for each drink, the first of which is beer. Man’s first civilizations where founded after the adoption of farming and the domestication of cereal grains. This improvement in lifestyle helped the “emergence of administrators, scribes, and craftsmen.” [1] Not only did beer nourish man’s first civilizations, but also “their wages and rations were paid in bread and beer.” [2] Wine, the next beverage, played a major role in the flourishing Greek and Roman cultures. Wine initiated vast seaborne trade, which spread their philosophy, politics, and literature. The book points out how these advancements originated and grew at formal Greek drinking parties. The Romans, who absorbed much of Greek culture, continued the strong use of wine.

After the middle ages, Europe was awakened by the discovery of ancient knowledge, safeguarded by Arab scholars. The Age of Exploration/Colonial Period was improved by the knowledge of distillation, which made new drinks. The novel describes how these condensed forms of alcohol (Brandy, Rum etc.) were so popular, especially in the American colonies, that “they played a key role in the establishment of the United States.” [3] The fourth beverage presented is coffee. Coffee quickly became the drink of intellect and industry being known to sharpen the mind. Taverns were replaced with a more sophisticated meeting place, the coffeehouse. These “led to the establishment of scientific societies and financial institutions, the founding of newspapers, and provided fertile ground for revolutionary thought.” [4]

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Once established as England’s national drink, tea imports from first China and India led to massive trade. The book describes the power of the British East India Company, which “generated more revenue than the British government and ruled over far more people,”

wielding more power than any other corporation in history. [5] This imbalance of power had an enormous effect on British foreign policy, and led to the independence of the U.S. Like most of the drinks discussed in this novel, Coca-Cola was originally devised as a medical drink. More than any other product, Coca-Cola has stood as the symbol of America’s “vibrant consumer capitalism.” [4] Rather than shrink at the challenge, Coca-Cola took full advantage of the challenging times it found itself in, gaining ground through the depression, and then traveling alongside our soldiers into WWII, becoming a global phenomenon.

A History of the World in 6 Glasses is very useful and beneficial to the AP World History curriculum. In a teaching course, the teacher could assign a chapter of reading as homework in each unit. For example, the beer chapter would be in Unit 1, wine at the end of Unit 1 or beginning of Unit 2. Spirits and Coffee could be assigned in Unit 3, Tea in Unit 4, and Coca-Cola in Unit 4 and 5. Teaching the kids through a different view of the world would be its unique contribution to the program.

Tom Standage, the author, was successful in proving his thesis throughout the novel. The thesis is clearly stated in the introduction, then supported throughout each chapter and then reiterated in the epilogue. There was plenty of evidence in the book, including quotes, poems, statistics pictures, maps etc. The book was not bogged down in a specific part, though it sometimes went into too much detail of the process of making the beverage.

I have to confess that when I first picked up A History of the World in 6 Glasses, I did not expect to enjoy it. Firstly, I was wondering how a book could to sum up world history in less than 300 pages. Second, I do not drink 4 of the 6 beverages discussed in this book. Therefore, I was not keen on learning about their histories. However, I quickly learned that this book is more than just how and when these 6 drinks were made, but how it affected our modern world.

A History of the World in 6 Glasses makes it clear that the history of mankind is a history of our consumption. Whether we are pondering revolution in a Coffeehouse in Paris or throwing tea leafs into the ocean in Boston, these drinks have had an impact on who we are. I highly recommend this book to anyone thirsty for knowledge! As Standage says, “They survive in our homes today as living reminders of bygone eras, fluid testaments 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.” [6]

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