This is about six beverages that changed world history. They are: beer, wine, distilled liquor, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola.
Author Tom Standage begins by taking us back to the dawn of the agricultural age with beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and in pre-Columbian Europe. Beer was the drink of choice for just about everybody because there was little else to drink (no coffee, no tea, and only the occasional grape or fruit wine or mead made from honey). And beer was actually better for you than water because the alcohol in beer killed bacteria and other parasites. This is a theme that comes up again and again in the book: all these beverages were better than water because they were safer to drink than water. Beer was also a major source of calories for those who drank it. Interesting enough the Egyptians drank their beer with straws and in the Middle Ages in Europe almost everybody had beer and/or beer soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Of course most of the beer had about half the alcohol that is typically in beer today--probably about three percent versus today's six percent.
Next Standage returns us to the grandeur that was Greece and the glory that was Rome as we learn about wine. Both the Greeks and the Romans drank their wine mixed with water. That was the only civilized way. Only barbarians and other uncouth people drank wine straight. The Greeks sometimes flavored their wines with (gulp!) seawater. The Romans also adulterated their wines with all sorts of herbs, honey and even pitch (as a preservative). It's clear that their wines weren't all that good, nothing like the quality we have today, except perhaps for a few drunk only by emperors and others at the pinnacle of power.
Chapters 5 and 6 are about distilled liquor, especially rum and whiskey. Standage recalls the slave/sugar/rum trade and why it developed and how it worked. Interesting is the fact that the colonists in America at first preferred rum since it was relatively cheap, was concentrated and did not spoil easily. Standage even calls rum the drink of the American revolution. (p. 121) Then the colonists switched to whiskey after they began growing grains inland, and to avoid the cost of taxed molasses (from which rum was made). Standage doesn't mention it, but in many places in America at one point in our history hard cider made from apples was the only easily gotten alcoholic drink. The colonists drank little beer because it was hard to grow the grain from which beer is made near coastal settlements, and beer did not easily survive long ocean voyages.
Coffee comes next. That and the Age of Reason. Standage, along with other authorities that I have read credit coffee with sobering up Europe and ushering in rapid social, scientific, technological, and social change. Instead of beer for breakfast, now it was off to the coffeehouse and talk of trade, science and revolution. Coffee was safer than water because the water was boiled to make the coffee.
The story of tea is in chapters 9 and 10. Standage recalls the mighty East India Company, more powerful than almost any government on earth at one time. And he recalls how the British traded opium to the Chinese for silver with which to buy tea. And then there was that little party in the Boston harbor... It is notable that in every instance governments quickly began taxing the popular beverages. Incidentally, tea was (and is) safer than water not only because the water is typically boiled (although not always) but because tea contains tannins which are anti-bacterial.
The last two chapters are devoted to Coca-Cola (and to much less extent, Pepsi-Cola and other sodas). Standage hails Coca-Cola as the symbol of America's dominance in the 20th century. He chronicles the story of its invention and how it grew out of the patent medicine business and how it eventually went worldwide. By the way, Coca-Cola is only as safe as the water from which it is made.
There is an Epilogue entitled "Back to the Source" on the growing consumption of bottled water, and an interesting Appendix, "In Search of Ancient Drinks" in which Standage reports on attempts to recreate hop-less beers and ancient wines.
Bottom line: very readable and full of interesting detail. One of the best books of its type that I have read.