I got a great book from my in-laws for Christmas this year that combines my interest in odd pivots on history with my passion for beer, wine, and whisky. It's called A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage.
The author chronicles how beer, wine, coffee, tea, spirits, and cola impacted world history. For instance, tea provided safer water by both requiring boiling of the water plus the antiseptic properties of tea itself; this allowed larger populations to grow safely with a minimized threat of dysentery. It, of course, also fueled trade between England and China, ultimately culminating in the Opium War and the wholesale pushing of drugs on the Chinese (since there was very little the Chinese wanted from the British aside from gold, silver, and opium in exchange for tea.) Tea also heavily impacted the history of America. Taxes on tea by the British (and efforts to stomp out weathy American tea smugglers) helped fuel the American independence movement including the infamous Boston Tea Party.
Among other things, I found it interesting that all of these were originally used for medicinal purposes. For instance, wine was used to clean wounds more effectively than water until relatively recently since it's free of pathogens and has natural antibacterial agents. And, of course, the story of Coca Cola's origins as patent-medicine are well-known.
It's also fascinating how a lot of attitudes and practices today are artifacts of old or even ancient customs. As an example, the black tea that was imported into England was often heavily adulterated by middle men to increase profits. The addition of milk and sugar helped conceal the off flavors, so that even today with pure teas available, the English still drink tea with milk and sugar. And, closer to my experience, the original symposia were wine drinking parties where people gathered to debate and discuss the topics of the day. Modern symposiums are still certainly drinking parties with some debate and discussion.
The topic of coffee's role in fueling the Enlightenment, the formation of such London companies as Lloyd's, and the rise of the French Revolution are touched on in this book as well. The role of coffee is covered even more deeply in The Devil's Cup : A History of the World According to Coffee by Stewart Lee Allen. This is a bit lighter book that I read last year but didn't get around to blogging about.
Anyway, A History of the World in 6 Glasses is a good read and worth enjoying with a cup of tea. Or beer, wine, whisky, coffee, or Coke.