A History of the World in Six Glasses

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Innovation and Competition 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.
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon

Standage begins A History of the World in 6 Glasses by pointing out an obvious but important fact: in the beginning, humans drank water and nothing else. With the rise of civilization, however, came a steady progression of new beverages: beer, then wine, then coffee, tea, etc. It’s worth thinking about what drives this process of experimentation, discovery, innovation, and popularization, since it’s the process on which Standage’s entire book hinges.

To begin with, innovation in the world of beverages stems from the existence of leisure time. Beer and its successors were only discovered because their inventors had enough time to experiment with resources like wheat and grapes, and experience the frustration of trial and error. But once beer had been invented, it became clear that it had many advantages over water. Beer didn’t make its drinkers sick because (unbeknownst to anyone before the 19th century) the process of fermentation and boiling killed diseases like cholera and diphtheria that often lingered in plain water. And of course, beer tasted good and caused pleasant intoxication. As Standage argues again and again, the existence of leisure time is one of the hallmarks of civilization: in their leisure time, people discover intriguing new ideas and products, and stumble upon solutions to problems they didn’t know they had. Because people across history have used their leisure time to experiment with new beverages, one can effectively study civilization by studying which beverages people experimented with.

Drinks don’t only become popular because people have the time for experimentation, though. And regardless of a drink’s medicinal properties, it only stays popular and widely available over time if people—people with time and money to spend—enjoy drinking it. Tea, coffee, and rum became popular in the Western world partly because they were considered to be healthy, but then they remained popular throughout the 18th and 19th centuries despite the objections of many who claimed these beverages were unhealthy, or even poisonous. In other words, a beverage stays popular over time when it’s enjoyed by the middle classes: people with an average amount of money and power. Although Standage names many drinks that began as luxuries available to only an elite few (whiskey, wine, etc.), these drinks have only remained popular over the centuries because they became increasingly affordable for middle-class people.

A final ingredient in the process by which a beverage becomes popular is competition. Especially toward the end of his book, when he details the rise of capitalist society, Standage describes beverages that became popular because they competed for popularity with other beverages. Coca-Cola, for example, had to distinguish itself from the thousands of “universal tonics” available in American in the 1870s and 80s. In the 20th century, Standage argues, Coke remained delicious and affordable because it had to compete with Pepsi, a near-identical product. It’s not enough for a beverage to be invented—once invented, it has to be kept affordable and, in some cases, updated to fit new tastes. This process is sped up considerably when alternatives to the beverage exist. When this happens, the sellers of the beverage have to compete with the “marketplace of drinks,” and the result is a better and cheaper product.

In all, the process by which a beverage is invented, becomes popular, and stays popular is enormously complicated. Nevertheless, there are some major points in the process that are worth keeping in mind. The rise of leisure time, a strong middle-class with disposable income, and a competitive economy help us understand how drinks survive across the centuries, and how entire societies do the same.

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Innovation and Competition ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Innovation and Competition 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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Innovation and Competition 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 Innovation and Competition.
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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In some European nations, and particularly in Britain, coffee was challenged by tea imported from China. Its popularity in Europe helped to open lucrative trade routes with the East and underpinned imperialism and industrialization on an unprecedented scale, enabling Britain to become the first global superpower.

Related Symbols: Coffee, Tea
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Standage gives an example of how we can learn about history by studying a specific beverage. The cultural and military competition between Britain and China during the 18th and 19th centuries was mirrored in the gastronomical competition between coffee and tea. This makes a certain kind of sense: a civilization that's powerful and wealthy will have the resources to spread its cultural artifacts around the world. In this way, one could say that tea and coffee are "cultural markers—-i.e., every cup of tea or coffee consumed is a cultural victory for China or Britain, respectively.

Standage is also making the stronger claim that Britain became an imperialist superpower in part because of the popularity of tea: Britain traded heavily with China because British people enjoyed the taste of that particular drink. Throughout the book, Standage will study beverages from both of these perspectives. At times he'll argue that beverages reflect world history; elsewhere, he argues that beverages can themselves change world history.

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.

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.)

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.

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.

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 11 Quotes

Ultimately, [Coke and Pepsi] benefited from each other’s existence: the existence of a rival kept Coca-Cola on its toes, and Pepsi-Cola’s selling proposition, that it offered twice as much for the same price, was only possible because Coca-Cola had established the market in the first place. The rivalry was a classic example of how vigorous competition can benefit consumers and increase demand.

Related Symbols: Coca-Cola
Page Number: 248
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the major themes of Standage's book, especially in the second half, is the rise of capitalism: the economic system in which private businesses compete with one another to offer superior goods at the best prices. At its best, capitalist competition can reduce prices, benefitting customers, while also improving businesses and inspiring innovation. In the rivalry between Coca-Cola and Pepsi, the two companies offered a very similar product, so they had to use clever marketing and business strategies to impress customers. Most importantly, both companies had to offer the cheapest soda possible, since low price, at least as much as high quality, attracted customers. In the end, both Coke and Pepsi became highly successful companies. Their success reflected the rise of capitalism as a whole in the United States (and foreshadowed the way that Coke would be conflated with capitalism itself throughout the Cold War).

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."