6 Drinks That Changed the World

And how they wrote history...


You do it every day: water, tea, coffee, beer, wine, etc. Not a day passes when you don’t consume one liquid or another.

It’s so fundamental to the human experience that we take it for granted. But when you actually dig into the history of drinking (and of beverages), a remarkable story emerges.

Today is a dive into Tom Standage’s book A History of the World in 6 Glasses — how drinks shape your day-to-day experience, and history at large.

Here’s what your favorite beverage says about you, and your connection to the great adventure that we call history…

Beer: The Great Humanizer

Two figures drinking beer through straws, Khafajeh, Iraq (2600–2350 BC)

In the Mesopotamian cradle of civilization, hunter-gatherers turned to agriculture around 10,000 BC. Grain, the most basic crop, led to two creations that would define human civilization: bread and beer.

Though it’s not certain when beer was invented, it’s clear that for early civilizations, it was synonymous with human life. 

While water is the most basic necessity of human life, beer is water that’s been shaped by the most basic level of processing. Its ingredients — water, grains, and wild yeast — were available anywhere that human settlements took hold, and because it had to be boiled, it was safer than plain water. 

The same ingredients used to make bread — the staple food of civilization — could also be used to produce beer. On top of that, beer’s fermentation process yielded protein and micronutrients that made it filling and nourishing.

While water was considered nature itself, beer was a few steps removed. As such, it became symbolic of humanity’s distinction from nature.

This idea comes out clearly in the ancient Mesopotamian work The Epic of Gilgamesh: when Gilgamesh gives beer to the wild creature Enkidu, he becomes tame and humanized.

As the first and most universal processed drink, beer remains a symbol of humble enjoyment. Consumed by both rich and poor from the very beginning, it is to this day considered the great equalizer. Perhaps there’s a reason both construction workers and bankers can head to the same pub for a pint after work. 

Wine: The Growth of Culture

Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and pleasure

From its origins, wine has been synonymous with expense, culture, and sophistication.

It has been around since at least 6,000 BC, but it wasn’t until 870 BC that Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II popularized wine by serving it at an extravagant feast. From then on, it was a noble drink: rare, hard to transport, and royal.

The demands required to produce it limited its production to warmer, fertile climates. This why it remained rare in Mesopotamia but caught on quickly in the Mediterranean, especially in Greece.

Still to this day, it’s hard to call ancient Greece to mind without picturing curling grapevines, white togas, and philosophers with a wine goblet in hand. Wine and Greece were the perfect pairing: Greek ideals of sophistication allowed drinkers to analyze the more nuanced profile of the drink, and its costliness reinforced the society’s conviction of its own superiority.

Greek intellectuals gathered in private homes for “symposiums,” essentially philosophical drinking parties attended by the likes of Socrates and Plato. This might seem counter-intuitive: why were philosophers consuming alcohol, a substance which dulls the mind rather than sharpening it? 

Greek philosophers weren’t blind to this fact, and it’s actually for this reason that they drank: since wine opened the door to man’s animal passions, it was a mark of strength to be able to drink without losing control. Socrates argued that drunkenness offered the benefit of allowing you to encounter your dark side and gain mastery over it.

Rome later inherited Greece’s love of wine but rejected the associated hedonism. Instead of a Dionesian indulgence, Romans viewed wine as a status symbol and mark of disciplined work done well. 

The classical world’s legacy of wine lives on today, even if subconsciously. While beer is a perfect drink for a backyard barbecue, it might seem out of place at formal events. Weddings, graduations, anniversaries, and dinner dates wouldn’t feel quite right in the absence of a proper bottle of wine.

Spirits: Race to the New World

The process of distillation (heating and cooling wine to extract its alcoholic component) emerged at the end of the first millennium. This “burnt wine,” or “brandy” in English, gained popularity initially as medicine.

Distillation carries us into the 16th and 17th centuries, when the age of exploration revealed the existence of cane sugar in the new world. This lucrative crop required intensive labor to cultivate and process, so traders turned to slave labor. 

Hard spirits played a surprisingly front and center role during this time, when the Trans-Atlantic slave trade saw European, African, and the emerging Carribean cultures collide. Brandy was used as currency by traders, and sugar gave rise to new spirits that would soon leave their own mark on history — rum being one of them.

Popularized in the 17th century, rum emerged just in time for the age of sail. Since it was a more stable and concentrated drink than wine or beer, it became the travel-friendly drink of choice for sailors of all varieties, from pirates and privateers to commanding officers in His Majesty’s Royal Navy.

For similar reasons, rum became the first drink of the nascent American colonies. Britain levied taxes on it due to its popularity, inciting a cat-and-mouse game of smuggling and taxation that exploded into the War of Independence in 1775. To underline their distinction from the British crown, American generals like Washington made sure to keep their troops well supplied with rum rations. 

America’s history would continue to be shaped by alcohol thanks to both its trading power with Native Americans and the drama of the Temperance movement. To this day, spirits retain a double-edged character: they can be enjoyed amongst both distinguished and everyday company; they can be taste-tested in high society or thrown down carelessly in collegiate raves.

Coffee: Cognition in a Cup

Inside a London coffeehouse (c.1690)

The 1600s saw the first gleams of the Enlightenment. It was a time when Galileo, Francis Bacon, and other luminaries advocated for empiricism, scientific observation, and rationality.

The intense intellectual energy of this time was fuelled by a new drink on the European breakfast table: coffee.

Though discovered sometime in the first millennium AD, coffee remained primarily an Arabian drink until Pope Clement VIII’s affinity for it opened the door to the West. This occurred just as England was taking a turn for Puritanism, so as alcohol consumption was cracked down on, coffee was introduced — and it spread like wildfire.

From the beginning, coffee has been linked with intellectual creativity. The first coffeehouse sprang up in Oxford, where Christopher Wren (the designer of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral) went to exchange ideas with Isaac Newton. 

Within decades, thousands of coffee shops dotted the country, with middle-class intellectuals meeting regularly to discuss politics, philosophy, and world events — coffee’s psychotropic elements increase mental stimulation, creativity, and a sense of clarity.

Arabia was the only producer of coffee beans for two centuries. But by the 18th century, Holland led the way to establish plantations in Java, Indonesia. France and England then started planting their own beans in locations still associated with coffee production today: Guatemala, Brazil, and more. 

With its power to elevate cognition, coffee is still the drink of intellectual discourse and creativity. Students study in coffee shops and flock to campus cafes, and coffee remains the preferred drink of artists, creatives, and intellectual powerhouses. 

Tea: Sophistication and Power

The East India Company sets sail

Tea was invented in China, likely popularized by 6th century BC Buddhist monks. When Europeans encountered China in the 16th century, they established a regular trade of silks, spices, and tea.

At first, tea was too expensive to be popular. It wasn’t until 1660, when it was served at the marriage of King Charles II to Catherine of Portugal, that England warmed to it — and by the 1700s it had become England’s drink, enjoyed by commoners and nobility alike almost daily.

The true character of tea, though, emerged as the drink of the industrial revolution in England; a revolution that might never have happened without it. The caffeinated drink freed workers’ bodies from their natural circadian rhythms, so their energy for work no longer depended on the rhythms of the day — Britons could now run on manmade schedules.

Tea also shaped the political landscape of later centuries. In the 19th century, the British East India Company relied on trading opium for China’s main product, tea.

There was just one problem: opium eventually got banned in China due to its addictive and dangerous narcotic effects. Initially, this didn’t stop the British from trading under the table, covering its tracks with generous bribes to Chinese officials.

But when China cracked down on the flood of opium (depriving the British of their beloved tea), the resulting tensions exploded into the Opium Wars of 1839-42. Britain’s decisive victory over China, which up to that point was an undisputed world power, cemented the former’s place as the new ruler of the world.

Until, that is, a new power (and a new drink) would steal her crown…

Soda: The Pause that Imperializes

Britain’s daughter colony of America once revolted due to harsh taxes on tea. Now, just as America would step forward to take Britain’s place as the new global leader, a new beverage would supplant tea as the drink of the everyman. 

The 19th century put America on the map as an industrial power. Since then, America’s global dominance has been mirrored by the worldwide popularity of its signature drink, Coca-Cola. To America’s supporters, Coca-Cola symbolizes mass culture, equality, and the rise of the working class. To its opponents, it represents greed, capitalism, and the destruction of culture.

The first carbonated water was invented in the 18th century as a medicinal cure against nausea and other minor complaints. Entrepreneurs later took sodium bicarbonate-infused water — or “soda” — and added extra ingredients to gain a competitive advantage. In the 1800s John Pemberton added in coca leaves and kola plant seeds, thus creating Coca-Cola.  

Coke struck gold by providing a caffeinated drink to fill the gap left by the Temperance movement. From there, it’s a story of marketing success, and a case study of the rags-to-riches mythos that fuelled the American dream.

Coke accompanied America’s presence on the world stage when U.S. soldiers carried it in their rations in the 20th century. As the world entered the era of postwar peace and rebuilding, Coke extended its production around the world.

With it came a sense of American identity and philosophy — namely, that people have the right to pursue happiness within the context of a liberal democracy. It’s also worth noting that next to “OK,” “Coke” is the most-known English word in the world.

With coca leaves crossed off the ingredient list, Coke is no longer psychotropic. Perhaps, though, it’s something even more powerful: the icon of a new hedonism, the determination to enjoy life just because you can. 

A Sip of History

Food and drink tell the story of a culture. The problem is that sometimes we don’t know what story we’re in until it’s too late to rewrite it. 

For instance, Coke consumption continues to be a reliable predictor of a country’s acceptance of liberal democracy (and even literacy level)! Yet it can also predict newly epidemic health problems like diabetes and heart disease — malaties that, while virtually unheard-of before the 20th century, now ravage the developed world.

We often fail to recognize the icons of our own culture until we see them in hindsight. It’s almost impossible to predict the consequences of cultural movements until they happen.

That’s why the history of drinks is so fascinating. With America’s global presence beginning to diminish, what new drink will take Coca-Cola’s place as the world’s beverage?

And what will what we drink today reveal to future historians about our culture?

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Art of the Week

Boy Brings His Father a Cup of Coffee - Roelof Koets (1654)

Just as Holland was coming into its own as a coffee producer trading out of Java, its painters were thriving during the golden age of Dutch painting.

Dutch artists slowly drifted away from previously popular genres of historical and religious images. They instead began turning their brushes to simple, everyday subjects: landscapes, families, and lifelike portraits so dramatic that they bordered on caricatures. 

Here Roelof Koets captures a moment of intimate family life. The eager son, still bleary-eyed from sleep, proudly shows his father that he has learned how to pour his morning drink. The father has the unmistakable half-hidden smile of a proud dad. He reaches out to take the cup, but the gesture also seems to be pointing to the son, as if to say, “Look at what my boy can do!” 

The coffee trade shaped the intellectual and political landscape of Europe. Against the backdrop of global political forces though, Koets’s portrait is a poignant counterpoint.

By capturing such a simple moment charged with tender love (and one that could be easily overlooked amid the busyness of the day’s work), he reminds us that history isn’t lived by abstract movements. Rather, it’s lived by individual human lives full of relationships, struggles, and love.

One More Thing…

My friend Evan just started a specialty coffee company based on the great men of history — if that's up your alley you should check out his project below. I can personally vouch for it (just click the image):


or to participate.