Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses has proved to be one of the best off-list non-fiction books I’ve read during my ten-year plan. Actually, I didn’t read it; I listened to a digital recording checked out from the library (the wonders of technology!) on the way to and from work. And I was glued to every word. Last month I posted some comments about the sections on beer and wine. And the parts about spirits, coffee, tea, and cola were no less fascinating.
According to Standage, spirits originated as a way to transport alcohol long distances (especially across the ocean) more efficiently. Apparently no one much liked the taste of distilled liquor at first, so it was assumed that it would be diluted when it got to its destination. Lemon juice and sugar were also added to mask the taste, and thus the cocktail was born. Spirits were so popular in colonial New England, and sugar was so important to their consumption, the Sugar Act did more to incite the American Revolution than the tea tax or the Stamp Act. At least that’s Standage’s argument. True or not, it made me smile when he pointed out the irony that the first internal rebellion of the new nation came about because of a tax on whiskey.
Coffee was the drink of the Enlightenment, a stimulant that fostered clear thinking and discussion about political, financial, and philosophical issues. Voltaire did much of his work in a coffee house in Paris. (I’ve sat at his desk.) The French Revolution was declared in a coffee house, and both Lloyd’s and the London Stock Exchange started in coffee houses. People still discuss business over coffee and in coffee shops.
Since Standage’s “World” mostly means “the West,” he rushes through the history of tea in China as a mere prelude to the story he really wants to tell: tea’s role in the building of the British Empire. It certainly played a central part in one of the darkest chapters of that history, in which the Limeys (so called because they put lime juice in their spirits) traded opium to the Chinese for more tea.
If tea represents all the best and worst of the British, the world has taken Coca-Cola as the symbol of the United States and has loved it or hated it in correlation to its feeling about America. Some of the most interesting parts of the story dealt with Pepsi’s role in geopolitics. No less a product of the US than its rival, Pepsi has made a habit of stepping into global markets left Coke-free by political opposition to the States: Iron Curtain countries in the 1960s and 70s, and Arab countries in the last twenty years.
Well, the book was so interesting, I’ve just rehashed some of its most fascinating points without adding much interest of my own. I hope I’ve said enough to entice someone to read the book and not so much that you think you don’t need to read it. I know I’ve said enough to make me thirsty. But what do I drink first?