A History of the World in Six Glasses

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Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A History of the World in Six Glasses, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon

A highly important part of Standage’s book is his discussion of the places where drinks have been consumed over the centuries. With every new beverage, humans had to invent a new space in which to enjoy it: the wine symposium, the coffeehouse, the tea parlor, the whiskey bar. Standage might as well have named his book A History of the World in Six Drinking Spaces. The question, then, is why are spaces so important for the enjoyment of a drink? Why couldn’t Voltaire have enjoyed his coffee in the street?

Perhaps the most important function of a drinking space is to define who belongs to a community. It’s one thing to drink a drink alone in the streets—it’s another to be surrounded by other people who are drinking the same thing. Since the beginning of civilization, as seen in the enormous banquets of Mesopotamia, drinking has been a social activity, designed to build awareness that one belongs to a large, stable group. Drinking spaces, then, perform a key social function: they force people to drink together and recognize that they belong to some community, whether the British Empire (the tea parlor), the French Enlightenment (the coffeehouse), or the American frontier (the whiskey bar). On the other hand, it’s no coincidence that the one drink Standage describes that has no obvious drinking space to go with it—Coca-Cola—has no obvious community associated with it, either.

But the function of the drinking space isn’t just to let people in—drinking spaces also keep people out. There were no women in French coffeehouses, nor were there Indians in British tea parlors (see Equality and Elitism). Communities are arguably at their strongest when they exclude some kinds of people. This suggests another way of looking at the importance of drinking spaces: by keeping certain people on the other side of the door, drinking spaces make the privilege of getting past the door more special, and the sense of community more powerful.

In all, drinking spaces are a microcosm of civilization itself. Like all civilizations, drinking spaces are designed to build a strong, cooperative group united by a common culture. Moreover, both drinking spaces and civilizations have strict rules about who is and isn’t allowed into the inner circle, and strong rules of exclusion translate into a strong sense of community. The history of bars, symposiums, and coffeehouses thus provides a neat confirmation of Standage’s thesis: if the history of civilization is the history of drinks, then it’s only appropriate that each drinking space be a miniature society.

Drinking Spaces and Community ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Drinking Spaces and Community appears in each chapter of A History of the World in Six Glasses. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Drinking Spaces and Community Quotes in A History of the World in Six Glasses

Below you will find the important quotes in A History of the World in Six Glasses related to the theme of Drinking Spaces and Community.
Introduction Quotes

As the tides of history have ebbed and flowed, different drinks have come to prominence in different times, places, and cultures, from stone-age villages to ancient Greek dining rooms or Enlightenment coffeehouses. Each one became popular when it went on to influence the course of history in unexpected ways.

Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

In this introductory paragraph, Standage gives a "thesis statement" for his entire book. In short, he's going to argue that we can understand important things about the history of human civilization by studying what beverages humans have drunk over the centuries. While this may seem like an odd thesis, Standage has a clever argument to convince readers that he's right. He argues that drinking is a central part of culture: every civilization had different beverages, and places that were intended for the consumption of beverages. Furthermore, the consumption of beverages is a starting point for all kinds of important cultural activities: everything from romance to scientific innovation. So as unusual as Standage's idea might seem at first, it's actually true that studying beverages can be a novel and productive way to study history.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

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."

Plato saw drinking as a way to test oneself, by submitting to the passions aroused by drinking: anger, love, pride, ignorance, greed, and cowardice. He even laid down rules for the proper running of a symposion, which should ideally enable men to develop resistance to their irrational urges and triumph over their inner demons.

Related Characters: Plato
Related Symbols: Wine
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Plato, the important ancient Greek philosopher, wrote extensively about the importance of wine and alcohol to human thought. Plato was interested in wine because it dimmed the powers of the intellect and aroused humans' natural tendencies to be wild, angry, greedy, etc. In short, Plato saw wine as bringing out the worst in human nature. It's for this reason that wine was so important to Plato: he believed that drinking wine was a way for intellectuals to "build up" control over their base urges. If a philosopher could drink wine and still be intelligent and self-controlled, then he was a great man. (At the end of Plato's Symposium, Socrates wins an elaborate argument while drinking massive amounts of wine, proving that he's truly the wisest man at the party.)

Chapter 4 Quotes

While the richest Romans drank the finest wines, poorer citizens drank lesser vintages, and so on down the social ladder. So fine was the calibration of wine with status that drinkers at a Roman banquet, or convivium, would be served different wines depending on their positions in society.

Related Symbols: Wine
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

As the quotation shows, the ancient Romans' attitude toward drinking wine is perhaps the best example of stratification in the consumption of a beverage. While wine is a traditional symbol of power and sophistication, it was also widely available in the ancient world, especially in Roman society. In order to cement their status as elites, the leaders of ancient Rome developed elaborate, expensive vintages to drink, thereby proving that they were truly superior to the Roman masses, even if everyone did drink wine. While the Roman stratification of wine is similar to the stratification of the drink that occurred in ancient Greek society, it's important to recognize the differences. Roman stratification was much more precise and specific than its Greek counterpart. This suggests that Roman society was more rigidly hierarchical and less mobile than Greek society.

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.

Chapter 7 Quotes

But of even greater significance than [coffee] was the novel way in which it was consumed: in coffeehouses, which dispensed conversation as much as coffee. In doing so, coffeehouses provided an entirely new environment for social, intellectual, commercial, and political exchange.

Related Symbols: Coffee
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:

Having already argued that coffee literally stimulated the mind and the imagination, Standage makes the additional argument that the coffeehouse stimulated innovation, too. By this point in the book, the idea that social spaces promote longstanding social relationships is nothing new: we've already seen how bars promote friendship and equality; the symposium promoted philosophy and self-control, etc. The coffeehouse, then, was the successor to a long line of drinking spaces.

What kind of drinking space was the coffeehouse? The role of coffeehouses in 18th century Europe points to the importance of collaboration, competition, and group work in European history. Arguably the key word in the quotation is "exchange"—after all, the 18th century was the time when the modern capitalist economy was on the rise. In coffeehouses, businessmen exchanged money and credit, just as scientists and writers exchanged ideas. Furthermore, the groups that passed time in coffeehouses formed rivalries with one another, like businesses competing to make the best product. As a whole, coffeehouses were places for businesslike competition and achievement: the intimacy and energy of the coffeehouse encouraged it.

Chapter 8 Quotes

French coffeehouses highlighted the paradox that despite the intellectual advances of the Enlightenment, progress in the social and political spheres had been hindered by the dead hand of the ancien regime. The wealthy aristocracy and clergy, a mere 2 percent of the population, were exempt from taxes, so the burden of taxation fell on everyone else: the rural poor and the wealthier members of the bourgeoisie, who resented the aristocracy’s firm grip on power and privilege. In coffeehouses the contrast between radical new ideas about how the world might be and how it actually was became most apparent.

Related Symbols: Coffee
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:

The quote describes how the coffeehouses of 18th century France inspired the intellectual middle classes of the country to rise up against their social and political superiors. As Standage says, France in the 18th century was an incredibly unequal society, in which a tiny fraction of the country enjoyed the vast bulk of the country's wealth and power (something that hasn't changed much in today's society). The inequality of French society as a whole contrasted markedly with the atmosphere of equality and open exchange within a French coffeehouse. In short, Standage is suggesting (a little playfully) that French coffee drinkers wanted their entire country to be as open and equal as the coffeehouses where they spent their time.

The quote offers an interesting variation on the familiar theme of drinking spaces. Earlier in the book, Standage offered examples of drinking spaces that were intended to be separate from the outside world—refuges from the troubles of life. In the case of coffeehouses, however, Standage offers an example of a drinking space that inspires its patrons to go out and change the outside world. As Standage shows later in the chapter, French coffeehouse patrons were instrumental in the beginning of the French Revolution—the popular uprising against the wealthy elite of France. Coffeehouses offered a "utopia" for their patrons, and these patrons then tried to establish such a utopia throughout the country.

Is it any surprise that the current center of coffee culture, the city of Seattle, home to Starbucks coffeehouse chain, is also where some of the world’s largest software and Internet firms are based? Coffee’s association with innovation, reason, and networking—plus a dash of revolutionary fervor—has a long pedigree.

Related Symbols: Coffee
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

It's a mark of coffee's continued relevance to information work, the quote suggests, that Seattle is the home of Internet innovation and Starbucks. In other words, the suggestion seems to be that coffee continues to inspire good ideas and creative thinking. More specifically, though, coffee appears to be particularly good at inspiring the exchange of new information and new ideas. Just as coffee encouraged French philosophers and English scientists to collaborate on new projects, it may be encouraging 21st-century engineers to improve the Internet—the ultimate medium for the free exchange of information.

It's important to recognize that Standage phrases this quotation as a rhetorical question. To be frank, Standage has no way of proving that Starbucks and Microsoft are linked in any literal way; the best he can do is to describe the general trends relating to coffee and innovation. Because there isn't much specific information on the history of beverages, Standage is often forced to make assumptions and educated guesses about the role of a drink in world history.