A History of the World in Six Glasses

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Beer Symbol Analysis

Beer Symbol Icon

Beer, the first major “symbol” in the book, has meant many things to many different civilizations (at one point, it was considered a gateway to the realm of the gods). Nevertheless, for more than two thousand years it has been the drink of choice for everyday, working-class people. If anything, then, beer symbolizes the virtues of ordinary, day-to-day life: friendship, loyalty, and unpretentiousness.

Beer Quotes in A History of the World in Six Glasses

The A History of the World in Six Glasses quotes below all refer to the symbol of Beer. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Walker Publishing Company edition of A History of the World in Six Glasses published in 2006.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Beer was not invented but discovered. Its discovery was inevitable once the gathering of wild grains became widespread after the end of the last ice age, around 10,000 BCE, in a region known as the Fertile Crescent.

Related Symbols: Beer
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:
In this passage, Standage explains that beer was discovered, partly by accident, due to the large amount of wheat and grain in the Middle East thousands of years ago. Standage doesn't explain exactly how beer was discovered—because, of course, he has no way of knowing this. For the early chapters of the book, which deal with ancient history and even prehistory, there's less specific information than we'll find later on; just a general idea that certain beverages arise because of the available resources. But in this way, Standage emphasizes the importance of coincidences and accidents in innovation. All sorts of important inventions were happened upon because of lucky accidents (like the discovery of penicillin, for example). Beer is no exception.
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Chapter 2 Quotes

Enkidu’s primitive nature is demonstrated by his lack of familiarity with bread and beer; but once he has consumed them, and then washed himself, he too becomes a human and is then ready to go to Uruk, the city ruled by Gilgamesh. The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human.

Related Characters: Gilgamesh , Enkidu
Related Symbols: Beer
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're told that the legendary character Enkidu, from the Mesopotamian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh, was a savage, dangerous individual, as evidenced by his unfamiliarity with beer.

It might seem unusual to associate civilization with the ability to make an alcoholic beverage, since alcohol has traditionally been associated with wildness, violence, and uncontrollable energy. (It might also seem odd to link beer and civility, since most "civilized" people nowadays don't have a clue how to make beer!) Even so, Standage argues that the Mesopotamians admired the ability to brew and consume beer because it represented the ability to master one's environment. Brewing beer was one of the earliest forms of agriculture, meaning that it was one of the key steps in the history of civilization. The history of beer, therefore, is the history of the birth of civilization—an excellent example of how we can study history and culture by studying drinks.

Whether in stone-age villages, Mesopotamian banqueting halls, or modern pubs and bars, beer has brought people together since the dawn of civilization.

Related Symbols: Beer
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Standage argues that beer has the power to bring people together. It might seem odd to think that the beverage itself—beer or otherwise—has the power to change human behavior (it would seem to make more sense to say, "I'm choosing to get a beer with my friend," not, "The beer is bring my friend and me together"). And yet on closer inspection, Standage's idea isn't as odd as it might appear right away. Whether in bars or at home, there's an unwritten rule that drinking together is a way to build a friendship. In part, this is the case because beer is cheap and accessible—there isn't necessarily a way to show off while drinking beer. In general, then, to drink a beer is to "be equal" to other people, to establish a friendly relationship over an intoxicating beverage.

Chapter 3 Quotes

Enthusiasm for civilized competition and Greece’s presumed superiority over foreigners were apparent in the Greek love of wine. It was drunk at formal dining parties, or symposia, which were venues for playful but adversarial discussion in which drinkers would try to outdo each other in wit, poetry, or rhetoric. The formal, intellectual atmosphere of the symposion also reminded the Greeks how civilized they were, in contrast to the barbarians, who either drank lowly, unsophisticated beer or—even worse—drank wine but failed to do so in a manner that met with Greek approval.

Related Symbols: Beer, Wine
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

The ancient Greeks loved to drink wine for a number of reasons, whether they were totally conscious of those reasons or not. To begin with, Standage argues that drinking wine was a way to test one's wit and intelligence: if you could drink wine and still hold your own in an argument, you were pretty smart and self-controlled (this isn't so different from the modern idea of being able to "hold your liquor"—a definite sign of maturity). Second, wine was a way for the Greeks to celebrate their own civilization's superiority. The association between wine and civilization ties in with Standage's general point about beverages and cultures. Drinking a drink takes no skill, and everyone can do it; the only requirement is that one have access to the drink in question. As a result, drinks are an excellent way for a group of people to celebrate their membership in the group. By drinking wine, the Greeks were implicitly saying, "We are Greeks, and you (barbarians, foreigners, etc.) aren't."

Chapter 4 Quotes

Wherever alcohol is drunk, wine is regarded as the most civilized and cultured of drinks. In those countries, wine, not beer, is served at state banquets and political summits, an illustration of wine’s enduring association with status, power, and wealth.

Related Symbols: Beer, Wine
Page Number: 89-90
Explanation and Analysis:

At the conclusion of his chapter on wine, Standage argues that wine has remained the drink of prestige and sophistication throughout the Western world (even in China, French wines are the ultimate drink for the elite). This suggests a couple things. First, it reminds us that drinks (or just commodities in general) are often associated with power and prestige simply because they're hard to get, not because they're inherently better. In other words, wine is a drink for elites, not because it's superior to beer but because it takes a long time to make it, and a lot of skill to make it well. In short, by drinking wine, a person is implying that he or she has the money to spend on the drink. Second, the supremacy of wine today is proof that stratification is an important way for elite beverages to remain elite, even after they become more accessible. Although wine overall has become pretty cheap and affordable, the most expensive wine has actually become less and less affordable. It's for this reason that people can buy "two-buck Chuck" from the grocery store, while presidents and kings wash down their caviar with champagne: these drinks are both wine, but one kind of wine is far more expensive and desirable than the other.

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Beer Symbol Timeline in A History of the World in Six Glasses

The timeline below shows where the symbol Beer appears in A History of the World in Six Glasses. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Introduction: Vital Fluids
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...of beverages, we can understand important things about human culture. He singles out six drinks: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola. Each one was “the defining drink during a pivotal... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution, the time when humans first began converting wheat into beer—a drink so popular and important that often, workers were paid in beer. Later on, in... (full context)
Chapter 1: A Stone-Age Brew
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...settle and develop agriculture, they turned from water to other more complicated beverages, such as beer. (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Beer was probably discovered between 10,000 BCE and 4,000 BCE. By 4,000 BCE, at least, it... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
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Standage goes into more detail on the discovery of beer. The Fertile Crescent—the area between Egypt and Turkey—was home to the first practitioners of agriculture.... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
...left to ferment for longer. They would have also realized that it’s possible to flavor beer by adding things like berries, fruits, or herbs. (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
There’s an interesting debate among archaeologists over which came first: beer or bread. It’s quite likely, Standage argues, that the earliest agriculturalists developed bread because they... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
Standage moves on to discuss the social applications of beer. For many early agricultural societies—the Sumerians, the Egyptians, etc.—drinking beer was an important ritual. Drinking... (full context)
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...the dominant survival mode for human beings precisely because agriculture ensured a steady supply of beer. While such a theory is interesting and tempting to believe, it’s more likely that the... (full context)
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Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
The role of beer in early civilization is still hotly debated. Some believe that beer was a crucial part... (full context)
Chapter 2: Civilized Beer
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Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...the way for advanced civilizations. This occurred because with a surplus of grain, bread, and beer, some people could afford not to work full-time, meaning that they could focus on administrative,... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
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The earliest records of people drinking beer have been found in Mesopotamian poetry. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the first... (full context)
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
In ancient Egypt, beer was believed to have divine origins, and to be able to cure diseases. In one... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...rations, and scientists have found that these rations included meat, fish, chickpeas, lentils, beans, and beer. In all, the rations provided about 4,000 calories per day—more or less the same amount... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
The Sumerians’ language was called cuneiform. The cuneiform symbol for beer looks like a jar. The oldest written recipe in the world is a recipe for... (full context)
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...was then used by the people’s rulers to build public works. In other words, grain—and beer—was a form of payment. To build the pyramids at Giza in Egypt, workers were paid... (full context)
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
Although the world no longer sees beer as a universal currency, beer remains a staple of working-class life, just as it was... (full context)
Chapter 3: The Delight of Wine
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Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...etc.—but the most important part of the meal was the wine that Ashurnasirpal served. While beer was the most common drink at the time, the King made sure that wine—previously a... (full context)
Chapter 4: The Imperial Vine
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...Mediterranean, usually consumed in moderation and with meals. In Northern Europe, on the other hand, beer remains the most popular drink. Wine’s influence on culture can be detected at any formal... (full context)
Chapter 6: The Drink That Built America
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
...or minerals. During the early 1700s, colonists in North America had to make due without beer or wine, since these products were highly expensive to ship across the ocean. This changed... (full context)
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...never experienced before their contact with Europeans. Because Americans knew about Native Americans’ love for beer, whiskey, and other forms of alcohol, they used alcohol to “sweeten the deal” when trading... (full context)
Chapter 11: From Soda to Cola
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
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...egalitarian implications. One writer wrote, “The millionaire may drink champagne while the poor man drinks beer, but they both drink soda water.” (full context)
Epilogue: Back to the Source
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...consumed before they knew how to brew anything at all: water. For centuries, beverages like beer or wine were welcome alternatives to water because they carried no deadly diseases. Now, however,... (full context)
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Standage concludes by reiterating that ordinary drinks like beer and Coke “tell stories” about history. Although drinking a coffee or a glass of wine... (full context)