Tuesday, September 27, 2016

History of the World in Six Glasses

A History of the World in Six Glasses was Brennan's summer AP World History reading assignment two summers ago. The book looked interesting, so I put it on my shelf and got around to it when we were traveling to Ghana

Tom Standage's thesis: "The availability of water constrained and guided humankind's progress. Drinks have continued to shape human history ever since." (1) The six drinks? Chronologically, three alcoholic (beer, wine, spirits) and then three caffeine-based (coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola). "Each was the defining drink during a pivotal historical period." (2)

Another thing they all had in common: all of them were safer than water: beer (21); wine (59); spirits (including citric additives in "grog" as a way to fight scurvy [110]); coffee and tea (which required boiled water [135] and tea contains tannic acid [179]); and of course, Coca-Cola is bottled and modern. 

Miscellaneous observations on each of the six: 

-Beer was originally drunk through straws (10,18)-- to avoid the chaff in the early versions of production. Standage argues that this led to shared drinks and beer as a standard form of hospitality. (And in low-information / high-stakes environments, drinking together was a way to ensure that one would not be poisoned!) 
-Beer and bread are siblings: "bread and beer were [probably] derived from gruel...Bread was solid beer, and beer was liquid bread." (17) Standage also notes that "bread and beer" (37) was a metaphor for prosperity. In this, it's similar to the OT's use of "olive and fig". (I thought I had a blog post on this topic-- from a talk I heard and a book I read, but I can't find it. Let me know if you're interested and I'll look around some more.)  
-Standage also makes the provocative claim that beer (and its trade) were responsible for the creation of accountancy, writing and bureaucracy to keep track of beer and taxing it (23, 30). Beer also shaped early America: it determined the Puritan's landing spot, cutting short their trip-- and otherwise being a key part of what they brought on their trips to the New World (114). 

-Beer was the drink of the common man; wine became the drink of the elites in Greek and then Roman times. Standage makes two references to Jesus here-- the type of wine at the crucifixion (80) and His first miracle in John 2-- turning water into wine (85), interestingly, as in Genesis 1 and John 1, creating something with "apparent age".

-Spirits were a compact form of alcohol, reducing transaction costs and allowing for easier tax avoidance and tax evasion. 
-Spirits were able to transcend the limitations of yeast through the process of "distillation" (99). 
-Determining the strength of spirits was a common problem-- a low-information environment. But grog drinkers were able to develop an ingenious test of its strength, using gunpowder and sunlight (109). 
-Rum (and related tax policy) played a key role in the American Revolution (117-121), through laws that were not enforced and then laws they tried to enforce. Standage quotes John Adams-- that "molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence." (121) 
-And tax policy led to early antics and a strong government response with the Whiskey Rebellion (121-127). Whiskey did not rely on imported products; it could not be blockaded or easily taxed. After the War, Hamilton was looking for revenue sources and imposed a tax on distilled drinks. Far more onerous, the tax was imposed at the point of production rather than at consumption or sale, so that even private use was being taxed. It was a key moment in early battles over the extent of federalism-- the federal govt's authority over the states.
-In all of this, I'm reminded of a provocative OT verse on spirits-- Deuteronomy 14:26, which says "Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice."

From there, Standage turns to three drinks based on caffeine. 

-Coffee promoted sharp/clear thought-- important in an "Age of Reason" and with the increasing emergence of "information workers" (vs. manufacturing; 135).  
-Coffee was put on trial by Muslim imams-- and found innocent, at least in the court of public opinion. (Standage does not make mention of the LDS/Mormon prohibition.) 
-Standage links the earliest coffeehouses to information, politics, and networking-- including the formation of Lloyd's of London (163) and the first Stock Exchange (165).

-Standage details the emergence of tea in Britain-- and the political clout of the British East India Company with tea (190, 203-206) and then opium (206-212). He also details the 1839-1842 Opium War, which devastated the Chinese.  
-He also notes that coffee's popularity over tea only began in the 19th century-- rather than the common idea that the Tea Party was cause/effect with coffee's dominance over the English beverage (219-220)

-"The rise of America, and the globalization of war, politics, trade, and communications during the 20th C., are mirrored by the rise of Coca-Cola, the world's most valuable and widely recognized brand." (225) Coca-Cola has been linked to patriotism, including an exemption from sugar rations since it was seen as essential for the war effort-- and bottling facilities were set up as possible at military bases (252). 
-Standage also details the irony of Asa Candler's shenanigans causing Coca-Cola to thrive and thus, preserving creator John Pemberton's name/fame (240).  
-He also notes that Coca-Cola grew quickly by reducing transaction costs in deciding not to bottle the syrup and the soda water (241).

Standage wraps up by closing the loop and arguing that water is (or will be) drink #7-- for both the developed world (as a lifestyle choice that seems luxurious and banal) and the less-developed world (as life or death).


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home