Saturday, February 23, 2013

A History of the World in Six Glasses

     In honor of my first real comment ever, thanks to my first official follower, Last Knight, who suggested I check out this book, I offer my longest and bestest post ever, and possibly a new angle for my blog. I think I'll call it:
...A Good Read to Go
With a Good Cuppa Joe...

     For my first, I suggest Tom Standage's A History of the World in Six Glasses, although, like I said, the credit really goes to Last Knight, my first and only follower... I mean, come on, guys. Really? Is my blog so bad? Not even my mama?! Watsup with that.
     Just kidding. My mom reads my blog all the time. (I make sure).


            “Thirst,” Standage begins, “is deadlier than water” (1). In school we learn history according to the use of different materials—the stone age, bronze age, iron age, and so on. But wouldn’t it be interesting to classify the ages of man according to what he drank at the time? “Six beverages in particular—beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola— (2)” have conducted the orchestra of human history, so here they are, starting with beer:

“The mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer.”
Egyptian proverb, circa 2200 BCE

            Since the dawn of time, the early nomadic peoples of the earth wandered endlessly in search of food until 12,000 or so years ago, when “humans in the Near-East abandoned the old hunter-gatherer lifestyle" (9) upon discovering the ability to cultivate their own barley, among other grains.
          Cereal grains had the unique and advantageous ability to be stored for future use, ensuring a secure and continuous food source, eliminating the need to wander in search of food, and ultimately prompting people to settle wherever they were. Little did they know their little barley farms were the seedlings of future bustling metropolises. (Metropoli?)
            The creation of beer was inevitable. In attempts to store excess grain, barley was collected into baskets. However, since humans were yet to invent the umbrella, the baskets tended to fill with water, in which the barley steeped, malted and eventually fermented, as though nature herself willed the birth of beer.
            And it’s a good thing she did, because essentially nothing would ever have happened if it weren’t for the discovery of beer, which prompted the invention of almost everything else—writing to regulate its distribution, pottery for storage and consumption, and the wheel to more efficiently transport it. Before pottery, humans had to be more resourceful. We were so desperate for beer we brewed it in baskets, sacs made of skin and leather, even animal stomachs. In fact, “a traditional Finnish beer is still brewed in hollowed out-tree trunks to this day” (14).
            Likewise, the custom of clinking glasses together before drinking is derived from an old tradition among the first beer-drinkers of all time. You see, beer was first consumed by sipping through a straw, and a single vessel was shared by several sippers. Sumerian depictions indicate beer was thus consumed well into the third millennium BCE, even though by this time beer could have been easily filtered, eliminating the need to use a straw, “and the advent of pottery meant it could have just as easily been served in individual cups” (18), yet the ritual persisted. Perhaps it didn’t occur to anyone to pour their own cup, but most likely sharing a beer was simply a hospitable gesture at the time, as is sharing a pot of tea or coffee today. Similarly reminiscent of ancient times, wine and spirits are still poured from a common bottle.
            One custom that did not continue was the use of a communal storehouse for keeping grain, which simply goes to show what a trusting people we once were. Obviously not anymore, I mean, imagine sharing a pantry with everyone on your block. You just know your fat neighbor’s gonna get all the Frito’s and the only thing left would be an expired granola bar and measly pack of airplane peanuts. Anyway, this trust continued until about 8000 BCE, when currency in the form of clay tokens and writing were first conceived to “ensure all villagers were pulling their weight” (23), by recording contributions to the common storehouse. Surplus grain was used to fund city improvements, and thus were sown the seeds of our contemporary tax system.
            Yes, beer was, and still is, a very big deal. So much so in fact that an Egyptian myth claims the substance quite literally saved the human race from certain destruction. The story goes: the sun god Ra, who feared humans were plotting against him, sent Hathor to teach them a lesson. But then, upon realizing no one would be left to worship him if they were all dead, he flooded the fields of barley, which shone in the sun like a mirror, stopping the goddess Hathor in her tracks to admire her reflection. She took a sip, and found the liquid to her liking. Eventually she became so intoxicated she forgot to annihilate all the humans, thus saving the human race. “Hathor became the goddess of beer and brewing” (28).
                 It’s clear that beer is more than just a beverage. Beer was “a fluid of primordial importance… a liquid relic from human prehistory” (10). The beverage that set modern humans apart from our savage ancestors, distinguished us as an intelligent species, despite making us drunk and stupid of course.

“Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever.”
Aristophanes, Greek comic poet (c. 450-385 BCE)

            Beer, despite everything I just said about it being the defining beverage of the first civilizations, was by no means the first alcohol “to pass human lips. At the time of beer’s discovery, alcohol from the accidental fermentation of fruit juice or water and honey (mead) would have occurred naturally in small quantities” (15). In fact, wine was probably first produced in the Zargos Mountains (modern Armenia / northern Iraq) somewhere between 9000 and 5000 BCE.

      Wine was a little more of a late bloomer than beer. It crept into Greece and Egypt by 3000 BCE, but production was pretty limited. Wine was scarce, to say the least, but became widely spread and consumed by the first millennium BCE, at which point, “even the beer-loving Mesopotamians turned their backs on beer, which was dethroned as the most cultured and civilized of drinks” (51).

            It did remain an elite drink for a while, however. Unlike beer, which was abundant and accessible to all, wine was considerably more expensive and precious, an “emblem of power, prosperity, and privilege” (46-47). “Access to wine was a mark of status” (48). It inspired drinkers to “try to outdo each other in wit, poetry, or rhetoric,” not to mention, “reminded the Greeks how civilized they were, in contrast to the barbarians, who drank lowly, unsophisticated beer” (52).
            Due to its dearness, farmers saw more profit in the grapevine than they did in some measly old cereal grain. Everyone and their mama up and abandoned barley for the vineyard biz, to the point that, “In Attica… grain had to be imported in order to maintain adequate supply” (54). Really, guys?
            Anyway, one more thing that set wine quite apart from its brother beer is how picky people decided to get about it. Because, if you were rich enough to afford wine in the first place, you were entitled to the best, or something like that—unlike beer, which isn’t too good for anybody. And "as individual styles became well known, different wine-producing regions began shipping their wines in distinctively shaped amphorae” (55), a custom that lingers to this day, as we still use different shaped wine bottles to distinguish different types and regions. Likewise, we use different size and shaped wine glasses--tall ones, fat ones, skinny ones, flat ones, and my personal favorite: the Marie Antoinette, which is shaped like—you guessed it—one of her breasts, which has been immortalized… I mean, if you think about it, she gets felt up every day. I bet you’ve got one of Marie Antoinette’s titties in your cabinet as we speak! Go check. I hope you have a set of two. One day there will be a wine glass of one of my boobs. That’s how I’ll know I’m truly successful.
            ANYWAY! “For wealthy Romans, the ability to recognize and name the finest wines was an important display of conspicuous consumption” (75). It demonstrated that not only could one afford the best wines, but he was pretentious enough to actually take the time to learn to distinguish each one by taste, and thus were born the first douchy wine snobs ever. This wine-related-pretentiousness regrettably persists.
            As does a sort of seductive connotation. Because what’s more romantic than an old movie, glass of wine and box of chocolates? Because “wine does away with inhibitions” and inspires “the pursuit of pleasure… and unruly passions” (62), ultimately leading to a sexier ending than might otherwise be in store that night. After all…
“Baths, wine and sex ruin our bodies. But what makes life worth living except baths, wine and sex?” –Corpus Inscriptionis VI, 15258


Oh we can make liquor to sweeten our lips

Of pumpkins, of parsnips, of walnut-tree chips

            The above lines attest to the resourcefulness of the (once desperate, alcohol-deprived) New England brewers. Hard liquor came hand in hand with Colonialism, although, ironically, we have only the Muslims (whose religion prohibits consumption of alcohol) to thank for the distillation process (used to refine weaker drinks like beer and wine into stronger ones like Brandy or Scotch). Although, the Arabs used distillation to make perfume (94), not spirits.

            Anyway, this technique was ideal for the Age of Exploration, because for one thing, space on board ships was scarce, and higher alcohol content meant just as much of the stuff could last considerably longer (or at least get the crew a good deal drunker) than an equal volume of beer or wine would do. Not to mention, beer and wine were more likely to spoil, so hard liquor made more sense. But spirits came with a lot of politics.

            The stronger the drink, the more dependent the drinker, and settlers were desperate for liquor indeed. Coastal land was unsuitable for cultivating the proper grains for making beer. A woeful Jamestown resident in 1607, Thomas Studley lamented, “‘there remained neither tavern, beer house, nor place of reliefe,’ on account of which they all wished to return” (113) to Europe and steady access to alcohol.

            Instead, colonists in the New World were forced to take it upon themselves to establish distilleries and import molasses from the French colonies in the Caribbean to make a new killer drink they called rum (originally “Rumbullion” which was English slang for a “brawl or violent commotion” (108) which frequently ensued if someone consumed too much of it, which of course everyone did). The British weren’t too keen on the idea, however, (of the colonies using French molasses, that is) so in 1733 they passed the Molasses Act in protest, disallowing further trade with the French, even though by this time, rum accounted for over 80% of New England’s exports (117), and England’s sugar plantations alone didn’t yield nearly enough sugar to sustain the same level of rum production, and would have been devastating to the colonies’ economy had it actually been enforced. “Although the Molasses Act was not enforced, it was [certainly] resented” (118) and consequentially made smuggling socially acceptable, as “the vast majority of rum produced—over five-sixths according to some estimates—was still being made from smuggled molasses” (118). Not only did Americans undermine British authority, but also “set a vital precedent: Henceforth, the colonists felt entitled to defy other laws imposed seemingly unreasonable duties on items shipped to and from the colonies” (118), meaning the Molasses Act ultimately triggered the Americans to revolt. I mean, not directly, obviously…

            Rum was likewise the liquor of seafaring men and interestingly led to the first “cocktail” known back then as grog. It was two pints water, plus rum and lime juice. The limejuice was the only source of vitamin C board ship, and crucial because if it weren’t for their grog and lime juice the crew were likely to die of scurvy. (Hence the nickname “limeys”.) However, the men generally objected to diluting the water, but Admiral Edward Vernon insisted because it forced the men to drink the otherwise unpalatable water. In order to assure the men they weren’t being jipped, they sprinkled gunpowder over the drink and if it didn’t ignite, it was too weak, and more alcohol was added until it sparked. Except, if it was too strong, “an explosion could ensue, and tradition has it that the sailors were then entitled to help themselves while the purser was incapacitated” (109).

            As the settlers moved inland they found that the soil was plenty fertile for cultivating cereal grains for making Whiskey (or Scotch, as we call it in the US). And the Native Americans got hooked instantly. The difference was Indians drank to get drunk, and if it wasn’t enough to get them drunk they weren’t interested, which you might think is weird, but makes perfect sense. To the Native Americans, spirits were literally a means of access to the spirit world, only one had to be completely intoxicated to do so. “They wonder[ed] much of the English for purchasing wine at so dear a rate when Rum is so much cheaper & will make them sooner drunk” (128).

            You may know that coffee was first discovered in Yemen in the mid 1400. And maybe you know it was first brewed for liquid consumption in the city of Mocha. But what you probably don’t know is that the bean itself was discovered, like beer, on account of divine intervention, by a man named Omar—condemned to die in the desert outside the city of Mocha, or so the story goes. In his dehydrated hysteria, a vision led him to a nearby tree. After consuming several berries, he found he had “sufficient strength to return to Mocha, where his survival was taken as a sign that God had spared him in order to pass along to humankind the knowledge of coffee” (137).
            Coffee spread to Mecca and Cairo by 1510, where it was consumed socially—sold first on the street by the cup, and at marketplaces, finally at devoted coffeehouses. In 1609, an Englishman named William Biddulph noted, “their [the Arabs’] Coffa houses are more common than Ale-houses in England… If there be any news it is talked of there” (140). The following year, 1610, a man named George Sandys observed upon his travels to Egypt and Palestine that, “although they be destitute of Taverns, yet have they their Coffe-houses, which something resemble them. They sit chatting most of the day; and sippe of a drinke called Coffa (of the berry that it is made of) in little China dishes, as hot as they can suffer it; blacke as soote, and tasting not much unlike it” (140).
            Muslims first embraced it as a legal alternative to alcohol, except for a meddlesome few who held that the same religious prohibition applied to coffee as did to alcohol, because it distorted mental perception. Finally, in 1511, it was literally taken to trial by a man named Kha’ir Beg, whose job it was, by the way, to “maintain public morality” (138). Imagine being that guy’s therapist, am I right? Anyway, it was decided to forbid coffee consumption, until a few months later when the law was overturned in Cairo on account of the ban being simply unbearable.
            Unlike its alcoholic predecessors, beer, wine and spirits, coffee offered an alcohol-free alternative, allowing people to “begin the day alert and stimulated, rather than relaxed and mildly inebriated” (135). And as “Western Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze” (136), some of Europe’s keenest minds called for what we now refer to as the Scientific Revolution—the intellectual equivalent of the Age of Exploration. During this time, scientists shed ancient assumptions and set out to question everything, reconstruct the “edifice of human knowledge” (134) brick by brick.
            Coffee, “a drink that had been unknown to the Greeks and Romans” (136), was the perfect beverage to compliment such a task. Not to mention it “clears the clouds of the imagination and their gloomy weight…” (133), says Jules Michelet, French historian (1798-1874).
            European coffeehouses “were well lit, and adorned with bookshelves… and good furniture, in stark contrast to the gloom and squalor of the taverns” (141), and in fact, many coffeehouses functioned as what were then called “penny universities,” because anyone could participate in a lecture as long as they paid the entrance fee of a penny (the cost of a "dish of coffee"). Back in the day, each coffeehouse catered to a particular clientele—scientists, artists, businessmen, politicians… (152). The same goes for universities today, who specialize in business, or law, or the arts.
            “So great a Universitie, I think there ne’er was any; In which you may a Scholar be, for spending of a Penny” (158). Honestly, considering the state our education system, coffee shops would be an ideal alternative. Imagine if on your résumé, under “Education” you list the coffee shops you attended instead of schools. What a better world that would be. For one thing, you’d have constant access to coffee.
            Anyway, back in seventeenth century Europe, coffeehouses “dispensed conversation as often as coffee” (150), and became “vibrant, often unreliable sources of information” (152). However, as I said, they were attended by Europe’s most eminent minds, such as astronomer Edmund Halley, who “Between sips of coffee, wondered aloud whether the elliptical shapes of planetary orbits were consistent with a gravitational force that diminished with the inverse square of distance…” (160). Imagine trying to make small talk with this guy while the register’s being slow and you’re even slower. I’m glad customers have since dumbed down…
            Yes, coffee had quite the following, but with it came a pissed off opposition, namely exasperated tavern-owners who protested the spread of coffeehouses on account of the competition. God forbid a coffeehouse take business from a pub, however, many people “worried that coffeehouses encouraged time-wasting and trivial discussion at the expense of more important activities” (143-4), like getting drunk.
            Of course, the authorities had to take issue with coffee too, although, “it was not so much coffee’s effects on the drinker but the circumstances in which it was consumed that worried the authorities, for coffeehouse were hotbeds for gossip, rumor, political debate, and satirical discussion” (139). Indeed, coffeehouse talk did somewhat inspire the French Revolution, and many other movements, because they simply offered a place for people to congregate. Not to mention, coffeehouses did not discriminate. They were open to all—women and “country bumpkins” included. Some doors even sported catchy welcome signs, for instance, “Gentry, tradesmen, all are welcome hither, and may without affront sit down together” (156), which I would totally put on the door of my coffee shop if I had one.

Better to be deprived of food for three days than of tea for one. –Chinese proverb (175).

            By the late 1700s, Britain was described as the “vast empire on which the sun never sets” (175) on account of having conquered the majority of the planet. And as Standage cleverly points out, “If the sun never set on the British Empire, it was perpetually teatime, somewhere at least” (176). Although the ignorant English hadn’t the slightest clue (nor did they care) where their tea leaves came from, as long as they kept right on coming (176).
             Long before tea established itself as the quintessentially English beverage, however, it was first consumed in China, discovered in around 2700 BCE by Shen Nung, and has since been avidly consumed the world over. Although, the Chinese got really meticulous about how they took their tea, particularly a man named Lu Yu, a Taoist poet and tea expert (not to mention total asshole), who was so presumptuous he even took his water a certain way. According to Lu Yu, as the water boils it “must look like fishes’ eyes and give off the hint of a sound. When at the edges it clatters like a bubbling spring and looks like pearls innumerable strung together, it has reached the second stage. When it leaps like breakers majestic and resounds like a swelling wave, it is at its peak. Any more and the water will be boiled out and should not be used” (181). ). I’m surprised no one’s ever splashed scalding hot (“burnt-out”) water in this guy’s face. “Lu Yu’s palette was so sensitive that he was said to be able to identify the source of water from its taste alone” (181). I mean it’s one thing to wanna be a douchy wine snob, but a water snob? Really?
            Alright I don't mean to call out Lu Yu (in fact he may even be fixing for his own follow-up post), because the truth is we're all particular about how we take our tea, even me. Not only was tea a Chinese staple/obsession, but likewise in Japan, even the tiniest households maintained a couple of bushes, from which they plucked a leaf or two whenever needed. So cute! (183). But tea didn’t take off in England until after a London coffeehouse owner, Thomas Twining, opened a teashop next door in 1717 (193). His intention was to sell tea not only for immediate consumption, but also as leaves to buy and brew at home. Women had special blends made up, and bought fancy tea sets. This marked the emergence of elaborate tea parties, the English equivalent of traditional Japanese and Chinese tea ceremonies.
            The sign the subsequent Twining fashioned for his teashop in 1787 is said to be “the oldest commercial logo in continuous use” (202). Similarly, a tea seller named Wedgwood may have been the first to use celebrity endorsements, after Queen Charlotte purchased a “complete set of tea things” (202) and Wedgwood took it upon himself to sell similar items under the enticing title “Queen’s Ware.” Tea was born unto a competitive market, and thus prompted innovative advertising techniques, still used to this day.
            For the sake of your time and continued interest in this post, I’ll spare you guys the Boston Tea Party.

A billion hours ago, human life appeared on earth.
A billion minutes ago, Christianity emerged.
A billion seconds ago, the Beatles changed music.
A billion Coca-Colas ago was yesterday morning
--Robert Goizueta, chief executive of Coca-Cola, April 1997

            Until 1800, soda water was strictly a medical beverage (228). Soda took off in the US, particularly Coca-Cola, on account of its high caffeine content as well as traces of actual cocaine, which made for quite the invigorating effect, enjoyed by adults and children alike. Coca-Cola was of course mass-produced. Then arose the problem of exploding bottles, resulting in Joseph Hawkin’s clever invention of the soda fountain, which eliminated the problem of bottling. It was a standard feature in an apothecary’s shop by 1830 (229).
            Coca-Cola was named after its two main ingredients—Coca, “the divine plant of the Incas” (235), and “the nuts of the kola plant from West Africa… used in religious ceremonies by the Yoruba people in Nigeria” (236). Today, “Coca-Cola is the second most commonly understood phrase in the world, after Okay” (264).
            Coca-Cola is rich in social significance, but I won’t get into the historical stuff, except one thing which I thought was weird and cute. During WWII, Russian General Georgy Knostantinovich (I’m not making this up) Zhukov, made an odd request: “Was it possible to make Coca-Cola without coloring, so that it resembled vodka, the traditional Russian drink? His request was passed to the Coca-Cola company, which duly obliged… and devised a colorless version” (256). There’s a drink I oughta add to my list of obscure drinks I wanna try. I’m not kidding, I’m really making a list. In fact it’ll probably be my next post.

            So, to wrap the hell up, people get serious about what they drink for a reason. People identify with what they drink. As Standage says, what one chooses to drink "has become a sort of lifestyle choice" (269). "In contrast, for many people in the developing, access to water remains a matter of life or death." But for those of us lucky enough to be able to choose what to drink, it's important to appreciate where that drink truly came from, what it did for its people, what it's people did for it. It's interesting, the "interconnectedness of world cultures" (6)... These drinks “survive in our homes today as living reminders of bygone eras, fluid testaments to the forces that shaped the modern world” (6). Beverages “have had a closer connection to the flow of history than is generally acknowledged, and a greater influence on its course” (5).



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  2. This is an awesome post. I like your blog very much it is full of information. My favorite pick me up is definitely coffee in the morning. Coffee is the worlds most popular beverage and the worlds second biggest commodity. I love to drink kopi luwak most.
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