Saturday, May 31, 2014

A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage [book review]

I read most of our Kitchen Reader books on my Kindle. When I finish, I write my reviews by looking back over my highlights--usually about twenty passages that struck me while reading. I mark them so I can remember them later. While reading A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage I highlighted 78 passages! (And I still have two chapters out of twelve left to read!) This is a hugely informative book that I found fascinating. The main idea is that world history can be charted with the history of the six drinks that have been consumed by humans the most: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola.

In some cases, the history of these six drinks is a reflection of what was going on in human history in different periods. But in other ways, I have come to learn, history was made by these drinks. Many more world events than I realised were tied up with these six beverages.

I feel a little unequal to the task of summarising what I have read, thanks to those 78 highlights. So let me just try to say one or two things about each drink.

Beer, first consumed by ancient Middle Eastern peoples, made water safe to drink and also was a way of preserving grain. It rose to popularity with organised agriculture.

Wine was made by ancient Greeks and Italians and it played a key role in their rational ideas of civilised society and learning.

Rum, and other spirits, were a concentrated form of currency during the times of slavery and the exploration of the New World by Europeans. The fact that they could be made from the leftovers of sugar production meant rum and sugar gained a market together.

Coffee was the drink of the Enlightenment and ended up being tied to a boom of scientific and political discussion, especially in London.

Tea was a drink that defined Chinese culture and refinement. Then later it was embraced by the English and played a role in the opium trade, the Opium War, and the role and prosperity of the British colony in India.

I have not yet read the chapters about cola. But it seems to me that cola has taken over the world, and with it, American culture has seeped into many countries. The picture below is from a school trip I accompanied to the Coca-cola factory in Hong Kong.

The part of the book that I enjoyed the most was about tea. A few years ago I visited a tea plantation in China. I was with a group of students and we picked the tiny, tender leaves at the top of each tea bush. Tea picking has never been mechanised. Workers in China, where tea was first grown and harvested, work long hours to carefully pluck only the smallest leaves. (Read more about my tea plantation visit here.)

Early in Chinese history, tea leaves were pressed into cakes and they could be used as currency. From this book I learned that paper money's value decreased the farther it travelled from the imperial centre, but tea actually increased in value as it travelled. Yu Lu, who died in 807, wrote a book called The Classic of Tea which elevated tea drinking to a sophisticated art. Recognising different teas became an art and not being able to make and pour tea gracefully was a disgrace.

When tea reached Europe, doctors proclaimed it a miracle drink and it started to become popular. Tea contains phenolics that can kill the bacteria that cause cholera, typhoid, and dysentry. As the British started to drink it, infant mortality went down and life expectancy went up. Modern statisticians agree that this was due to the boom in tea drinking through the 1700s and 1800s. Thomas and Richard Twining, father and son tea merchants in London, became well known. They started selling teas in 1706 and later put up a sign with special lettering above the door of their shop in 1787 that is thought to be the oldest commercial logo still in use.

The demand for tea in Britain was so great and the cost of importing it from China was such that the British East India Company started to look for an area of India which could cultivate tea. They discovered that tea bushes were growing wild in Assam, so they began growing and harvesting tea there on a massive scale. Indian tea was much cheaper since the company controlled all aspects of the production chain and soon India was providing most of Britain's tea. China's tea exports dwindled, and this, together with other factors, led to its increasing isolation and economic downturn.

The UK remains a nation of tea drinkers. And I'm a dedicated tea lover, too. When I first started dating my British husband I started to acquire a taste for tea and now I don't think I could ever give it up. I enjoyed learning more about my favourite beverage by reading A History of the World in Six Glasses.

Next month our Kitchen Reader book is A Moveable Feast: Life Changing Food Adventures Around the World published by Lonely Planet, which is a collection of 38 stories about travel and food from around the world. The writers are diverse and include a few we have seen before at the Kitchen Reader: David Lebovitz (our very first book in August 2009), Anthony Bourdain (see our March 2011 round-up), and Mark Kurlansky (see our May 2011 round-up). Would you like to join in?

Do you know the history of your favourite drink?

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