Throughout world history, there has always been an issue of class stratification. Many things constitute to form a defined structure of class division, primarily wealth. Along with discrimination, enslavement, prejudiceness, (etc.) was stinginess regarding beverage consumption. Such beverage examples include beer, wine, spirits, and tea. These four beverages exemplify and reflect the class stratification of various societies throughout world history.
One of the very first alcoholic beverages discovered was beer, a drink made from accidentally fermented gruel. Beer transformed the nutritional diet of the majority of people of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian era. The Mesopotamians and Egyptians believed beer was an ancient god-given drink that contained a great amount of social importance. In the book, Standage states, “The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread [and beer] as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human”.
In Mesopotamia, the higher socially you were, the more beer you were allotted per day. “The lowest-ranking members of the Sumerian temple workforce were issued a sila of beer a day. Junior officials were given two sila, higher officials and ladies of the court three sila; and the highest officials five sila.” A person’s social status was reflected in the amount of beer they were given per day; however, beer was not the only beverage that reflected class stratification.
Along with beer, wine, made from the fermented juice of crushed grapes, greatly stratified the social classes of the sixth century BCE. Access to this alcoholic beverage was considered a mark of social status. Only the elite class could afford to drink wine due to its high expense. “Its scarcity and high price made it worthy for consumption by the gods when it was available. Most people never tasted it at all”. Drinking wine symbolized power, prosperity, and privilege. Similar to the rationing of beer in the Mesopotamian society, “the property owning classes in Athens were categorized according to their vineyard holdings: The lowest class had less than seven acres, and the next three classes up owned around ten, fifteen, and twenty-five acres, respectively”.
The age and strength of the wine you drank determined your social status and how cultured you were. Standage claims, “ Wine could still be used to delineate social distinctions” (55). Wine was combined with other ingredients, such as rose and honey, to create the wine the elite class drank. The lower the class someone was, the worse the quality of the wine they drank was; it was bitter, watery, and far from elite wine. “Wine displaced beer to become the most civilized and sophisticated of drinks […]” (68). Wine drastically stratified the social classes of Rome and Greece due to its high expense and symbolism of power, prosperity, and privilege.
The three beverages, brandy, rum, and whiskey, really captures the spirit of social class division specifically involving slave trade. Wine was previously used as a form of currency, but slave traders realized that using brandy was far more efficient, allowing more to be packed into the small cramped spaces of the ships. The high alcohol content within brandy acted as a preservative keeping it fresher longer. According to the book, “Drinking imported became a mark of distinction among African slavers” (104). On Africa’s west coast, rum had become a popular form of alcoholic currency to purchase slaves. Strong rum was even specially produced to use to purchase slaves. These actions were completely degrading to slaves that they could just be purchased with a simple alcoholic beverage. It was the epitome of unjust actions regarding someone’s social status.
The fourth and final beverage is the least prominent in social class division; however, it still does play a role. Drinking tea was associated with Britain’s “self-image as a civilizing industrious power” (176). It was a symbol of China’s culture and sophistication. Tea was a luxury beverage. A cup of tea cost about five times as much as a cup coffee, appealing to the more elite class rather than the poorer, lower class. Although tea was pretty much available to the entire public, the high expense did prevent some of the lower class civilians from purchasing te beverage.
Throughout world history, beverages have played a vital role in social class stratification whether it be used as rationing, symbolizing power and prosperity, buying slaves, etc. The wealthier and higher in the class ladder someone was, the more control over the beverage they were given. Tom Standage begins his book with this line, “Drinks have continued to shape human history ever since”, which is completely true.