Bartending as a job has a noirish mystique about it. Most everyone has thought about becoming a bartender at one time or another. But, being a bartender isn’t just about pouring drinks. It involves psychology, management skills, chemistry, math, and so many other things that are beyond the view of an average patron.
Should aspiring bartenders consider attending bartending school, or is learning on the job the best way to advance your bartending acumen? Evidence shows that, for the small benefits classes provide, nothing beats real-world experience.
Bartending school is not entirely without its benefits. A good one will give students a base knowledge of mixology and drink recipes, provide basic training on point of sale systems and cash handling, and assist in job placement upon graduation. As you’re researching options, make sure to ask what other skills you’ll learn in addition to just mixing drinks. Since most classes cost hundreds of dollars, be sure your experience is well worth the money.
We spoke to a bartender in Chicago who took classes online and he said, “I did it to make money while I was in grad school. I make more money than I’ve ever seen before.” Bartending school helps those with busy schedules learn the skills they need to become a bartender when they may not have the experience to fall back on.
Unfortunately, not everything about bartending classes provides the right environment for becoming a masterful bartender. Many classes use colored water and foam garnishes all throughout the course, only using real alcohol for the final parts of the class, and sometimes not even at all. While this is fine for pouring and memorizing counts and recipes, it doesn’t adequately prepare anyone to work with real garnishes, flames, or twists. It also doesn’t teach a beginning bartender how a drink should actually taste once it’s made, robbing them of a vital skill that ensures consistent quality in a real bar.
Once in the real world, many bar managers don’t look for a mixology certificate, but it can actually be seen as a detriment, since it can scream that a bartender has no experience. Many managers prefer to hire inexperienced employees as bar-backs or someone lower on the totem pole than bartender, allowing them to train new employees to their standards and preferred practices.
The traditional method of becoming a bartender is to first be hired as a barback, dishwasher, waiter, or other similar position. While all of these may seem like inferior jobs, they allow you to pick up vital experience and on the job training that is needed to become a bartender.
I remember my first job as a dishwasher. Sure, I learned how to wash dishes on an industrial level. I also learned how to properly plate, present, and cook food, where all the extra supplies were, how to stock the bar, and a dozen other things that no school could teach. Similarly, a waiter or barback can learn how to judge crowd needs, how to fix broken bar equipment, and the individual needs of the bar they work in.
“I learned on the job when I was 21,” says bartender Jessica Stang, bartender at both Bases Loaded and Woodlawn Tiki Bar just south of Buffalo. For her, learning how to be efficient while controlling a crowd is vital. “The ability to be fast and efficient, while still interacting with customers. Being kind and outgoing, while still keeping control because with alcohol, things can get out of control fast.” It’s one thing to make drinks in a controlled environment under a timer with colored water. It’s another thing to do that with noise and a boisterous crowd to control.
For all the Facebook ads and clever copy, it seems that bartending school is somewhat less than necessary. While it does offer base knowledge that can be helpful to those just starting, a more thorough (and free) education comes from starting at the bottom and working their way up. Few bartending schools will offer the successful job placement and critical tertiary skills required to become a successful bartender.