A History of the World in 6 Glasses

A History of the World in 6 Glasses

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A History of the World in 6 Glasses

The Economist digital editor Tom Standage (on twitter as @tomstandage), wrote a very interesting book in 2005: “A History of the World in 6 Glasses”.

It illustrates the power of a genre inspired by the concept of ‘Total History’ introduced by French historian Fernand Braudel in the 1960s, and which has evolved into pop-history in the last decades.


French Historian Fernand Braudel

The idea is to take a long view and to acknowledge the role of large-scale social, economic and cultural factors in the making and writing of history. Braudel argued that the course of human history is the result, not of events such as battles or the actions of emperors and kings, but is the outcome of longer-term political, social, economic and geographic “structures”.

For him, ‘events’, the subject matter of traditional history, were relatively insignificant in shaping the narrative, and individuals were severely limited and constrained in what they could do by broader and deeper “structures” beyond their control. In doing so he also emphasized the importance of the everyday lives of serfs, peasants, and commoners, demonstrating their importance in shaping civilisations. His key contribution was to reform the ‘history narrative’, often too focused on the wealthy ruling classes.

Whilst he opened up a new paradigm in historiography, Braudel probably did not realise back in the 1960’s that he would pioneer the pop-History genre that later exploded with the diffusion of documentaries and books retelling in a much more entertaining manner the ‘boring’ history we learnt from the school curriculum.

The idea is to pick a precise subject – often an edible one, like salt or chocolate – and to dig up as many relevant anecdotes and factoids as research will allow to view the world through this chosen angle. If written with substance, it gives good insights via accessible stories about the changing textures of human life. If artificially written, it becomes ludicrous and ends up in fads of the type of “how chicken nuggets made the modern world”: a continued set of random tangents about historical events and the supposedly pivotal role of the subject in the history of the world.

Fortunately Standage not only did not fall into that pitfall, but instead really succeeded in telling the highly engaging history of beverages and how it influenced, and was influenced by, the history of economic development.

beer-bath In the name of quality reporting…

1 – Beer was discovered in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. It might have been the original motivation for domesticating cereal crops, thus switching from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle. Whilst there is debate among academics whether beer or bread was the critical motivator, the consensus on the crucial role of cereals and yeast fermentation is at least clear for both products.

2 – Wine is possibly as old as beer but linked in Standage’s story mainly with Greek and Roman antiquity: the civilizer of Greece and Rome. It was incorporated into religious rituals, became important in hospitality, was used for medicinal purposes and it became an integral part of daily meals.

3 – Spirits (rum, whiskey and gin) came from the most important innovation regarding alcohol discovered during the Middle Ages: distillation. An important development that enabled to reach higher levels of concentration and therefore to store alcohol content in much smaller volumes that the fermented beer of wine. You could say that spirits were the zip-file version of wine and beer. Except they rarely got unzipped and ended up drunk still compressed!

This made alcohol more transportable and led to its commerce and the infamous ‘slave trade triangle’ between New England, the West Coast of Africa and the West Indies. In Britain, the diffusion of spirits led to the Gin Craze of the seventeen-twenties to the seventeen-fifties, which was among history’s epic binges and man-made medical disasters as attested by a sign on one of thousands of gin shops: “Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence, straw for nothing.”

It is in trying to explain how Europe stopped this spirits binge that Standage possibly slightly flirts with a fallacy. He explains that following the alcohol craze, the rise of coffee (the 4th drink) in the seventeen century came as “the great soberer”. It was “the ideal beverage for the Age of Reason,” the “preferred drink of scientists, intellectuals, merchants, and clerks,” the elixir they relied on for “waking them up in the morning.”

The line that caught my attention is the claim that with the coffee-house era, that “Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries”.

“Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries”.

A very loaded statement which deserves attention.

Taken literally, Standage would imply that Europe was on the perpetual piss, smashed from dawn to dusk for centuries, which hampered progress. The angle he followed is that the decrease in alcohol consumption came from the rise of coffee-houses, and fostered a development never seen before.

A closer examination reveals the danger of such a black and white claim coming out of the pop-history approach, but also gives fascinating insight on people’s relation to alcohol at the time.

Alcohol was a necessary part of people diet: “People drank a significant proportion of their daily intake of calories.” (Braudel). It was also a necessary substitute to water. For instance, in seventeenth-century London water was so foul that Londoners drank little or none of it. Beer and ale were scarcely thought of as intoxicants compare to the potential dangers of water contamination.

Available data such as Londoner Samuel Pepys’ diary shows that coffee actually did not replace alcoholic beverages. From the “morning draft” to the wine taken with dinner, alcohol kept pouring even as the consumption of coffee spread across Europe. In the sixteenth century, alcohol beverage consumption reached 100 liters per person per year in Valladolid, Spain, and Polish peasants consumed up to three liters of beer per day (Braudel, 1974). In Coventry, the average amount of beer and ale consumed was about 17 pints per person per week, compared to about three pints today (Monckton, 1966); nationwide, consumption was about one pint per day per capita. Swedish beer consumption may have been 40 times higher than in modem Sweden. Those levels did not diminish overnight.

So myth busted. Coffee did not replace alcohol.

What did happen however, is that the popularity of coffee-houses as places to socialize favoured the spread of ideas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A slight nuance.

Drinking of coffee contributed to the development of new forms of sociability. As public spaces they promoted a strong form of egalitarianism mixing aristocrats, merchants, and artisans at the same table. Drinking was not the primary motive of the visit: talking and doing business was. A platform for a social network…. A social network so threatening to the established authorities Charles II tried to ban them in 1675. But the popular outcry was so strong that he was forced to rescind the order shortly thereafter. Coffee-houses provided an extremely rich environment for large range of social and business activities: philosophical or scientific lectures, the foundation of the English insurance industry at Lloyd’s coffee-house, the spread of journalism at a time where the dissemination of news actually did not occur via heavily state-controlled printed newspapers but orally at the coffee shop (1). This is how the modern ideas of the public sphere and public opinion developed.

The punch line of this anecdote is that the social and economic changes that followed this period, the progress in sanitation and medicine eventually changed the way alcohol consumption was socially accepted. The modern negative notion of alcoholism replaced the commonly tolerated drunkenness. Alcohol ceased to be a dietary supplement to become exclusively a social lubricant.

The story of tea – the 5th drink – embodies the power of British imperialism and the importance of the trade of tea across the British Empire: it is even a ‘Tea Party’ in Boston that started the American war of independence.

Finally Coke is the 6th beverage, symbol of capitalism and consumerism during the rise of the US as a geopolitical power. A 7th drink is also mentioned, water, which will be the next liquid to influence the history of the world because of the global geo-strategic tensions to secure access to it for an ever increasing population around the world. (eg. The Geostrategic Implications of Water Scarcity in the Middle East )

In conclusion, a great angle deserving many raised glasses. Santé @tomstandage!

Blaq Swan – 1/8/2013 – Sydney

New Lloyds Coffeehouse, later in the 18th century


(1): “the spread of journalism at a time where the dissemination of news actually did not occur via heavily state-controlled printed newspapers but orally at the coffee shop”: Journalism: a critical history By Martin Conboy

New Yorker review of ‘A History of the World in 6 Glasses’: LIQUID ASSETS, The social life of beverages.

The Geostrategic Implications of Water Scarcity in the Middle East: http://soufangroup.com/briefs/details/?Article_Id=573

2 Comments A History of the World in 6 Glasses

  1. Ali

    Milo and Moo deserve to try out the brand ‘Wellness’ too… natrual and nutritious !! Wellness has turkey and salmon range products which are good for X’mas celebration with them two.

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