It is possible to chart the history of the world by tracking mankind’s beverage consumption.  One need only follow six drinks: beer, wine, distilled beverages, tea, coffee and soft drink.


It didn’t take ancient man long to discover the conscious-altering effects of alcohol.  Alcohol came to be used for social, religious, recreational and beverage purposes.  One of the earliest samples of writing from Mesopotamia turned out to be a recipe for beer.  Beer was being produced even before the significant production of field crops (agriculture).  Beer was being made from wheat and barley which are essentially domesticated wild grasses characterized by large grain heads. The first beers were produced in large open vats that depended on the chance arrival of wild airborne yeasts.


The Code of Hammurabi included regulations on beer production and beer parlors.  Beer was a popular beverage among Celtic and German tribes by 300 B.C. The Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 was one of the first governmental attempts at food-quality legislation.. The Code is still referenced today.  The prescribed ingredients for beer were water, hops and barley malt.  Beer parlors or taverns became not only places for drinking but also for socializing.  In some cases the taverns were as important as the churches as community centers.


Benjamin Franklin is alleged to have observed, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”  Through the 19th century carbohydrate-rich beer could be substituted for bread in the daily rations of German soldiers.


The second “historical drink is wine.  Some contend that wine production began in Iran around 5400 B. C..  More recent research traces the origin of wine to the European country of Georgia around 600- B. C. It is hard to overestimate the economic impact of wine.  In the mountainous land of Greece with its variegated coastline you had the perfect climactic and geographic conditions for the production of wine and olives, two commodities that the Greeks would carry around the Mediterranean along with their culture and its effects.  Wine and olives preceded culture.


A third and more “modern” beverage is tea.  Tea was the beverage of Great Britain and its colonies.  At the end of the French and Indian War Great Britain turned its attention to its American colonies.  The war had been long an expensive.   Britain awoke to the theory that colonies existed for the economic benefit of the mother country not just for the benefit of the colonists.  A new tax program, the Towneshend Acts went into effect.  The taxes were very visible.  There were taxes on paint, paper, lead and tea.  The taxes were met with a storm of colonial protest.  The program was repealed but there was still the Tea Tax of 1773.  Great Britain had let the colonies, in effect, govern themselves for over one hundred years.  The purpose of the tax was to give an economic monopoly to British tea merchants.  There was a tax and American merchants were barred from the trade.    The response from the colonists was the Boston Tea Party of 1773 when colonists, poorly disguised as Indians, dumped a shipload of tea into Boston harbor.  This enraged the British who closed the port of Boston as a punishment.  As we know this was one of the steps that led to the American Revolution. 


The next “historical” drink is the category of distilled beverages or liquor.  Liquor has a much higher alcoholic content by volume than beer and is the product of the distillation of field crops such as corn, wheat, potatoes or sugar cane.  Alcohol content is measured in proofs.  Two proof are equivalent to 1%.  So if a bourbon is 80 proof that means it is 40% alcohol by volume.  Liquor has numerous economic advantages:  it is pourable, potable, portable and profitable.  It also store almost indefinitely.


In colonial America alcohol consumption was high.  One study puts alcohol; consumption at three pints per person per week.  Ironically perhaps when James Oglethorpe founded his colony of Georgia distilled beverages were one of his four prohibitions.  (Also forbidden were lawyers, slavery and Roman Catholics as it was presumed that they would be sympathetic to the Catholic Spaniards in Florida.)


Early on rum was the liquor of choice.  Rum was very profitable but it had a dark side.  Sugar cane was introduced into the Bahamas in 1640.  Barbados became the most valuable British possession in the Caribbean.  The British love affair with rum endured.  From 1655 to 1970rules in the Royal Navy provided for a daily issue to sailors of grog, twenty ounces a day of a beverage that was 20% rum.


Rum was distilled from molasses which is derived from sugar cane.  Sugar cane is a plantation crop and wherever you had plantation crops: tobacco, rice, sugar cane and later cotton, you had slavery. The solution to field labor supply was Black slavery.  Slavery in the sugar colonies was perhaps the harshest slave experience.  Tobacco and cotton don’t grow in the cold.  Those field crops have a down season.  However the growth and processing of sugar cane and molasses goes on twelve month a year, non-stop.  Cane cutting, bundling and cooking could be brutally hard.


Distilling bloomed in New England.  The Broadway musical, “1776” has a song that says it best, “slaves, molasses and rum.”  What developed was the highly profitable “triangular trade.”  Molasses was shipped to New England; rum was shipped to Africa and slaves were shipped to the sugar colonies.  Some ship captains managed to never have an empty cargo hold.  Distilling proved to be a profitable solution to low grain prices or overproduction.  Farmers could turn their corn into bourbon.  This was so profitable that a tax on whiskey imposed by George Washington’s administration caused some 7000 angry farmers to converge on Pittsburgh in 1794.


Coffee (Drink#5) is the most popular beverage in America.  Americans drink 400 million cups a day.  75% of the caffeine ingested in the United States comes in coffee.  Coffee was introduced to the world in the 1700’s and was looked upon by Americans as a patriotic duty after the Boston Tea Party.  Today coffee is produced in some 70 countries.


The impact of coffee in the western hemisphere is striking.  There was negligible production of coffee in Brazil in 1800.  There was some production by 1830 and significant production by 1850.  In the period 1910  to 1920 , 70% of the world’s coffee was being produced in Brazil.


Dependence of an economy on one commodity whether it is bananas, cotton or coffee can have unexpected consequences.   Thousands of miles or railroads were constructed in Brazil to support the coffee industry.  And what if the commodity fails?  In Brazil there was also a darker side.  Coffee is a plantation crop and that meant exploitation of the native Brazilian population and the importation of Black African slaves. Slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888.


The last of our six beverages is the category of soft drinks.  The Coca Cola logo/trademark is the most well known in the world.  Regardless of what you may have heard or read elsewhere the collapse of the Soviet Union was caused by two things: American cola and blue jeans!


By the 1980’s the Soviet economy was a mess. Soviet central agricultural planning had failed.  The Soviet Union had managed to go from being a grain-exporting country to being a grain-importing country.    There were agricultural shortages, including grain shortages that the government refused to admit.  The only part of agriculture that worked was the small truck farms that existed around the large cities. Farmers who worked the truck farms were allowed to keep the profits from their vegetable and fruit sales.


It became customary for citizens to walk around with pockets stuffed with cash.  Any day might be the day when the yearly quota of shoes or any commodity might appear in the retail stores.  You had to carry cash because once the yearly quota sold out the inventory might not be replenished for a full year. In what citizens were told was the best country in the world you had missiles but you could not have blue jeans.  People would approach American tourists on the street and offer hundreds of dollars in cash for the pants you had on.


American cola had penetrated the Soviet market in the 1950’s. People loved it.  But the Soviet Union had become a gas station with missiles.  At one point the central government paid Pepsi for its yearly quota of cola in kind and Pepsi acquired some military equipment, even some ships.  For a moment Pepsico became a military power!


One can do an historical analysis based on drinks and you could also do an historical analysis based on foods and food customs.  You might find the work of Tom Standage to be both informative and entertaining