Review: History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage

I love history, but raw history can be a bit boring and so I look for books that peer into the past with a different lens or narrative. Here, Tom Standage tells a popular history of the world through six beverages: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca Cola. Full of the anecdotes and stories that liven up an otherwise dry subject, I especially appreciated the new perspective added to the background of the otherwise unrecognized history behind my drinks. The fact that water is so essential to our survival provides the necessary justification to put our drinks at the center of history. By introducing each beverage chronologically, he allows each beverage to tell the story of a period through local stories, global processes, and connections.

One of the first conclusions was that our beverages are much more than a means to satisfy our thirst or sweet tooth. The six glasses surveyed contained medicines, currency, social equators, revolutionary substances, status indicators, and nutritional supplements.

While a good book and an engaging read, I wouldn’t say my worldview was challenged or much expanded by this book. Books like this would make a fascinating magazine article (like one of those crazy long articles in the Atlantic), and I feel the story of each glass was stretched to fill a book. To save you the time, I tried to hit the highlights below and allow you to read something much more interesting like Sapiens or Abundance (review forthcoming).


In both cultures [Egypt and Mesopotamia], beer was a staple foodstuff without which no meal was complete. It was consumed by everyone, rich and poor, men and women, adults and children, from the top of the social pyramid to the bottom. It was truly the defining drink of these first great civilizations.” Page 30

Standage begins by discussing the history of beer while presenting the story of the domestication of cereal grains, the development of farming, early migrations, and the development of river valley societies in Egypt and Mesopotamia. He talks of beer as a discovery rather than an invention, and how it was first used alternately as a social drink with a shared vessel, as a form of edible money, and as a religious offering. As urban water supplies became contaminated, beer also became a safer drink. Beer became equated with civilization and was the beverage of choice from cradle to the grave. By discussing global processes such as the increase of agriculture, urban settlement, regional trade patterns, the evolution of writing, and health and nutrition, Standage provides the needed global historical context for the social evolution of beer.


Thucydides: “the peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine.” (52-53)

Standage introduces wine through a discussion of early Greek and Roman society. Wine is initially associated with social class as it was exotic and scarce, being expensive to transport without breakage. The masses drank beer. Wine conveyed power, prestige, and privilege. Wine then came to embody Greek culture and became more widely available. It was used not only in the Symposium, the Greek drinking parties, but also medicinally to clean wounds and as a safer drink than water. Roman farmers combined Greek influence with their own farming background through viticulture, growing grapes instead of grain which they imported from colonies in North Africa. It became a symbol of social differentiation and a form of conspicuous consumption where the brand of the wine mattered. With the fall of the Roman Empire, wine continued to be associated with Christianity and the Mediterranean. Global processes highlighted here include the importance of geography, climate and locale, long distance trade, the rise and fall of empires, the movement of nomadic peoples, and the spread of religion.


“Rum was the liquid embodiment of both the triumph and the oppression of the first era of globalization.” (Page 111)

First, I needed this book to force me to consider the difference between beer, wine and spirits. Here is how I keep it straight:

As far as I can tell, there are three big divisions in the world of adult beverages: beers, wines, and spirits. These typically contain between 3{aaa01f1184b23bc5204459599a780c2efd1a71f819cd2b338cab4b7a2f8e97d4} and 40{aaa01f1184b23bc5204459599a780c2efd1a71f819cd2b338cab4b7a2f8e97d4} Alcohol by volume (ABV).

Beer (Alcohol content: 4{aaa01f1184b23bc5204459599a780c2efd1a71f819cd2b338cab4b7a2f8e97d4}-6{aaa01f1184b23bc5204459599a780c2efd1a71f819cd2b338cab4b7a2f8e97d4} ABV generally) and Wine (Alcohol content: 9{aaa01f1184b23bc5204459599a780c2efd1a71f819cd2b338cab4b7a2f8e97d4}-16{aaa01f1184b23bc5204459599a780c2efd1a71f819cd2b338cab4b7a2f8e97d4} ABV) are alcoholic beverages produced by fermentation.

Beer is generally composed of malted barley and/or wheat and wine is made using fermented grapes. Simple enough. Also remember that Ales are not Lagers. Ale yeasts ferment at warmer temperatures than do lager yeasts. Ales are sometimes referred to as top fermented beers, as ale yeasts tend to locate at the top of the fermenter during fermentation, while lagers are referred to as bottom-fermenting by the same logic.

Beer and Wine have low alcohol content. (And I only drink these.) So, while being alcoholic drinks they aren’t included in the general definition of ‘Liquor’, which is just a term for drinks with ABV’s higher than 16 or so percent.

To be clear, fermentation is a metabolic process that converts sugar to acids, gases or alcohol. It occurs in yeast and bacteria, but also in oxygen-starved muscle cells, as in the case of lactic acid fermentation. Fermentation is also used more broadly to refer to the bulk growth of microorganisms on a growth medium, often with the goal of producing a specific chemical product.

By the way, it was news to me that Champagne is just a specific variant of wine. More specifically, Champagne is a sparkling (carbonated) wine produced from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France following rules that demand secondary fermentation of the wine in the bottle to create carbonation.

Now, back to this section of the book. Whisky, Rum, Brandy, Vodka, Tequila are all what we call ‘Spirits’ or ‘Liquor’ and they can really crank up the ABV.

Spirits (aka Liquor or Distilled beverage) are beverages prepared using distillation. Distillation is just further processing of fermented beverage to purify and remove any diluting components like water. This increases the proportion of their alcohol content and that’s why they are also commonly known as ‘Hard Liquor’. Distilled beverages like whisky may have up to 40{aaa01f1184b23bc5204459599a780c2efd1a71f819cd2b338cab4b7a2f8e97d4} ABV. (wow)

This was strange for me. I’ve always considered wine production to be the highest art in beverage production, but you can think of distilled spirits as a more “refined” counterpart of the more “crude” fermented beverages.

Standage focuses less on the basic content above, and gives us the history that got us here. He introduces the fact that the process of distillation originated in Cordoba by the Arabs to allow the miracle medicine of distilled wine to travel better. He talks of how this idea was spread via the new printing press, leading to the development of whiskey and, later, brandy. Much detail is provided on the spirits, slaves, and sugar connection where rum was used as a currency for slave payment. Sailors drank grog (watered-down rum), which helped to alleviate scurvy.

He argues that rum was the first globalized drink of oppression. Its popularity in the colonies, where there were few other alcoholic beverage choices, led to distilling in New England. This, he argues, began the trade wars which resulted in the molasses act, the sugar act, the boycotts of imports, and a refusal to pay taxes without representation. Indeed, he wonders whether it was rum rather than tea that started the American Revolution. He also discusses the impact of the whiskey rebellion. The French fur traders’ use of brandy, the British use of rum, and the Spanish use of pulque all point to how spirits were used to conquer territory in the Americas. Spirits became associated not only with slavery, but also with the exploitation and subjugation of natives on five continents as colonies and mercantilist economic theory was pursued.

For completeness, I wanted to summarize the difference between the different spirits out there.

Vodka is the simplest of spirits and consists almost entirely of water and ethanol. It’s distilled many times to a very high proof, removing almost all impurities, and then watered down to desired strength. Since just about all impurities are removed, I was surprised to find out that it can be made from just about anything. Potatoes, grain, or a mixture are most common. Flavored vodkas are made by adding flavors and sugars after the fact when the liquor is bottled.

Whiskey (which includes Scotches, Rye, and Bourbons) is specifically made from grain and is aged in wood casks. The grain is mixed with water and fermented to make beer and then distilled. (Yes, whiskey is first beer, surprise to me.) The liquor comes out of the still white and is very much like vodka. The color is imparted by aging in wood casks. Different types of whiskey are separated by the grain they are made of, how they are aged, and specific regional processes. Scotches are from Scotland, made mostly with barley, are smokey from the way the barley is kiln dried. Bourbons are made from at least half corn and are aged in charred barrels which impart caramel and vanilla flavors. Rye is made from rye, and there are plenty more variations.

Gin, like the others made with grain, starts is life as beer, which is then distilled to a high proof like vodka. Aromatic herbs including juniper berries and often gentian, angelica root, and a host of secret flavorings depending on the brand, are added to the pure spirit. The liquor is then distilled again. The second distillation leaves behind heavy bitter molecules which don’t vaporize readily, capturing only the lighter aromatics.

Rum is made by fermenting and distilling cane sugar. Traditionally made from less refined sugar, it contains aromas of the sugar cane. Originally it was an inadvertent by product of making sugar as runoff from the refinery quickly fermented. Like whiskey, some rums are aged, giving them an amber color. And, like other sprits there are regional variations with slightly different processes.

Brandy is a distilled spirit from fruits. Most commonly grapes.

Agave liquors, including tequila, mezcal, and sotol, are made from fermented sugars from the agave, a relative of aloes.

Coffee (my favorite beverage)

Europe’s coffeehouses functioned as information exchanges for scientists, businessmen, writers and politicians. Like modern web sites.. (Page 152)

Standage presents the history of coffee from its origins in the Arab world to Europe, addressing the initial controversy that the beverage generated in both locations. As a new and safe alternative to alcoholic drinks and water, some argued that it promoted rational enquiry and had medicinal qualities. Women felt threatened by it, however, arguing that due to its supposed deleterious effect on male potency, “The whole race is in danger of extinction.” Coffeehouses were places where men gathered to exchange news where social differences were left at the door. Some establishments specialized in particular topics such as the exchange of scientific and commercial ideas. Governments tried to suppress these institutions, since coffeehouses promoted freedom of speech and an open atmosphere for discussion amongst different classes of people–something many governments found threatening.

I had a weak appreciation for Coffee’s economic impact. Whole empires were built on coffee and coffeehouses formed the first stock exchanges. The Arabs had a monopoly on beans, while the Dutch were middlemen in the trade and then set up coffee plantations in Java and Suriname. The French began plantations in the West Indies and Haiti.


The story of tea is the story of imperialism, industrialization and world domination one cup at a time. (Page 177)

The author discusses the historic importance of tea in China as initially a medicinal good and then as a trade item along the Silk Routes with the spread of Buddhism. It became a national drink during the Tang dynasty, reflecting the prosperity of the time. Easy to prepare, its medicinal qualities were known to kill bacteria that cause cholera, typhoid, and dysentery. Though it fell from favor during Mongol rule, it had already spread to Japan, where the tea ceremony evolved as a sign of status and culture. Tea was introduced into Europe before coffee but was more expensive, and so initially denoted luxury and was used mainly as a medicinal drink. By the 18th century, Britain was won over by tea thanks in part to the role played by the British East India Trading company. Power plays in India and China as opium was traded for tea increased the economic might of the British empire abroad. Marriages, tea shops for women, tea parties, afternoon tea, and tea gardens all evolved as part of high culture. And yet, tea also showed up amongst the working class and played a role in factory production through the introduction of tea breaks. Tea also played a role in reducing waterborne diseases since the water had to be boiled first. This directly increased infant survival rates, and thus increased the available labor pool for the industrial revolution. The marketing of tea and tea paraphernalia provided additional evidence of the emergence of consumerism in England. Tea drinking in nations of the former British empire continues to this day. Tea helps to explain the global processes of trade through the Silk Routes and via later technologies such as railroads and steamships. Standage also highlights the role of tea in disease prevention, the Industrial revolution, the Rise of the West, and imperialism.


To my mind, I am in this damn mess as much to help keep the custom of drinking Cokes as I am to help preserve the million other benefits our country blesses its citizens with . . . (Page 253)

Similar to the other drinks Standage discusses, I was surprised to learn that Coca cola was initially a medicinal beverage. Soda water could be found in the soda fountains in apothecaries as early as 1820. John Pemberton in Atlanta Georgia in 1886 developed a medicinal concoction using French wine, coca (from the Incas), and kola extract. However, he needed a non-alcoholic version because of the temperance movement, and thus Coca-Cola was born. Thanks to advertising and marketing using testimonials, a distinctive logo, and free samples, the syrup became profitable when added to existing soda fountains. By 1895 it was a national drink. Legal controversy forced it to let go of medicinal claims and left it as “delicious and refreshing.” Further challenges to the drink included the end of Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the rise of Pepsi.

With World War II, America ended isolationism and sent out 16 million servicemen with Coke in their hands. Coke sought to increase soldier morale by supplying a familiar drink to them abroad. To cut down on shipping costs, only the syrup was shipped, and bottling plants were set up wherever American servicemen went. Quickly, Coke became synonymous with patriotism. After the war, there were attacks of Coca-colonization by French communists in the midst of the Cold war. The company responded by arguing that “coca cola was the essence of capitalism” representing a symbol of freedom since Pepsi had managed to get behind the “iron curtain.” Ideological divides continued as Coca Cola was marketed in Israel and the Arab world became dominated by Pepsi. Coca Cola represents the historical trend of the past century towards increased globalization, and its history raises reader awareness of global processes of industrialization, mass transportation, mass consumerism, global capitalism, conflict, the Cold war, and ideological battles.


Standage concludes the book by posing the question of whether water will be the next drink whose story will need to be told. He cites not only the bottled water habit of the developed world, but the great divide in the world being over access to safe water. He also notes water’s role as the root of many global conflicts.

Review: How we Got to Now

How we got to Now

Stephen Johnson loves making broad and interdisciplinary connections. He describes the complex evolution of technology, and the interactions of events leading to our modern world with an emphasis on understanding the true nature of role of innovation. In 289 pages, he surveys history, through the lens of the causal factors for science and technology in an engaging narrative. He takes you through such diverse places as the secret chambers within the pyramids of Giza and foul trenches in the sewers of old Chicago. The journey covers six thematic areas: glass, cold, sound, cleanliness, time and light.

Each of these six facets of modern life are described through their causes and practical impact (refrigeration, clocks, and eyeglass lenses, to name a few). Johnson highlights the role of hobbyists, amateurs, and entrepreneurs play over centuries on their non-linear path to discovery. Of course, he loves to highlight surprising stories of accidental genius and brilliant mistakes-from the French publisher who invented the phonograph before Edison but forgot to include playback, to the Hollywood movie star who helped invent the technology behind Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

The book is strongest when Johnson examines unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated fields: how the invention of air-conditioning enabled the largest migration of human beings in the history of the species-to cities such as Dubai or Phoenix; how pendulum clocks helped trigger the industrial revolution; and how clean water and air filtration made it possible to manufacture computer chips.

I enjoyed his weird and amusing examples, more than his causal analysis, which is notoriously hard to be conclusive. And Johnson is off course too reductive in a book for such a lay-audience, but he always leaves the door open a crack for reasonable disagreements and his arguments are intriguing. I especially enjoyed the strange interconnected tales of how the things that we take for granted were developed. Johnson calls these interconnections “hummingbird effects”, which he highlights as: “An innovation, or cluster of innovations, in one field end up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether.”

The first innovation Johnson covers is Glass. He starts with its initial discovery in the Libyan Desert to the final perfection of its manufacture in applications as broad as microscopes and mirrors. Through all of this he discusses the interconnections at each step in incremental innovation, always underscoring that the right pieces must be in place before anyone can put a new technology together. Regarding the transformation of silicon dixoide into glass, furnace building and the segregation of the Venetian glassblowers to the island of Murano had to occur concurrently. Once he pulls a thread, the connections start flying.

Johnson, for example, presents the printing press, which made books readily available, which in turn resulted in many people realizing that they were farsighted and could therefore not read them. This resulted in spectacles and spectacle makers who experimented with the lenses resulted in the invention of the microscope and telescope, which in turn altered our concept of the microscopic world and the cosmos. Glass also led to better mirrors, which in turn altered one’s view of self in full circle and had a good bit to do with the introspection that characterized the renaissance and initiated the artistic style of self-portraiture.

Threads like this make for interesting story telling, but I cringe at the implict assignment of causation his arguments imply. However, it is exciting and insightful to see a smart polymathic researcher present an opinion. The stories alone are worth reading the book. Each thread is plausible, if none of them are conclusive.

For example, with “Cold”, Johnson highlights Fredric Tudor’s troubled but ultimately successful obsession to bring ice from the frozen lakes and ponds of New England to the tropics. Ice eventually led to refrigeration and to changes in the living patterns in the US and now in much of the rest of the world because tropical climates were now made more habitable. Cold is also the story of frozen food and how this has changed eating habits and daily routine. While I’m less confident in the causality claims made, I found incredible value in the contrasting case studies of Fredric Tutor and Willis Carrier. Each were successful, but with different ingredients, and in different ways.

In a sense, “How We Got to Now” is a stellar history book regarding the technical development of six different areas, and a mediocre explanation of how we actually got to now. For that, I recommend you give it a priority that lands it somewhere in the middle of your stack.