Review: A History of the World in Six Glasses

In A History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage has taken an interesting idea and run with it pretty well.  The idea is that a surprisingly small number of beverages have played a large role in human history, starting with beer changing us from hunter/gatherers to soft drinks driving 21st century capitalism.  It is an interesting idea, and it works as long as you squint a little.

Standage has a nice touch with the big picture viewed through a high-concept lens.  He did a similar, though less ambitious, trick with The Victorian Internet. In both cases, he has an eye for the telling anecdote and a skill at fitting the historical record into his thesis.  He does an excellent job describing the forces and trends of history with a few key incidents.

He picks six drinks that are evocative of times and ideas – itself support for the prominence of drink in the human consciousness.  He dedicares a couple chapters to each one’s properties and place in history.  They are covered pretty much chronologically from beer to cola.  It is interesting that each can, to some extent represent a philosophical and historical trend, but the parts don’t completely mesh.  The history of beer and wine is mostly lost to and influential in antiquity, while coffee, spirits, and tea become prevalent in the West within a century.  Still, history is a messy collision of ideas, and tying the ideas to beverage technologies works pretty well.

For me, it works pretty well until we get to Coca-Cola in the 20th century.  Standage rightly ties Coke philosophically to globalization and the US.  These are presented as overwhelmingly positive developments where I was expecting more nuance.  Admittedly, Standage has a lot of ground to cover, and broad brushstrokes are a necessity, but I didn’t expect to see no line drawn between globalization and expansionism.

Still, overall Six Glasses in interesting and informative.  It’s a great start to looking at an era.


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