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Drink Up: “The History of the World in Six Glasses”

Beer, yes, beer — has made history. And no, we’re not talking about the hazy stories told the morning after beer-soaked frat parties — we’re talking thousands of years of real history. Who knew that the bubbly, fermented beverage was once a form of currency in ancient Mesopotamia? Or that Egyptian mothers were urged to give beer to their children?

I feel like much was edited out of my history textbooks, likely the result of overzealous parents hoping to shield their innocent children from any book containing the word alcohol. But to censor alcohol is to censor history — the oldest forms of writing in several cultures include the intoxicating elixir. Fortunately, Tom Sandage’s book, “The History of the World in Six Glasses”, has filled in those critical gaps.

Sandage — the technology editor for the Economist — regales us with tales of how beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola have shaped history. And unlike your dry history books of yore, Sandage has full of cocktail party-worthy tidbits (and has any topic ever been more interesting for a cocktail party?) that keep you intrigued. Who knew, for instance, that tea began as a medicinal gruel in China, mixed in with garlic, shallots and ginger? Or that Coca-Cola was exempted from sugar rationing during World War II so that it could be sent abroad to the troops to keep up morale?

What’s funny is that while reading the book, you recognize that, well, some things haven’t changed. Greek and Roman wine buffs distinguished between wines of different regions and prided themselves on their knowledge. In ancient Rome, wine became a symbol of social differentiation, of status and class. “For wealthy Romans, the ability to recognize and name the finest wines was an important form of conspicuous consumption; it showed that they were rich enough to afford the finest wines and had spent time learning which was which.”

Hmmm… sounds to me quite a lot like modern readers of Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast!

My only complaint is that the book is too short. Sandage picks only several periods in history to highlight as he talks about the influences of these drinks when we well know that some of their influence stretches across different cultures and eras. For instance, how can you tell the story of coffee while mentioning modern coffee empires like Starbucks in only one line? Or how to talk about the history of wine without mentioning new regions like California, Chile and Argentina? Clearly, each of these drinks deserves a volume and it’s difficult to include everything, but all in all, the book is quite fun to read.

Some of my favorite facts (take these to your next wine-and-cheese — you’re sure to impress):

  • Coca-Cola still includes extracts from the koca plant, from which it was initially derived
  • In 1671, French doctors decried that coffee caused impotence and burned the blood (they did so at the behest of wine merchants who feared for their livelihood)
  • “Coca-Cola” is said to be the second most understood phrase in the world after “OK”
  • The word “alcohol” is derived from the Arabic “al-koh’l”; the Arabs became master distillers around 1000 A.D.
  • The first stockmarkets started in European coffehouses
  • The British began adding sugar and tea to their milk in order to mask the bitter and often adulterated beverage (merchants added loose leaves, ash, sawdust — even sheep’s dung to stretch the tea)
  • Sailors in the 1600 and 1700s were able to prevent scurvy by drinking “grog:” rum, lemon juice, water and spices on board
  • Greeks and Romans almost always drank their wine with water
 
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Posted by on April 21, 2008 in Food Reads, Wine

 

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