A History of the World in Six Glasses


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Tom Standage is a British journalist and author based in London. He is the author of six books, one of his most notable being A History of the World in Six Glasses, which was first published in 2005. Mr. Standage studied at Oxford University and received a degree in engineering and computer science, which he put to work as the Deputy Editor at The Economist overseeing digital strategy and output. In addition to writing for The Economist and his books, he has been published in The New York Times, Daily Telegraph, and Wired- just to name a few. His personal life is consumed by his wife, children, and love for wine, drums, and video games. Tom Standage, the author of A History of the World in Six Glasses, is an accomplished author, journalist, and engineer.

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Thesis: What and the way that people drink has changed and shaped our world and society since the beginning of mankind. Drinks have been shaping human history ever since the availability of water guided and formed human progress. Different drinks have come to prominence in different parts of the world over time, but it still holds true that what and how we drink shapes us as a people and society. Most beverages, especially those that are heated or contain alcohol, provide a safer alternative to water due to risk of contamination, which is common in early settlements without modern plumbing and sewage systems. Beer is the first notable drink to alter humankind. In around 10,000 BCE, beer was discovered in the Fertile Crescent. The adoption of cereal grains as a primary crop began when people started to switch from nomadism to permanent settlements. The birth of civilization coincides with the birth (or human discovery) of beer.

The first beer was drunk from large clay pots with long straws used to avoid drinking the grains, chaff, and other debris floating on the surface. This is depicted in artifacts from Mesopotamia dating back to 4000 BCE. Beer helped make the newfound surplus of raw grains more suitable for consumption as people found its effects enjoyable. It is derived from gruel, which is a mixture of grains and water. People found that if they left the gruel sitting for too long, it created pleasurable effects on the mind when consumed. They altered the taste with different berries, spices, herbs, and other flavorings. Late Egyptian records list 17 types, while Mesopotamian records show up to 20. Neolithic drinkers deemed beer a gift from the gods because of its “magical” effects on the mind. Therefore, it was presented as a religious offering in every beer drinking culture. The practice of “raising a glass” or toasting someone to wish them good luck comes from this act of religious offering. Beer, along with bread (which is basically baked beer), was used as a form of money to pay workers, servants, etc. The amount and type of beer you drank dictated your social and economical ranking. While beer and bread are no longer used as a form of currency, they are still considered a staple of the working man.

Soon, however, around 870 BCE, King Ashurnasirpal of Assyria held one of the greatest feasts in history. In addition to serving the traditional beer to his impressive 69,574 attendees, the king served wine, which was imported from the mountains. The cost of importation made it at least ten times more expensive than beer, and so wine became the new beverage of the wealthy and elite. Wine was associated with power, prosperity, and privilege. Wine was first produced between 9000 and 4000 BCE, but did not gain “fame” until this time. It was likely first discovered after someone attempted to store grapes or grape in a clay pot for an extended period of time. The grapes broke down and the natural yeasts in grape skins fermented them into wine. Grape vines were typically introduced to an area, instead of being native, after a leader or ruler acquired a taste for the beverage. As more and more places began to start cultivating vines, wine started to over take beer as a common household drink. In Nimrud in around 785 BCE, each man received roughly one modern glass a day. Skilled workers and other higher ranked workmen got more, but everyone household was drinking wine in some amount. Date-palm wine was used as a substitute in areas where wine was not accessible due to its high perishability and high transport costs. The Greeks’ love of competition was fueled by their love of wine. They believed that it showcased their superiority over foreign people.

Wine was drunk at special formal drinking parties called symposia, where guests would engage in intellectual conversation and try to outdo the others in wit, poetry, or rhetoric. Symposion were only for men, and tool place in andron, or special “men’s rooms”. These rooms were often the only rooms with stone floors and were slanted inwards to making cleaning easier. Homes were often built around the andron because of their importance to the Greek society. The Greek god Dionysus is said to have brought wine to Greece, not for just the elite, but for everyone. Wine was produced especially for commercial retail, unlike beer. Wine was ranked by origin and age, the older it was, the more expensive. Wine was only suitable for consumption when mixed with water. The mixing took place during the symposion. Greeks thought that this sophisticated way of drinking put them above the barbarians who drank beer or unmixed wine. By the middle of the second century BCE, the Romans had overtaken Greece as the dominant people in the region. They began to use the Greeks’ wine drinking customs and soon, in around 146 BCE, the Italian peninsula became the world’s most successful wine region. The richest people in Rome drank the finest wines and so on down the social ladder. Falernian wine was said to be the best, and was often used for medicinal purposes as suggested by Galen.

Even today, wine continues to fuel discussion in a typically formal environment. People living in the colonial period thrived off of spirits. Cόrdoba, a city in modern day southern Spain, is where distillation, a process that involves vaporizing and recondensing liquids to separate its parts, became popular. Simple distillation has been used since fourth century BCE, but it was not widely used until then. Distilling wine makes it stronger, and this stronger wine was thought to be a “miracle cure” that could make a person live forever.

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