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The World in a Glass: Six Drinks That Changed History

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 3, 2005
 
Tom Standage urges drinkers to savor the history of their favorite beverages along with the taste.

The author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses (Walker & Company, June 2005), Standage lauds the libations that have helped shape our world from the Stone Age to the present day.

"The important drinks are still drinks that we enjoy today," said Standage, a technology editor at the London-based magazine the Economist. "They are relics of different historical periods still found in our kitchens."

Take the six-pack, whose contents first fizzed at the dawn of civilization.

Beer

The ancient Sumerians, who built advanced city-states in the area of present-day Iraq, began fermenting beer from barley at least 6,000 years ago.

"When people started agriculture the first crops they produced were barley or wheat. You consume those crops as bread and as beer," Standage noted. "It's the drink associated with the dawn of civilization. It's as simple as that."

Beer was popular with the masses from the beginning.

"Beer would have been something that a common person could have had in the house and made whenever they wanted," said Linda Bisson, a microbiologist at the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis.

"The guys who built the pyramids were paid in beer and bread," Standage added. "It was the defining drink of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Everybody drank it. Today it's the drink of the working man, and it was then as well."

Wine

Wine may be as old or older than beer—though no one can be certain.

Paleolithic humans probably sampled the first "wine" as the juice of naturally fermented wild grapes. But producing and storing wine proved difficult for early cultures.

"To make wine you have to have fresh grapes," said Bisson, the UC Davis microbiologist. "For beer you can just store grain and add water to process it at any time."

Making wine also demanded pottery that could preserve the precious liquid.

"Wine may be easier to make [than beer], but it's harder to store," Bisson added. "For most ancient cultures it would have been hard to catch [fermenting grape juice] as wine on its way to [becoming] vinegar."

Such caveats and the expense of producing wine helped the beverage quickly gain more cachet than beer. Wine was originally associated with social elites and religious activities.

Wine snobbery may be nearly as old as wine itself. Greeks and Romans produced many grades of wine for various social classes.

The quest for quality became an economic engine and later drove cultural expansion.

"Once you had regions [like Greece and Rome] that could distinguish themselves as making good stuff, it gave them an economic boost," Bisson said. "Beer just wasn't as special."

Spirits

Hard liquor, particularly brandy and rum, placated sailors during the long sea voyages of the Age of Exploration, when European powers plied the seas during the 15th, 16th, and early 17th centuries.

Rum played a crucial part of the triangular trade between Britain, Africa, and the North American colonies that once dominated the Atlantic economy.

Standage also suggests that rum may have been more responsible than tea for the independence movement in Britain's American colonies.

"Distilling molasses for rum was very important to the New England economy," he explained. "When the British tried to tax molasses it struck at the heart of the economy. The idea of 'no taxation without representation' originated with molasses and sugar. Only at the end did it refer to tea."

Great Britain's longtime superiority at sea may also owe a debt to its navy's drink of rum-based choice, grog, which was made a compulsory beverage for sailors in the late 18th century.

"They would make grog with rum, water, and lemon or lime juice," Standage said. "This improved the taste but also reduced illness and scurvy. Fleet physicians thought that this had doubled the efficiency of the fleet."

Coffee

The story of modern coffee starts in the Arabian Peninsula, where roasted beans were first brewed around A.D. 1000. Sometime around the 15th century coffee spread throughout the Arab world.

"In the Arab world coffee rose as an alternative to alcohol, and coffeehouses as alternatives to taverns—both of which are banned by Islam," Standage said.

When coffee arrived in Europe it was similarly hailed as an "anti-alcohol" that was quite welcome during the Age of Reason in the 18th century.

"Just at the point when the Enlightenment is getting going, here's a drink that sharpens the mind," Standage said. "The coffeehouse is the perfect venue to get together and exchange ideas and information. The French Revolution started in a coffeehouse."

Coffee also fuelled commerce and had strong links to the rituals of business that remain to the present day. Lloyds of London and the London Stock Exchange were both originally coffeehouses.

Tea

Tea became a daily drink in China around the third century A.D.

Standage says tea played a leading role in the expansion of imperial and industrial might in Great Britain many centuries later. During the 19th century, the East India Company enjoyed a monopoly on tea exports from China.

"Englishmen around the world could drink tea, whether they were a colonial administrator in India or a London businessman," Standage said. "The sun never set on the British Empire—which meant that it was always teatime somewhere."

As the Industrial Revolution of 18th and 19th centuries gained steam, tea provided some of the fuel. Factory workers stayed alert during long, monotonous shifts thanks to welcome tea breaks.

The beverage also had unintended health benefits for rapidly growing urban areas. "When you start packing people together in cities it's helpful to have a water-purification technology like tea," which was brewed with boiling water, Standage explained.

Coca-Cola

In 1886 pharmacist John Stith Pemberton sold about nine Coca-Colas a day.

Today his soft drink is one of world's most valuable brands—sold in more countries than the United Nations has members.

"It may be the second most widely understood phrase in the world after 'OK,'" Standage said.

The drink has become a symbol of the United States—love it or hate it. Standage notes that East Germans quickly reached for Cokes when the Berlin Wall fell, while Thai Muslims poured it out into the streets to show disdain for the U.S. in the days leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"Coca-Cola encapsulates what happened in the 20th century: the rise of consumer capitalism and the emergence of America as a superpower," Standage said. "It's globalization in a bottle."

While Coke may not always produce a smile, a survey by the Economist magazine (Standage's employer), suggests that the soft drink's presence is a great indicator of happy citizens. When countries were polled for happiness, as defined by a United Nations index, high scores correlated with sales of Coca-Cola.

"It's not because [Coke] makes people happy, but because [its] sales happen in the dynamic free-market economies that tend to produce happy people," Standage said.

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