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
Drinking Spaces and Community Quotes in A History of the World in Six Glasses
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.