Standage’s book is a survey of world history, as reflected through six of the most popular drinks of all time: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola.
Standage begins by discussing the history of beer. Beer was a byproduct of the defining event of early civilization: the Agricultural Revolution. About 50,000 years ago, nomadic tribes traveling through the Fertile Crescent (roughly the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers in the Middle East) learned how to plant seeds and convert crops into digestible food: cereals, breads, etc. These early farmers learned how to brew beer by letting wheat grains soak in water for long periods of time: a process now known as fermentation. As the centuries went by, early cultures continued to brew and enjoy beer. Beer was celebrated as a holy drink, capable of bringing mortal men closer to the realm of the gods. In Mesopotamia—one of the earliest civilizations about which we have information—beer was seen as a symbol of civilization itself, and to be able to drink beer was to be a mature man. In many ancient myths, including those of the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, and the Sumerians, beer is synonymous with health, life, and happiness. By the time of the Sumerians, beer was no longer a drink for the elite—commoners enjoyed it, and were even buried with it. Today, beer is still seen as a symbol of plainness, friendship, and equality, hence the phrase, “Let’s get a beer.”
As with beer, it’s not clear how wine was invented. Nevertheless, the process of winemaking—crushing grapes and letting the juice ferment in temperate weather—has been well known for many thousands of years. Wine has been the drink of culture, sophistication, and elegance at least since 870 BCE, when the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II served wine at an enormous feast to celebrate the building of a new capital for his empire. The first civilization to embrace wine whole-heartedly was that of Ancient Greece. In Greece, wine was seen as the drink of civilization—indeed, it was said that Greeks only became human beings in the instant that they discovered how to make wine from grapes. Male Greek landowners celebrated their intellect and sophistication by drinking wine at large indoor parties, or symposia (women and the poor weren’t allowed). The founder of Western philosophy, Socrates, saw the symposium as a symbol for civilization itself. By drinking wine, people could test their intelligence, their willpower, and their resolve.
In the Roman Empire, the civilization that succeeded Greece for dominance of Mediterranean Europe, wine continued to be a highly popular drink. Romans took advantage of their land holdings to cultivate the richest, most delicious wines. Emperors consumed wine for its supposed medicinal powers, and even the poorest Romans enjoyed the drink as well. Wine was a symbol of Roman society: although wine was available to everyone, expensive wine was also a way for the wealthy to show off their power. Thus, wine was both a symbol of equality and elitism. After the fall of the Roman Empire, wine continued to be popular in Europe, largely because of wine’s importance in Christian rituals.
Standage jumps ahead to the dawn of the Age of Imperialism, in the 1400s. Western European nations like Portugal and Spain, followed by France and England, invested large amounts of money in naval exploration. The result was the “discovery” of the New World—the Americas—where European civilizations discovered supplies of sugarcane. Europeans combined these new resources with the centuries-old process of distilling to create a new, strong alcoholic beverage: rum. Rum became popular among settlers in the British-controlled North America, so popular that it may have played a role in the American Revolution. By the 1700s, there was an enormous black market in rum. The British monarchy tried to crack down on this by raising taxes on the ingredients of rum—sugar and molasses—but these taxes were disastrous: they provoked the resentment and outrage of the most powerful and influential groups in North America, and catalyzed the American Revolution. After the American Revolution and the establishment of the United States of America, rum became less popular, replaced by other distilled alcohols like whiskey (made from fermented cereal grains) and bourbon (made from the fermentation of corn). Whiskey and bourbon remain highly American drinks, in part because of Americans’ desire to distinguish themselves from the “decadent, elitist” people of Europe, who drank wine.
In Europe in the 1600s, a movement called the Enlightenment began. The Enlightenment represented a celebration of empiricism, free speech, careful observation, and patient study of classical texts. Perhaps the key drink of the Enlightenment, according to Standage, was coffee. Coffee had been popular in the Muslim world for many hundreds of years, in part because Islam forbade the drinking of alcohol. In the late Middle Ages, coffee arrived in Europe thanks to the strength of Muslim trading networks. Coffee didn’t become popular in Europe until the Enlightenment. Enlightenment Europeans celebrated coffee because it helped its consumers focus and filled them with energy—useful qualities in a culture that celebrated intelligence and careful thinking.
The earliest “coffeehouses” were established in England, followed by France. Coffeehouses were public places where men could drink coffee and—more importantly—discuss art, politics, and philosophy. Many of the key discoveries and milestones of the Age of Enlightenment played out in coffeehouses, from Newton’s laws of physics to the beginning of the French Revolution. To this day, coffee remains the drink of choice for intellectuals and creative thinkers.
Like coffee, tea was popular outside the Western world for many centuries before it became popular in Europe. The Chinese were probably the first to drink tea—tea is mentioned in many of the central works of Chinese culture, and celebrated for its intellectual and medicinal powers. Tea reached Europe in the 1500s, at a time when China was far more culturally and intellectually sophisticated than Europe. Over the next 200 years, Europe developed a fondness for tea, and Britain in particular came to love the drink. By the time of the Industrial Revolution (the period in the 19th century when European countries discovered and popularized inventions like the steam engine), tea was the most popular drink in Britain.
Because its people craved tea, the British Empire depending heavily on China, and this eventually led to the Opium Wars on the 1830s. These attacks were designed specifically to ensure that Britain would have a favorable balance of trade with China, and could continue to buy huge amounts of tea without falling into debt. With a secure source of tea established, the British continued to consume tea. To this day, most of the former colonies of the British Empire, such as Australia, New Zealand, and India, contain the majority of the world’s tea drinkers.
Standage argues that Coca-Cola was the signature drink of the 20th century: a symbol of America’s power and its capitalist ideology. Originally, however, Coca-Cola was only one of hundreds of “tonics” available in America in the second half of the 19th century. John Pemberton invented and sold the earliest version of Coca-Cola, which contained both the leaves of the cocoa plant and the seeds of the kola plant. Coca-Cola then became highly popular as a medicine, but by the 1890s, Asa Candler had transformed Coke from a medicine to an ordinary beverage. Coke remained popular throughout the first third of the 20th century, despite competition from Pepsi and the onset of the Great Depression.
Coke became a global beverage—and a recognizably American one—during World War II, when Coca-Cola executives offered to send every American soldier a bottle of their product. On the strength of this campaign, Coca-Cola opened plants in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Because of its explicit ties to America and the American military, Coke became a rallying point for opponents of America’s superpower status during the Cold War. Communists referred to American foreign policy as “coca colonization,” and for forty years the U.S.S.R. refused to allow Coke past its borders. Yet after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Coke’s supremacy as the world’s most popular beverage was unchallenged. For better or worse, Standage concludes, Coke is the drink of the 20th century—often called the American century.
In an epilogue, Standage then notes that the defining drink of the future might be the most basic drink of all—water. While most of the industrialized world takes clean water for granted, there are large chunks of the globe in which no such water is available. This leads to outbreaks of dangerous infectious diseases, and has already led to war. The Six Day War of 1967, Standage suggests, was motivated in large part by Israel and Palestine’s relative access to clean river water. In the end, the importance of water in geopolitics provides a strong yet poignant example of Standage’s thesis: that the history of the world is the history of its beverages.