Monday, December 18, 2006

Book Club: A History of the World in 6 Glasses

A History of the World in 6 Glasses
Tom Standage 2005
Anchor Canada (Random House)

This is a book of a type I am strangely particularly attracted to: a history of one wide-ranging subject, written in a clear and scientific style. So my review of this book may be biased simply because I enjoy this type of book so much.

I like drinks and drinking - not just alcoholic, but essentially any well-crafted and interesting beverage is likely to be one I enjoy. It's a branch of cuisine, after all, so it's not surprising either that I like drinking or that many other people also like drinking. This book is likely to become a best-seller, partly because of its broad appeal, but also because it's very well-written.

Tom Standage is one of the technology writers for The Economist, a magazine I am habitually behind in my readings of. I usually skip much of The Economist's content, but I invariably read the Science and Technology section, as well as most of each of the Technology Quarterly sections that appear every three months. The Economist does not credit individual writers or reporters; the phrase "your correspondent" appears in many articles. So I don't know if Mr. Standage wrote any of the more memorable articles in The Economist, but from this book, I can see both the influence of the magazine on his writing style and why such a prestigious magazine hired him in the first place.

The six glasses this book is about are (in order) beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and cola. They're in this order for a good reason - each drink impacted the course of world history, in the chronological order presented. Each drink, and its effects on history, is described in two or three chapters, with the early history and establishment of a drink first, followed by a description of what Mr. Standage argues to be its primary impact on human history. Each chapter opens with a quote, including the un-numbered Introduction and Epilogue psuedo-chapters. These quotes are very good, and well-chosen. Reading this book has led me to think that I would like to set up a "drinks corner" or something similar in my new apartment in Guelph, depending on the details of where I live, where I could store wine and spirits, along with glasses and other drink-ritual paraphenalia, as well as this book and other books relevant to the consumption of particular drinks. I'd also like to put together a small poster of quotes, including many derived from this book.

Beer is described as being closely associated with the establishment of civilization - it was an alcoholic drink, possibly the only alternative to water, that was probably discovered during the neolithic by semi-nomadic pre-agricultural tribes. Beer is essentially liquid bread, in it's simplist form, since the ingredients are the same, there's just much more water involved in making beer than bread. The earliest beer was probably discovered by accident - cooked grain in a thin gruel, left exposed for a day or two, will start to ferment as wind-blown wild yeast colonizes the otherwise-sterile starchy solution. The fact that beer is prepared from boiled water probably contributed to its early establishment in civilizations - beer is unlikely to be contaminated with fecal bacteria or other nastiness.

Wine was the other "naturally-occuring" drink - but was not as widely available as beer until the advent of long-distance trade associated with the rise of the Greek city-states. Grapes don't grow everywhere that grains do, so wine was a rare luxury until the wine-loving Greeks (and Romans) started exporting the stuff all over the place. Mr. Standage describes in detail the wine-consumption habits of both the Greeks and the Romans, especially their habit of diluting wine with water at ratios like 2:1, 5:2, 3:1, or 4:1 (water:wine). Modern tests have concluded that the flavour and identifying aromas of different wine varietals are still detectable at such dilution levels.

Spirits are basically any alcoholic drink made by distilling a fermented beverage - distilling wine and beer led to early forms of brandy and whiskey, while other spirits are made from other (undrinkable) liquids like fermented molasses (rum) or filtered, fermented grains (vodka). The imporance of rum to global history, particularly via the African slave-trade, is the most detailed part of these chapters. The links between labour-intensive sugar production in the New World, slaves shipped from Africa, and rum produced from sugar and used as currency to buy slaves, are clearly detailed. Rum's role in the rise of American independence movements and the eventual American Revolution is also detailed. Grog, a drink made from rum with water, sugar, and lime juice, is listed as a contributing factor in the dominance of the Royal Navy at sea - a little lime juice goes a long way in preventing scurvy.

Coffee is the first non-alcoholic drink described. I like coffee, and drink more than is probably healthy. Early European coffee-houses sound like fun places to hang out if I ever find myself transported to the 17th century, but the preparation of the coffee sounds foul - in Britain, coffee was taxed like beer (by the gallon), so it was made up ahead of time, taxes were paid, and the liquid was then stored for a day or two until it was re-boiled before serving. In the notes at the end of the book, Jeremy Torz, a London coffee expert, describes the nearest modern equivalent as the foul sludge (my terminology) left in the office coffee-percolator after it has been running for two days. "The presence of caffeine, and the surroundings in which the coffee was served, would appear to have been more important than its taste."

Tea shows up a little bit before coffee, but doesn't take off in Britain until later. Britain's strange mania for the stuff is offered as a partial explanation for the start of the Industrial Revolution happening there: tea-breaks fit the new industrial labour model well, and mass consumption of boiled water reduced disease, allowing higher population densities (of workers) near the new factories. Mr. Standage is English, so it's perhaps not surprising that he devotes 45+ pages to tea, but he makes his case for its importance alongside the other drinks well.

The final drink is cola - but primarily the story is of Coca-Cola, the drink, the company that makes it, and its brand. Pepsi and other competitors are mentioned, but the rise of cola to become a drink found everywhere on Earth is a story almost entirely about Coca-Cola. The rise of coke from a quack remedy invented by an experienced snake-oil salesman and its conversion into a symbol of both the USA and Globalization is well described, and quite clear.

The epilogue returns us to the original drink - water. This short psuedo-chapter just reinforced my belief in the stupidity of the entire bottled-water industry - if you believe that bottled water is healthier than tap water in industrialized countries, you are delusional. That sounds like a topic for a future rant, so I won't go into this too much now. Mr. Standage predicts that water will become the seventh history-making drink, and I'd like to see his update chapter on water that he could write in fifteen or twenty years.

Overall, I found this to be a great book, very easy to read and hard to put down. It contributed to a recent bout of lack-of-sleep I've just been throuh, along with several other factors, of course. It was not expensive, either, so I quite happily recommend this book to anyone interested in history and/or drinking.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That book was probably one of the most eye opening books I have ever read. It taught me so much about the drinks that we drink everyday!