What-are-you-reading-Wednesday: A History of the World in Six Glasses

December 2, 2009

By Kristen Fuhs Wells, communications director at the Indiana Humanities Council.

In A History Of The World In Six Glasses, Tom Standage boldly states that the history of the world can be told using six signature beverages (beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola). These drinks are intricately linked to six major periods in world history–from our nomadic brethren deciding to stay in one place to the current fascination with Coca-Cola.

He goes on to divide history much like archaeologists divide it based on different materials (stone, bronze, iron) only in the form of beverages. But not in a world history textbook kind of way (although I did find myself re-learning bits of world history that I had forgotten over the years). Instead, Standage summarizes great periods of history and concepts into just a few sentences, sprinkles in a few interesting factoids and connects both big picture thoughts and minute details to the development of these beverages, as well as their widespread adoption. Standage explains how these beverages extended life expectancies, fueled the enlightenment, contributed to wars, and divided cultures. For example:

Beer contributed to an increase in farming and decrease in hunting.
Wine divided classes and cultures, particularly in Greece and Rome. 
Spirits influenced slavery, the American Revolution, and contributed to the British Navy’s strength.
Tea improved and sustained life, and it was the “lubricant” for the industrial revolution.
Coffee (and coffeehouses) served as fuel for the enlightenment.
Coca-Cola, love it or hate it, is symbolic of America’s rise in dominance.

Some of those interesting tidbits include that the oldest known recipe is for beer; that Coca-Cola created a clear, un-branded bottle for a leader in the Soviet Union so that he wouldn’t be seen drinking Coke during the Cold War; and that rum significantly contributed to the dominance of the British navy because it kept scurvy at bay.

It’s a brisk read, and offers fascinating insights into our history, and into human nature.


  1. […] has a brief review of a book with an interesting notion: “that the history of the world can be told using six […]

  2. This sounds like a riot — and a somewhat painless way to get some history in. I’m reading (in addition to the latest John Sandford, the name of which escapes me even though I know the resort featured in it so far is called Eagle’s Nest — go figure the workings of my brain!) a book that’s outside my norm but which is inspiring and informative. It’s Words for Warriors by a retired Army Colonel, who’s been a combat leader in Korea and Vietnam, and has spent years training and developing leaders. It’s nearly 100 essays, so it’s easy to read and very interesting besides. It has applications for today’s leaders in whatever field. But it’s also about various things going on today, such as what happened with the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib — it wasn’t a few bad soldiers, he says, but a situation where officers abandoned their duties. The scandal wouldn’t have happened if the officers had followed Col Puckett’s examples instead. With the surge being announced, this book is so timely. Let’s hope our soldiers have officers like this one.

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