The rebirth of Western thought a millennium after the fall of Rome was sparked by the rediscovery of Greek and Roman knowledge, much of which had been safeguarded and extended by scholars in the Arab world. At the same time, European explorers, driven by the desire to circumvent the Arab monopoly on trade with the East, sailed west to the Americas and east to India and China. Global sea routes were established, and European nations vied with one another to carve up the globe. During this Age of Exploration a new range of beverages came to the fore, made possible by distillation, an alchemical process known in the ancient world but much improved by Arab scholars. Distilled drinks provided alcohol in a compact, durable form ideal for sea transport. Such drinks as brandy, rum, and whiskey were used as currency to buy slaves and became particularly popular in the North American colonies, where they became so politically contentious that they played a key role in the establishment of the United States.
Hard on the heels of this geographic expansion came its intellectual counterpart, as Western thinkers looked beyond long-held beliefs inherited from the Greeks and devised new scientific, political, and economic theories. The dominant drink of this Age of Reason was coffee, a mysterious and fashionable beverage introduced to Europe from the Middle East. The establishments that sprung up to serve coffee had a markedly different character from taverns that sold alcoholic drinks, and became centers of commercial, political, and intellectual exchange. Coffee promoted clarity of thought, making it the ideal drink for scientists, businessmen, and philosophers. Coffeehouse discussions led to the establishment of scientific societies, the founding of newspapers, the establishment of financial institutions, and provided fertile ground for revolutionary thought, particularly in France.
In some European nations, and particularly in Britain, coffee was challenged by tea imported from China. Its popularity in Europe helped to open lucrative trade routes with the East and underpinned imperialism and industrialization on an unprecedented scale, enabling Britain to become the first global superpower. Once tea had established itself as Britains national drink, the desire to maintain the tea supply had far-reaching effects on British foreign policy, contributing to the independence of the United States, the undermining of Chinas ancient civilization, and the establishment of tea production in India on an industrial scale.
Although artificially carbonated beverages originated in Europe in the late eighteenth century, the soft drink came into its own with the invention of Coca-Cola one hundred years later. Originally devised as a medicinal pick-me-up by an Atlanta pharmacist, it became Americas national drink, an emblem of the vibrant consumer capitalism that helped to transform the United States into a superpower. Traveling alongside American servicemen as they fought wars around the world during the twentieth century, Coca-Cola went on to become the worlds most widely known and distributed product and is now an icon of the controversial march toward a single global marketplace.
Drinks have had a closer connection to the flow of history than is generally acknowledged, and a greater influence on its course. Understanding the ramifications of who drank what, and why, and where they got it from, requires the traversal of many disparate and otherwise unrelated fields: the histories of agriculture, philosophy, religion, medicine, technology, and commerce. The six beverages highlighted in this book demonstrate the complex interplay of different civilizations and the interconnectedness of world cultures. They survive in our homes today as living reminders of bygone eras, fluid testaments to the forces that shaped the modern world. Uncover their origins, and you may never look at your favorite drink in quite the same way again.
From A History of The World In 6 Glasses by Tom Standage. Copyright Tom Standage 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Walker & Company.
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