Drinks That Made History

“The history of manners is the most valuable. I never set a high value on any other history.”—Johnson (quoted in Boswell’s Life)

Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses is very much a “history of manners.” Food and drink have always been a focus of human intercourse, communication and etiquette. According to the author, the power of drink cannot be underrated. It has played a profound role in economics, politics, religion and culture. And while recent cultural history is often overdone, frequently irreverent (usually irrelevant), Standage provides an intelligent look at the “ages” of mankind in terms of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola.

Unlike the other beverages named, Coke might be seen not as a truly social drink but as the cocktail of the individualist. To some, its cloying adolescent flavor is reflective of a hedonistic postwar milieu which has catered to pubescent music, language, and fashions. Yet in all fairness, Coca-Cola’s caffeinated grandfather, coffee, may be history’s most subversive drink. In the eighteenth century “the coffeehouses of Paris were meeting places for intellectuals and became centers of Enlightenment [and revolutionary] thought.” Even today, says Standage, the “great soberer” under the popular Starbucks’ label remains associated with avant-garde thinking.

While there are insurrections born in coffee shops, and even beer hall putsches, few revolutions are blamed on wine. Standage considers wine to be the most cultivated of drinks. In Greco-Roman society it was at the center of the symposion (drinking party). The most famous of these is described in Plato’s dialogues, as a venue for witty and learned discourse. Standage notes that Plato used wine “in the pursuit of truth” as well as a means of refreshment, taken in moderation.

What of the commercial aspects of drink? Coca-Cola is uniquely identified with America and “encapsulates the trend toward a single global marketplace.” Yet too much can be made of its globalist symbolism. After all, wine, tea and coffee were as influential in shaping international trade as the modern soft drink. They were even transmitters of values and attitudes. Thus, as the Greek wine amphora supplanted the beer pot of Mesopotamia and Egypt it brought with it a transforming Hellenic culture of “ordered competition” (as the author neatly puts it).

Finally, there is that mild potation which Americans tend to associate with hippies and old ladies—tea (taken hot, not the adulterated iced version). “Knowledge of tea,” explains Standage, “and its ceremonial consumption in genteel surroundings at home became a means of demonstrating one’s sophistication.” It is a refined and meditative drink. And perhaps only a tea-drinking people like the English could have given us the drawing room murder mystery or the gentle absurdity of P. G. Wodehouse. As for Johnson, he devoted an entire essay in The Literary Magazine (1757) in defense of his favorite beverage against the criticism of Mr. Hanway who alleged tea’s “pernicious” influence!

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