Standage makes it clear from the beginning of his book that a history of beverages is a history of civilization. Even more to the point, a history of beverages is a history of imperialism: the process by which one civilization uses its power to control another civilization. People don’t simply drink things that taste good—they drink things that are exotic and mysterious to their societies. It’s no coincidence that coffee and tea (first consumed in the Middle East and in China, respectively) became popular in Europe around the time that Europe became a major imperial power around the world. People want to try new and exotic drinks, and imperialism is the tool that makes these drinks cheap and widely available at home. Standage refuses to come down on either side of imperialism in his book, however, and he acknowledges that it has its good and its bad points, many of which we can understand by studying the beverages that imperial powers consumed.
One of Standage’s most important charges against imperialism is that it creates a situation in which one group of people’s whims are valued more highly than another group’s lives or livelihoods. Tea first became popular in Great Britain around the time that the British Empire was gaining power. Equipped with a strong military and navy, Britain sent its forces to collect the world’s wealth, making its own citizens the most powerful on earth. The result was that a relatively minor change in the British people’s tastes could have enormous ramifications for the people of a British colony. As the British people consumed more and more tea, for instance, the British East India Company (a powerful corporation that acted on behalf of the British Empire) was forced to declare war on China to ensure an open market for tea. Chinese society was devastated by the war, and millions of Chinese citizens saw their place in society eliminated by the new presence of British imperialists in their country. Imperialism was the tool that magnified the British people’s whims into foreign policy, to the great harm of the Chinese people.
Another important point against imperialism is that it results in a homogeneous culture. Instead of many different, equally powerful civilizations, each with its own customs (and beverages), imperialism results in one strong civilization that institutes one culture that everyone must imitate. A classic example of this phenomenon is the rise of Coca-Cola after World War II. As America became the world’s dominant superpower, Coke became the world’s signature drink, arguably to the exclusion of other, perhaps equally delicious drinks that weren’t backed up by U.S. military might.
But although imperialism can bring about homogeneous culture, it also arguably allows for the survival of major art forms (and drinks) from non-dominant cultures. China may not have been the superpower of the 19th century, and yet the imperialist might of the British Empire during that time ensured that millions of people still consume tea today, and that the ancient art of tea making is still widely known. And although homogeneous culture can be dull and repetitive, there’s something to be said for the sense of unity and camaraderie brought about by knowing that millions of other people are drinking the same drink—a feeling familiar to anyone who’s ever tried a beer or a Coke.
Standage isn’t writing a manifesto for or against imperialism, but imperialism is an important part of his book—as it’s the mechanism by which drinks are popularized around the world. Imperialism has its good and its bad points, and only by understanding both can we understand the history of beverages, and of civilization.
Imperialism Quotes in A History of the World in Six Glasses
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.
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.
Whatever [the origins of the custom of drinking while trading with Indians], this custom was widely exploited by Europeans, who took care to supply large quantities of alcohol when trading with Indians for goods or land.
Britain has remained a nation of tea drinkers ever since [the glory days of the British Empire]. And around the world, the historical impact of its empire and the drink that fueled it can still be seen today.
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.