A History of the World in Six Glasses

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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
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Equality and Elitism Theme Icon

The six beverages that Standage describes imply two opposite things: equality and elitism. One could say that the earliest beverages were elitist. This is reflected in the origins of wine and beer—in the beginning, they were intended for the leaders of society (either priests or kings), certainly not for common people. And yet beverages could also be considered inherently egalitarian. Beverages, unlike most foods, can be shared evenly—we see this reflected in an expression like, “let’s get a beer,” with its suggestions of equality, friendship, and unpretentiousness. And the health benefits of tea, beer, and coffee (because the water was sterilized, these drinks didn’t spread bacterial diseases) applied equally to everyone who consumed them.

The drinks that Standage describes in the first half of book are, by and large, intended for a small, elite group of people with time and money to spare. Beer, despite quickly becoming the drink of the common people, was once intended for priests in religious ceremonies. Wine was originally the drink of kings and gods, and even later on in Ancient Greece, where large groups consumed it at a symposium, the only people allowed to participate in such an event were land-owning men, a relatively small chunk of Greek society. The elitism of the earliest beverages mirrors the elitism of the earliest civilizations. By and large, the world was controlled by a very small group of people with a large amount of power—and these groups celebrated and reinforced their power by drinking special drinks. Even today we can see some of these connotations of power and access in familiar beverages: wine, for instance, was and still is considered the drink of wealthy, sophisticated people.

In the second half of his book, Standage describes drinks that either became symbols of equality and egalitarianism, or were always intended as such. To be sure, true equality isn’t ever possible, but with each chapter, Standage comes closer to describing true equality as he details the history of a particular drink. First of all, coffee became a symbol of equality in France and England, where young intellectuals drank it as they discussed the ideals of the Enlightenment. Yet even here, coffee was somewhat expensive, and only available to half of the population—women weren’t allowed to drink it alongside men. The drinks that Standage describes in the following chapters then come closer to representing true equality. Tea became increasingly cheap throughout the 19th century, and lacked the strong gender connotations of coffee—both men and women drank it. Standage ends his book by discussing Coca-Cola, a cheap beverage that’s consumed on all seven continents by people of every race and gender.

While there are limits to the equality represented by a cup of tea or a bottle of Coke, the overall trend of Standage’s book is away from elitism and toward egalitarianism. This change in what new beverages connote reflects what is arguably (for Standage) an overarching trend of world history: away from inequalities of wealth and power, and towards equality between the sexes, between people from different countries, and even between the wealthy and the poor. Drinking tea or coffee may be elitist, but this is like saying that civilization itself is a kind of elitism. Reading Standage’s book, one gets the sense that history consists of bringing about “elitism” in the most egalitarian way—in short, by drinking special drinks together.

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Equality and Elitism 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 Equality and Elitism.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Unlike food, beverages can genuinely be shared. When several people drink beer from the same vessel, they are all consuming the same liquid; when cutting up a piece of meat, in contrast, some parts are usually deemed to be more desirable than others. As a result, sharing a drink with someone is a universal symbol of hospitality and friendship. It signals that the person offering the drink can be trusted, by demonstrating that it is not poisoned or otherwise unsuitable for consumption.

Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Standage makes an important point about beverages: they're different from foods in the sense that they can be shared evenly. Although in this case Standage is talking about beer specifically, his arguments can be applied to the rest of his book: enjoying a beverage with someone is a universal sign of equality and friendship, in part because beverages can be divided equally.

Standage's observations about the "equality" of beer point to an interesting tension in the history of beverages. Although beverages are virtually unique in the sense that they can be divided equally, they can also be a sign of elitism, sophistication, and superiority—i.e., the opposite of equality. (Wine is an excellent example of a drink that usually signals elitism, not equality.)


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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."

As wine became more widely available—so widely available that even the slaves drank it—what mattered was no longer whether or not you drank wine, but what kind it was. For while the availability of wine was more democratic in Greek society than in other cultures, wine could still be used to delineate social distinctions.

Related Symbols: Wine
Page Number: 54-55
Explanation and Analysis:

In the ancient world, wine became more and more available. the growing availability of wine created an interesting situation: wine had always been the drink of prestige and sophistication, so its widening availability was something of a challenge to the elites. The elites' response was to stratify the consumption of wine by choosing ever more elaborate and expensive vintages for themselves. One could even say that wine was a metaphor for the nature of ancient Greek democracy: although wine was technically available to everyone, there were definitely some people who had more access to wine—and better wine at that—than others. In general, this quote is a great example of the paradox of beverages: beverages are symbols of equality, but also of elitism. In the end, what usually happens is that beverages become stratified, just like wine, in such a way that they're available to everyone, but in different qualities and at different prices.

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 6 Quotes

Jefferson did his best to cultivate wines in America and advocated a reduction in the excise duty charge on imported wine as “the only antidote to the bane of whiskey.” But his cause was hopeless. Wine was far more expensive, contained less alcohol, and lacked the American connotations of whiskey, an unpretentious drink associated with independence and self-sufficiency.

Related Characters: Thomas Jefferson (speaker)
Related Symbols: Wine, Spirits
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, we're told that Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers, tried and failed to popularize wine, his favorite beverage, in the newly established United States.

It's important to recognize that Jefferson failed for two basic reasons: wine wasn't practical, and it clashed with the idea of American culture. In the former case, wine was too expensive to import from Europe (the only area of the world where wine could be grown at the time—the California vineyards were centuries away). In the latter case, wine was seen by the American people as a symbol of "old-world" arrogance and snobbishness; in other words, everything that the Americans had started a revolution to escape. The Americans' two basic reasons for rejecting wine (practicality and cultural associations) reflect the two sides of beverages as Standage writes about them: first, the physical processes used to make beverages; second, the stereotypes that arise around beverages as a result of the way they're made, sold, or consumed.

Chapter 7 Quotes

The diffusion of this new rationalism throughout Europe was mirrored by the spread of a new drink, coffee, that promoted sharpness and clarity of thought. It became the preferred drink of scientists, intellectuals, merchants, and clerks—today we would call them “information workers.”

Related Symbols: Coffee
Page Number: 134-35
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Standage discusses the influence of coffee on the Age of Enlightenment—the period of European history in the 17th and 18th century when European intellectuals came to celebrate the importance of rationality, deep thought, and experimentation. As Standage sees it, coffee contributed to rationalism in the most literal of ways: it stimulated the brain, allowing people to think, talk, and focus for longer periods of time.

The popularity of coffee in Europe, Standage further points out, marked changes in the structure of European society, too. While many kinds of people enjoyed coffee, the drink was especially popular among information workers. The popularity of coffee among these kinds of people shows that Europe was transitioning from an economy founded on manual labor, military valor, and other physical endeavors, to an economy based on intelligence, quick thinking, and other intellectual endeavors. In short, coffee set the Western world on its current path.

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.

Chapter 9 Quotes

For the poor, tea gradually became an affordable luxury, and then a necessity: tricks such as stretching a small quantity of tea with the addition of more water or reusing tea leaves, finally brought the drink within everyone’s reach, in some form at least.

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

As the quote makes clear, the history of tea illustrates how a once-exotic beverage gradually becomes more affordable and accessible for a large group of people. Tea used to be a luxury, available only for those who could afford to import it from China. But as the Western world began to trade with China more regularly, tea became a normal part of life for average Western people.

The phrase "in some form at least" provides an important point of clarification. Standage isn't saying that all kinds of tea became equally available for all kinds of people. On the contrary, some kinds of tea remained exotic and expensive, while others became cheaper and commoner. The history of tea illustrates how a beverage (or a commodity more generally) slowly becomes more widely available: its quality and price become stratified.

Chapter 10 Quotes

Just as deskbound clerks, businessmen, and intellectuals had taken to coffee in the seventeenth century, the workers in the new factories of the eighteenth century embraced tea. It was the beverage best suited to these new working arrangements and helped industrialization along in a number of ways. Mill owners began to offer their employees free “tea breaks” as a perk.

Related Symbols: Tea
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

In the 18th century, the modern European economy and class system was beginning to take form. And, as the quotation states, beverages were an important benchmark of the newly emerging class system: different parts of European society drank different drinks, and defined themselves by their choice of beverage. While upper middle class intellectuals preferred coffee, working class people preferred tea.

What factors made coffee a distinctly middle class, intellectual drink and tea a more common working-class drink? Standage doesn't (and can't) offer a complete answer to this question. While he suggests that coffee was a good fit for intellectuals because it focused the mind, he also admits that a social class's drinking preference is partly coincidental. Had coffee or tea become available at a slightly different historical era, then tea could have become the intellectual's drink and coffee the preferred drink of the factory worker.

Chapter 12 Quotes

Coca-Cola came to stand for everything that was deemed wrong with capitalism, particularly the notion that satisfying consumers’ often trivial demands should be the organizing principle of the economy.

Related Symbols: Coca-Cola
Page Number: 257
Explanation and Analysis:

The history of Coca-Cola is perhaps the best example of Standage's thesis that beverages symbolize ideas and entire cultures. In the case of Coke, the soft drink came to symbolize the spirit of American capitalism. In part, Coke came to symbolize capitalism because the drink was heavily associated with the American military during World War Two. After the war, Coke was conflated with America, but specifically with America's militaristic, aggressive policies. For intellectuals and philosophers, Coca-Cola was virtually a military force: a cultural weapon that, much like capitalism, "conquered" sophisticated cultures and replaced them with disgusting, mass-produced products. (In Italy, for example, the popularity of Coke helped shut down some of the country's prized vineyards.)

The quotation also suggests how Coke came to symbolize the vacuousness and triteness of mass capitalism. For some, the fact that Coca-Cola was a cheap, available, and widely-consumed product was a symbol of American society at its best. For others, though, the very fact that everyone drank Coke represented how American capitalism was making people dull, unimaginative, and narrow-minded.

Coca-Cola is unquestionably the drink of the twentieth century, and all that goes with it: the rise of the United Sates, the triumph of capitalism over consumerism, and the advance of globalization. Whether you approve of that mixture or not, you cannot deny the breadth of its appeal.

Related Symbols: Coca-Cola
Page Number: 265
Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation sums up Standage's arguments about the history of Coca-Cola during the 20th century. Standage argues that Coca-Cola reflects the rise of America, capitalism, and globalization. The very fact that people on all seven continents, of all races, religions, and classes, consume Coke is a tribute to the success of globalization: thanks to the availability of Coca-Cola, the people of the world are "united" with one another via what they buy.

Notably, Standage doesn't offer judgment on whether or not the rise of Coca-Cola is worth celebrating or condemning; he leaves his readers to make up their own minds. His role as a historian and an author is to present the facts, not to interpret them in terms of "good" or "bad."