Standage begins A History of the World in 6 Glasses by pointing out an obvious but important fact: in the beginning, humans drank water and nothing else. With the rise of civilization, however, came a steady progression of new beverages: beer, then wine, then coffee, tea, etc. It’s worth thinking about what drives this process of experimentation, discovery, innovation, and popularization, since it’s the process on which Standage’s entire book hinges.
To begin with, innovation in the world of beverages stems from the existence of leisure time. Beer and its successors were only discovered because their inventors had enough time to experiment with resources like wheat and grapes, and experience the frustration of trial and error. But once beer had been invented, it became clear that it had many advantages over water. Beer didn’t make its drinkers sick because (unbeknownst to anyone before the 19th century) the process of fermentation and boiling killed diseases like cholera and diphtheria that often lingered in plain water. And of course, beer tasted good and caused pleasant intoxication. As Standage argues again and again, the existence of leisure time is one of the hallmarks of civilization: in their leisure time, people discover intriguing new ideas and products, and stumble upon solutions to problems they didn’t know they had. Because people across history have used their leisure time to experiment with new beverages, one can effectively study civilization by studying which beverages people experimented with.
Drinks don’t only become popular because people have the time for experimentation, though. And regardless of a drink’s medicinal properties, it only stays popular and widely available over time if people—people with time and money to spend—enjoy drinking it. Tea, coffee, and rum became popular in the Western world partly because they were considered to be healthy, but then they remained popular throughout the 18th and 19th centuries despite the objections of many who claimed these beverages were unhealthy, or even poisonous. In other words, a beverage stays popular over time when it’s enjoyed by the middle classes: people with an average amount of money and power. Although Standage names many drinks that began as luxuries available to only an elite few (whiskey, wine, etc.), these drinks have only remained popular over the centuries because they became increasingly affordable for middle-class people.
A final ingredient in the process by which a beverage becomes popular is competition. Especially toward the end of his book, when he details the rise of capitalist society, Standage describes beverages that became popular because they competed for popularity with other beverages. Coca-Cola, for example, had to distinguish itself from the thousands of “universal tonics” available in American in the 1870s and 80s. In the 20th century, Standage argues, Coke remained delicious and affordable because it had to compete with Pepsi, a near-identical product. It’s not enough for a beverage to be invented—once invented, it has to be kept affordable and, in some cases, updated to fit new tastes. This process is sped up considerably when alternatives to the beverage exist. When this happens, the sellers of the beverage have to compete with the “marketplace of drinks,” and the result is a better and cheaper product.
In all, the process by which a beverage is invented, becomes popular, and stays popular is enormously complicated. Nevertheless, there are some major points in the process that are worth keeping in mind. The rise of leisure time, a strong middle-class with disposable income, and a competitive economy help us understand how drinks survive across the centuries, and how entire societies do the same.
Innovation and Competition ThemeTracker
Innovation and Competition 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.
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.
Beer was not invented but discovered. Its discovery was inevitable once the gathering of wild grains became widespread after the end of the last ice age, around 10,000 BCE, in a region known as the Fertile Crescent.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Ultimately, [Coke and Pepsi] benefited from each other’s existence: the existence of a rival kept Coca-Cola on its toes, and Pepsi-Cola’s selling proposition, that it offered twice as much for the same price, was only possible because Coca-Cola had established the market in the first place. The rivalry was a classic example of how vigorous competition can benefit consumers and increase demand.
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.