I need to clean off my coffee table. I remembered something from A History of the World in 6 Glasses, but then couldn’t find the book to confirm it. I figured maybe I’d finished it way earlier than I thought and had given it away. But no, it was just buried under stuff on the coffee table. Turns out, I hadn’t quite finished it either.
The premise is a history of cultural development around the world as it connects to the general history of the six titular beverages: beer, wine, rum, coffee, tea, and cola. Each section contains about two chapters that cover how the beverage was invented or discovered, its early history, and impact in the region where it is first documented. It’s interesting stuff.
Here’s my issue: the title suggests global culture, but that’s not what ends up happening. Beer and wine cover the ancient world via Biblical geography (for beer) and the Mediterranean (for wine). Everything else is essentially British and/or American in focus. The reality is certainly a lot more complicated than a single popular history book could cover, but still, the limitations could have been more acknowledged. South America, Africa, Australia, and native cultures in general are virtually ignored. Even Asia doesn’t get the attention it really should. Take the tea chapters. China and Japan get a few pages, but most of the section covers the impact of tea on England and the US in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.
There is also a distinctly imperialistic tinge to the history, which would be fine if it were more directly acknowledged as a major force in the book. Every chapter eventually involves tying a beverage to some sort of colonial or imperial rise. While some of the connections are acknowledged (rum and slavery for example), it’s not at all consistent enough for me. It also bothered me a little how the early part of each section suggested that the new beverage really overtook the one before it. While it’s probably true that trends and changes in popular tastes were present, I very much doubt they were quite as straightforward and clear-cut as the narrative of the books suggests. Again, I realize this is popular history not academic, but even so, I have trouble seeing why the complexities can’t at least be noted. There’s nothing inherently wrong with what’s here; it’s interesting stuff, both the history and cultural analysis. Problem is, it’s waaay simplified and narrowly focused. That needs to be said somewhere, somehow.