I came to this book by way of my brother. Were I a regular reader of The Economist, for which Standage is a tech writer, I might also have come across it by association. The premise alone was enough to intrigue me, not just because I am a fan of recreational beverages of all sorts, but because the anthropology aspect called to me—and the book promised to be a good deal more, uh, fun than, say, Jarred Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel
Although I’ve thought about it, I cannot quite decide what Standage’s premise is. It seems likely one of two (perhaps both):
- Certain beverages, whose popularity peaked in a particular age of human history, provide suitable loci for a look at the economic, political, and cultural forces that shaped these eras
- The role of beverages is more closely tied to human development than we may suppose
Standage’s book takes us from back to the dawn of civilization, discovering “beer” by soaking cereals in water; to the immense popularization of beer in ancient Egpyt, as well as the various and sundry Mesopotamian empires; to the eventual affordability of wine and the immense role it played first in Greek civilization and then in their spiritual successors, the Romans; to the rise of distilled spirits, the invention of brandy, rum, and grog, and the bitter legacy of slavery that they left; to the roots of coffee qua beverage in 16th-century Yemen; to its eventual popularity in Europe, where it fueled New Academia and even provided a boost for the French Revolution (it began in a coffeehouse….); to the displacement of coffee in Britain by the Next Big Thing™, that is, tea; to the unprecedented stretch of the British empire that the global trade of tea both caused and funded; finally, to the invention of Coca-Cola and its parallel of the United States’ growth as a major world power.
Let’s be clear: this book is the briefest of overviews, touching upon history only where it intersects with these beverages. For example, the section on coffee is ≈50 pages: compare that with the 500+ pages of Uncommon Grounds1. Clearly, there is a lot more to be said than will fit in the scope of this book. Still, I think Standage does a pretty good job tracing the influence of these various beverages. And it’s also bursting with trivia.
There’s something that bugs me, though, about Standage’s writing. Perhaps it’s the bitter curmudgeon in me, but his lively prose always seems so…. I’m not sure, perhaps “credulous”? “Jingoistic” isn’t quite right, either. Perhaps he’s simply drunk too much of his own Kool-Aid. For an anthropological work, it has a relative paucity of data, but you’d never know that based on Standage’s tone.
- Interestingly enough, Standage cites Pendergrast’s book about Coca-Cola, but not his book about coffee…[↩]