Standage begins his book by noting that thirst is one of the most important parts of the human experience—without liquid, humans can’t survive more than a few days. As civilization has become more advanced, he says, humans have begun brewing more complicated, idiosyncratic drinks, instead of simply drinking water.
Standage gets to his point right away: drinks are extremely important for human existence. He will then go on to emphasize this importance, and to use this one aspect of human life to comment on all the rest of it.
Standage maintains that by studying the history 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 historical period.”
Standage briefly goes over the outline of his book. He begins with 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 the Mediterranean, humans began making wine from grapes. Wine became a symbol of Greek intellectual culture.
Standage clarifies what he means when he says that we can learn about history by studying drinks. Complicated processes go into making a drink: you have to have the right resources, the right technology, the right environment. Therefore, by studying which drinks were available at which times, one is implicitly studying an era’s culture and anthropology.
Another milestone beverage was coffee. Coffee became popular throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages, when Europeans began trading and communicating with the Arabic world. Another drink that became popular as a result of these trading practices was distilled alcohol—“spirits”—such as brandy, whiskey, and rum. Spirits were an important drink during the Enlightenment, and gave rise to many important historical events of the time.
Standage proceeds from drink to drink in something like chronological order, reinforcing the link between beverages and history. Each essay will be a highly condensed kind of history, and also a Eurocentric one, as Standage focuses on his own strengths (he is a British writer on economics) and tries to make the book both entertaining and easily digestible.
In the 18th and 19th century, tea became the defining drink of the British Empire. As the British Empire colonize the world, it adopted Chinese tea as its own favorite beverage, and in turn distributed this beverage to its other colonies in North America, Africa, and Asia. In the 20th century, perhaps the defining drink has been Coca Cola. Coke has become a symbol of America: American optimism, capitalism, and commercialism.
In a sense, Standage is saying that each drink “symbolizes” a particular historical process or era. Tea, for example, was only popular in Britain because of the strength of the British Empire, and its ability to extract tea from countries like China. To study tea is to consider all of these factors.
Standage concludes by reiterating that by studying beverages, we can gain a better understanding of history, in particular the histories of agriculture, philosophy, medicine, religion, technology, and commerce.
Standage states his thesis one more time, essentially acknowledging his “gimmick,” and then proceeds to the real discussion of history.