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Thirst for Knowledge

How Coca-Cola saved civilization, or something.

Jul 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 42 • By JOE QUEENAN
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A History of the World in Six Glasses

by Tom Standage

Walker, 240 pp., $25

The reading public has developed an insatiable appetite for books that explain the world in terms the reading public hadn't thought of before.

The Irish saved civilization. Or was it the Arabs? History makes no sense unless observed through the prism of rats and lice. Or was it germs, guns, and steel? Everything that ever happened was caused by the popularity of the humble olive. Or the popularity of soccer, salt, or coal. Or the onslaught of the demure cod. Or the discovery of the pencil. Nor should we overlook the decisive influence of the Iroquois on the American constitution. And while there has not yet been a concerted effort to address Merv Griffin's massive effect on the rotation of the planets, or the role played by the cantaloupe in the evolution of string theory, books of this ilk are surely on their way.

The latest attempt to explain the world in exotic terms is Tom Standage's highly entertaining A History of the World in Six Glasses. Standage, technology editor at The Economist and author of The Victoria Internet, believes that the world we inhabit is unfathomable unless we come to grips with the enormous role played by six beverages--beer, wine, coffee, tea, distilled spirits, and Coca-Cola--in shaping society. For the life of me, I have no idea how milk--and particularly double mocha lattes--got left out. I also wish the author had devoted a bit more space to the pivotal role played by lemonade, flavored malts, Gatorade, mango lassis, and Sterno in the gyrations of the 19th-century Prussian municipal bond market.

Like all practitioners of this flourishing genre, Standage overplays his hand. He is correct in identifying Coca-Cola as a distinctively American product intimately associated with capitalism, and thus the object of hatred in some parts of the world. But the same could be said about Microsoft, McDonald's, General Motors, Intel, and Billy Joel. He believes one cannot understand how the British conquered the world without examining the definitive role of tea, but the British conquered the world because of sea power, not tea power. He correctly observes that rich people throughout history have traditionally drunk better wines than poor people, but the same could be said about haberdashery, cuisine, and Rolling Stones tickets.

Standage wants us to look at the world in a way we never have looked at it before, but the main reason we have not done so is because there are better, more intelligent, ways to look at it. The rise of coffee changed the world arithmetically by altering people's habits; the rise of Christianity changed the world geometrically by altering the human psyche.

Standage's overzealous sales pitch aside, A History of the World in Six Glasses is a thoroughly entertaining, nicely written book filled with snappy little anecdotes and amusing asides. The Visigoths so valued the festive and hygienic quality of wine that they drew up "specific, detailed punishments for anyone who damaged a vineyard," much as frat boys would pummel senseless anyone who mis-tapped a keg of Budweiser. When George Washington ran for the House of Burgesses in 1758, "his campaign team handed out 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 of wine, 46 of beer, and two of cider--in a county with only 391 votes." If Al Gore had done the same thing in Florida, he might be the one who got blamed for Katrina.

Two years ago, Franklin Foer wrote a swell little book entitled How Soccer Explains the World. The book did not, in fact, reveal how soccer explained the world, anymore than hatchbacks, woolen mittens, or brick-oven pizza would; but Foer's fascinating stories about Serb match-riggers, Scottish thugs, and African players marooned in the wilds of the Ukraine made reading the book well worth the effort. The same can be said of Standage's thin volume. Whether one accepts its varied premises--the 18th-century London coffeehouse is the forerunner of the Internet, rum industry intrigue led directly to the American Revolution, farming came into being in ancient Mesopotamia because the locals wanted to ensure a steady supply of beer--it is precisely these oddities that make the book so delightful.

According to Standage, the ancient pyramids were built not by oppressed slaves, but tanked-up state employees, some of whom referred to themselves as the "Drunkards of Menkaure." This proves that the drone-like activities of hungover federal employees are hardly a modern innovation. He reports that Arab moonshiners flourished in medieval Spain despite the official Muslim ban on spirits: The Dukes of Halal, if you will. Demonstrating utter indifference to the etiquette of political correctness, Standage insists that American Indians had no interest in drinking unless there was enough booze to get everyone plastered, and that when supplies ran short, warriors were known to abstain from fire water entirely, leaving enough for their chums to get totally plowed. Presumably, the eve of the Little Big Horn was one of the rare gatherings where everyone remained firmly on the wagon.

Standage claims that the French Revolution officially erupted in a coffeehouse, which strongly suggests that if and when sedition comes to America, it could break out in a Starbucks, conceivably incited by brassy, left-leaning baristas. Finally, he reports that in 1911, in a federal case entitled The United States v. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola, "religious fundamentalists railed against the evils of Coca-Cola, blaming its caffeine content for promoting sexual transgressions." It is bewildering and disappointing that, during the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings, neither Patrick Leahy nor Charles Schumer took the opportunity to ask John Roberts and Samuel Alito what they thought of that case.

It is equally worrisome that the federal government has never taken the brewing industry to court for perniciously attempting to pass off lite beer as an alcoholic beverage. One can only hope that, in the paperback edition, Standage will pinpoint the introduction of this vile concoction as the watershed moment when America's reputation as a two-fisted, beer-guzzling nation began to decline. More likely, though, his publishers will encourage him to write The Gifts of the Neanderthals, How the Jutes Saved Northern Italian Cuisine, or Cuneiforms: The Sumerian Information Highway.

Joe Quennan is the author, most recently, of Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.