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37 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very readable with interesting detail, 22 Jan 2006
By 
Dennis Littrell (SoCal/NorCal/Maui) - See all my reviews
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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.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A nice perspective, 6 Aug 2010
By 
K. Akartunali (Madison, WI) - See all my reviews
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I really enjoyed the drink perspective on the history - how our habits and traditions effect the flow of the history (or vice versa). It is an easy read, and I liked the flow of the book - a bit of the history of each drink, then the history around that time, and how both relate to each other. Strongly recommend.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Makes think about what you are drinking!, 30 July 2009
By 
Charles Lowe (London) - See all my reviews
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Another great take on how something has changed the history of the world,in this case drinks. An excellently researched history of the origins of six of the most important created drinks in the world that reveals a whole series of really interesting facts about them. It also destroyed a good few myths I'd heard, especially about the origins of Coca-Cola. Each drink is a short history in itself so a book that can be easily dipped into if desired. If you have an enquiring mind and an interest in why and how what you are drinking was first produced, I'd greatly recommend this book as a good read.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A tasty appetizer of a book, 26 Sep 2007
By 
MarkK (Phoenix, AZ, USA) - See all my reviews
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In this book, Tom Standage offers an account of the historical significance of six beverages - beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola. Through them he provides a brisk sketch of world history, from the establishment of settled civilization in ancient Mesopotamia to the globalised world in which we live today. The perspective provided by his approach is interesting, and generally he manages to avoid the kind of overstated claims that are a common trap of works like this.

Yet as I read the book, I found myself wanting more. Standage's overviews are rather cursory - perhaps excessively so - and he glosses over some information that does not fit into the structure he lays out for the reader (gin is conspicuously absent, for example, despite its importance in the 18th century). The result is to make the book an intellectual appetizer (albeit a tasty one) rather than a meal, and after having their appetites whetted some readers will find themselves resorting to the bibliography he provides at the end of the text to learn more. As an introduction, though, Standage's book is a good starting point as an enjoyable read full of interesting details.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining if a little shallow, 5 Sep 2011
Standage describes the historical role of six drinks. And so we get beer in Mesopotomia and Egypt; wine in ancient Greece and Rome; spirits in the colonial period; coffee in the Enlightenment; tea in the British empire; and coca-cola in the rise of the United States.

The book increases in interest as it comes closer to the present day - the chapters on coca-cola, with its origins as a patent medicine, are splendid. Did you know, for example, of Vin Mariani, a drink containing both alcohol and cocaine, which was endorsed by 'three popes, two American presidents, Queen Victoria and the inventor Thomas Edison'? Or that the United States government tried in 1911 to ban the sale of coca-cola (in the case of The United States v. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca Cola)?

There are some reservations. First, Standage is not sufficiently clear on the extent to which the introduction of each of these drinks caused various social and historical developments, or merely accompanied them. In the introduction he writes:

'As a technology writer, I noticed that each drink's impact was akin to that of a new invention that spreads through society and acts as a catalyst for social and historical change'.

Talking about a 'catalyst' suggests that Standange thinks that these drinks caused various social changes. But elsewhere in the book he merely talks about the drinks 'accompanying' or 'mirroring' various developments. These are quite different. For example, while it is true that the introduction of coffee into England and the Netherlands in the 17th century accompanied the scientific and financial revolutions of that period, is it really plausible to imagine that it caused them?

Standage surely knows that there is a distinction between causation and correlation but he often fails to distinguish in practice. What is frustrating about this is that some historians have suggested that certain drinks really are vital in establishing some ways of life. For example, it has been suggested that tea was crucial for urbanisation, as it made water safer to drink. One wishes Standage had been clearer as to where a drink played a vital historical role, and where it merely 'accompanied' historical changes.

Second, Standage accepts the conventional position on the merits of prohibition of alcohol and drugs quite uncritically. Thus countries exporting wine or sprits are described without criticism, while the British are ticked off for exporting opium to China in the 19th century. Is there any rational basis for distinguishing these trades?

Finally, one may find Standage's idolisation of the United States' economic and political model rather difficult to take. A typical sentence: 'It is not Coca-Cola that makes people wealthier, happier, or freer, of course, but as consumerism and democracy spread, the fizzy brown drink is never far behind'. (This is also an example of the confusion between causation and correlation - in the introduction Standage says that Coca-Cola was a 'catalyst' for social and historical change; here he says that 'of course' it merely accompanied this change.)

Still, while it may not be deep it's an easy and entertaining read.
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4.0 out of 5 stars amusing read and informative, 7 Sep 2013
By 
Mr. Stephen Parkin (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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A good book covering the World from a beverage perspective. I would have liked the section on spirits to have included gin and vodka for their profound effects on English and Russian society,also Prohibition,which helped to solidify lawbreaking and organized crime in the U.S.
The section on Coca-Cola outlines the health risks early opponents expounded but fails to mention current concerns regarding its high sugar content(the average American gets some 11 pounds of sugar per year from its products)with inherent risks of type 2 diabetes and tooth decay ,perhaps this is a factor in America's dismal life expectancy,51st in world rankings. Mexicans who consume 70% more have just been declared the most obese people on Earth.
The final section on water mentions the bottled tap waters Aquafina and Dasani (p.168) but omits to mention they are marketed by Pepsi and Coca-Cola.
The author was brave in the final section to record that Israel appropriates 82% of the occupied West Bank's water for its own use,one reason not to expect any movement on the two-state solution.
Recommended reading.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Funniest, interesting reads, 29 Jun 2013
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I liked the book for it is witty and well written, rich in interesting anecdotes, and absolutely worthwhile to discuss with an Irish friend.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable, 8 Jan 2013
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Exellent interesting and readable account of the part played by beverages in the history of the world from pre-history to the modern day.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A fun, fascinating and convincing take on world history, 11 Sep 2011
By 
R Bain (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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Tom Standage has come up with an engaging and convincing way of making sense of human history - through what we drank in different periods. The book covers beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola, taking us from the first brewers in the prehistoric Middle East to globalisation and the dominance of America in the 21st century. Along the way Standage shows how our choices of liquid refreshment have influenced - and been influenced by - power, politics, fashion, trade, technology and survival.

The highlight, for me, is the section on the coffeehouses of seventeenth-century London, telling the story of how a strange new drink that sharpened the mind, rather than dulling it, helped foster an age of political dissent and scientific progress. This is an enjoyable and easy book to read, and impressive in the sheer range of topics it manages to authoritatively cover.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic history lesson, 19 July 2008
By 
N. Doyle (England) - See all my reviews
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This book is one of the greatest history lessons I have ever had. It effortlessly guides the reader through the dawn of civilisation up to the modern day with an interesting take on the role of drinks in each age. Starting with the accidental discovery of beer, through to wine, rum, coffee, tea and cola, the book tells interesting anecdotes and factoids about the state of society throughout the ages. Question is, will the next edition have a chapter on knife wielding teenagers and their love of alcopops?
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