Thirst is deadlier than hunger. Deprived of food, you might survive for a few weeks, but deprived of liquid refreshment, you would be lucky to last more than a few days. Only breathing matters more. Tens of thousands of years ago, early humans foraging in small bands had to remain near rivers, springs and lakes in order to ensure an adequate supply of fresh water, since storing or carrying it was impractical. The availability of water constrained and guided mankind’s progress. Drinks have continued to shape human history ever since. Only in the past ten thousand years or so have new drinks emerged to challenge the preeminence of water. These drinks do not occur naturally in any quantity, but must be made deliberately. As well as offering safer alternatives to contaminated, disease-ridden water supplies in human settlements, these new drinks have taken on a variety of roles. Many of them have been used as currencies, in religious rites, as political symbols, or as sources of philosophical and artistic inspiration. Some have served to highlight the power and status of the elite, and others to subjugate or appease the downtrodden. Drinks have been used to celebrate births, commemorate deaths, and forge and strengthen social bonds; to seal business transactions and treaties; to sharpen the senses or dull the mind; to convey life-saving medicines and deadly poisons.
As the tides of history have ebbed and flowed, different drinks have come to prominence in different times, places and cultures, from stone-age villages to Ancient Greek dining rooms or Enlightenment coffeehouses. Each one became popular when it met a particular need or aligned with a historical trend: in some cases, it then went on to influence the course of history in unexpected ways. Just as archaeologists divide history into different periods based on the use of different materials — the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, and so on — it is also possible divide world history into periods dominated by different drinks. Six drinks in particular — beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and cola — chart the flow of world history. Three contain alcohol and three contain caffeine, but what they all have in common is that each drink was the defining drink during a pivotal historical period, from antiquity to the present day.
Beer was first made in the Fertile Crescent and by 3000 BC was so important to Mesopotamia and Egypt that it was being used to pay wages. In ancient Greece, wine became the main export of a vast seaborne trade, helping to spread Greek culture abroad. After the fall of Rome, spirits such as brandy and rum, made using a process devised by Arab alchemists, fueled the Age of Exploration, fortifying seamen on long voyages and oiling the pernicious slave trade. Coffee also originated in the Arab world and went on to inspire scientific, financial and political revolutions in Europe during the Age of Reason, when coffeehouses became centers of intellectual exchange. And hundreds of years after the Chinese began drinking tea, it became especially popular in Britain, with far-reaching effects on British foreign policy. Finally, though carbonated drinks were invented in 18th-century Europe they became a 20th-century phenomenon, and Coca-Cola in particular is the leading symbol of globalization.
This book argues that each drink is a form of disruptive technology, a catalyst for advancing culture which demonstrates the intricate interplay of different civilizations. Read this book, and you may never look at your favorite drink the same way again.