Many of us became bartenders as a temporary job that we decided to shape into a long term life project. If becoming a bartender often happens by chance, making it a fulfilling career choice is often a logical next step. The road taking you from “I need a side gig to pay rent” to “I want to take this seriously” may seem straightforward but is not always an easy one.
What tools do novice bartenders have at their disposal to learn? What are the necessary steps? The mistakes to avoid? The topic of education is a perpetual one in the bar scene, a real head scratcher. Bartending is such a practical field, but it does require a lot of methodology and discipline if one wants to remain successful and follow this path as a long term career choice.
Independent learning is not always best
I firmly believe in the importance of surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you - nothing beats the direct interaction between two people in order to incubate knowledge.
Here is the catch though: self-taught people are praised for their resourcefulness and solution-oriented approach, but I have come to realise that bartenders are often cornered into this mechanism. As opposed to more straightforward academic career choices with regular exams to test your skillset and adequacy, bartending lacks a formal education structure.
Bringing structure to a moving machine
Why is it that attempts at structuring and sharing knowledge haven’t been fruitful in our industry? Independent and IHK (german chamber of commerce) approved bartending schools do exist but somehow entering a course doesn’t seem to make you valuable for top bars. Experience is at the heart of everything. Mind you, I am not waging a war on bartending schools. They are a good place to start, but experience in highly esteemed establishments will always carry more weight on a resume than the completion of a bartending course. The world of bartending evolves quickly, and as much as holding a knife or a bar spoon will always be the same skill, various trends and challenges - sustainability, for example - are constantly reshaping the organisation of a bar and it is hard for schools to adapt in real time.
Our relation to guests is also at the heart of our industry because at the end of the day, the best bar in the world doesn’t have a reason to exist without guests. The best and only way to learn how to interact with guests is to, well, interact with guests.
My Way to Bartending: The Classic
As many of us, I started bartending by chance. I originally moved to Berlin to improve my German in order to study translation. I ended up becoming a regular customer at a local cocktail bar (Redwood Bar, Berlin Mitte) where my passion for spirits and how to mix them slowly eclipsed my passion for translating washing machine manuals. I finally made the decision to (literally) drown those aspirations in my newly discovered passion: that was it, I wanted to become a bartender. A classic story. I ended up starting on my new path in that very same bar and was lucky to be mentored.
About the luck of having a mentor
What did that mean practically? Having never worked in hospitality in my entire life, I had to learn from scratch. Shawn, the bar manager at the time, took me under his wing and taught me the basics of classic cocktails, tools, and techniques. I remember him nonchalantly telling me how those things will take a while and that the important thing was how I approached guests. Every night we would debrief and talk about my experience with guests, how I engaged with them them, where I went wrong, and what I improved. Nothing since has ever held a candle to this personal, long term guidance, which is why mentorship is so important. It helps develop not only your practical skills, but also to find your own place in the bartending world.
The importance of Inhouse Education
Over time I became not just a better bartender,I became a better Redwood bartender. There is a lot of value in mentorship and in-house personal training. Reciprocity is everything: if a mentee gets to receive a personalised training, the mentor gets to train a bartender perfectly tailor made for the establishment. In an industry with a high staff turn-over rate, it can seem like a risky bet or waste of time to invest in a training program for bartenders. However direct mentorship is incredibly important to new bartenders, and should be a priority if the bartending community truly is a community.
The brands' entry into the further education sector
In the recent years, brands have played a pivotal role in providing education for bartenders. Bar tours and benders are gradually being replaced by workshops and seminars. Whether it’s through competitions, masterclasses or educational trips, more and more brands now focus on the educational path in order to position themselves in the premium bar market. The idea is simple: brands finance educational events where bartenders are invited to learn more about their craft, foster a sense of community on one hand and create an allegiance to their brand on the other hand.
Making educational opportunities accessible to the newcomers
The educational value in those events is undeniable and brands contribute massively to the industry in this way, which we are all very grateful for. However they also need to see a financial return on their investment - which is fair play - and will often invite high value bartenders who are already quite advanced in their careers, have an existing connection to the brand, or have a strong network. In order to provide more educational opportunities to developing bartenders, both brands and bars need to look at what can be gained from these events. Who benefits more from a workshop - the established bar manager, or the new colleague who doesn’t have as much previous experience on the topic? There is a lot to gain in fostering relationships with experienced bartenders, but there is also a lot to gain in developing connections with the upcoming generation.
Little structure, much community
I would argue that the benefit of a lack of structured and unified education in our industry is that it reinforces a sense of community. We have all been through the trenches of learning the craft, and educating ourselves. Education often starts with one individual sharing an idea, one innovator gifting their concept, and leads to people unifying around that spark and creating a big crowd of like-minded people, a community. Social media has become a valuable tool in this sense.It has become a huge hub for inspiration and creativity where a lot of knowledge is made available for free.
I do worry, however, that the bartending community tends to be divided based on experience and popularity. This doesn’t happen consciously but rather because young bartenders do not get the same kind of exposure and opportunities to get a seat at the table. It is logical process but it highlights all the more the importance of guidance from the older generation. There is plenty of space for everyone in our community, let’s turn our focus from exclusivity to inclusivity.
What tools do young bartenders have to educate themselves?
The educational journey of bartenders is a complex one - just like any path to growth and self improvement it is a very personal one that still exists within a wider community. In a time where information has never been so easy to access, it can be daunting to face this task alone. With a never ending array of learning material - whether online or offline - it is sometimes tough to know where to look.
The academic world benefits from peer reviewing, and trustworthy sources of information, which is something that is missing in our industry. It can be difficult for new bartenders to know which information sources are reliable. Which is why it is also important to go back to the roots and look for the guidance of more experienced peers. There is no better source of knowledge than role models who see the moral value in taking time out of their busy lives to set the curious young bartender, the future top mixologist, on the right path and help them navigate their way through the industry.