Friday, December 13, 2013

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage

Next up in the month of liquids is an assortment of important fluids. I bought A History of the World in 6 Glasses at The Book Cellar seven years ago shortly after it came out. For some reason, I only read a few pages of the introduction before setting it aside. I should have read the whole book then because it's pretty good.

Standage uses beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola to represent important eras over the course of civilization. Each beverage gets two chapters, one giving its own history and the other putting it in the context of world history. For example, wine represents the Greek and Roman eras, tea represents the British Empire, and Coca-Cola represents American dominance and globalism.

We've all heard of the Opium Wars, but do you know what started them? It was Britain's tea trade with China! Since the Chinese didn't want or need European goods, they insisted on payment in silver for their tea. The British East India Company figured out it could produce opium in India and then sell it to smugglers offshore from China, in turn using silver from the smugglers to pay for its tea. Eventually this led to war, and the British routed the Chinese, winning numerous concessions including possession of Hong Kong. Ironically, around the time of the Opium Wars the British began cultivating tea in India instead of opium, which eventually eliminated the need for tea trade with China altogether.

Coca-Cola was a symbol of America during World War II, and the company went to great lengths to make available to every soldier, going so far as to set up 64 military bottling plants around the world. After the war, Soviet General Zhukov loved the capitalist soda so the company sent him uncolored Coke in plain bottles that could pass for vodka.

That's just a taste (pun intended) of what I learned from A History of the World in 6 Glasses.

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