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.
Equality and Elitism ThemeTracker
Equality and Elitism Quotes in A History of the World in Six Glasses
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.