Other chapters in the series ‘The ULTIMATE Guide to Becoming a Bartender’:
- Chapter 1: Introducing The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Bartender
- Chapter 2: Proof You can Become a Great Bartender
- Chapter 4: How to Write an Irresistible Bartender Resume
- Chapter 5: 7 Strategies to Land Your Bartending First Job
- Chapter 6: How to Nail Your Bartending Job Interview
- Chapter 7: How to Smash a Bartending Trial Shift
- Chapter 8: Next Steps: From no Job to Bartending Brilliance
Bartending school reminds me of a conversation I once overheard between a head chef and an aspiring chef.
The head chef said, “If you want to work in my kitchen, you can start out by peeling potatoes. If you choose to go to chef school first, then great! You’ll spend a lot of money learning cooking theory and techniques that you won’t necessarily need. And when you finish chef school and ask to work in my kitchen, you’ll still start out by peeling potatoes!”
This is exactly the same way I feel about formal bartending classes. Except instead of peeling potatoes, you’ll be washing glasses, taking out the trash, changing kegs, or waiting tables.
You’ll spend a lot of money learning bartending theory and techniques that you won’t necessarily need. And at the end it, when you’re looking for a bartending job, you’ll still start out as a barback or server first.
The reality is, bartending is learned & mastered on-the-job. And no amount of schooling can replace that.
A Graduate in Action
I was first introduced to bartending school when I was managing the bar at an extremely busy restaurant in Melbourne. It was a tough bar to work behind and we needed a strong team. That meant hiring good staff. And since I was the manager, it was my responsibility.
One day I had this girl come in for a trial. When she arrived, she was confident and happy. And after briefly talking with her, I thought she showed promise.
But, less than 30 seconds into the trial, I could tell she wasn’t good enough. In fact, I doubted whether or not she’d even stepped foot behind a bar before!
So I asked her straight up, “Have you ever worked behind a bar?”
She said, “No, I haven’t… But I’ve graduated from bartending school.”
My Introduction to Bartending School
I was genuinely surprised. I’d never even heard of bartending school before. Let alone their graduates. I’d always assumed that bartending was learned on-the-job.
That was one of the main reasons why I thought bartending was such a great profession. You DIDN’T need to go to school and you could start earning an income straight away.
Yet, here this girl was. A bartending school graduate. And despite this girl having attended one, she wasn’t good enough. Even outside of my bar, she was going to struggle to find bartending work.
Unfortunately for her, there’s just no way a school can prepare a beginner for what it’s actually like to work behind a busy bar. That’s something only experience can teach you.
Usually, at this point, I would just send an unsuccessful trial home. She obviously wasn’t good enough and I didn’t want to waste her’s or my time. But I was intrigued by her. She clearly wanted to be a bartender and I felt obliged to show her the ropes.
So I told her that I wouldn’t be able to give her a job. But if she wanted to, she was welcome to stay on for a couple of hours and experience what it’s like to work behind a real bar.
She agreed. And for the next couple of hours, she got some REAL bartending experience.
The Reality of Formal Bartending Courses
I’m a huge fan of education. In my opinion, education is one of those crucial factors that separates those that succeed in this industry and those that don’t.
So when I found out that formal bartending education existed, I was interested in them and I wondered what they taught.
I started looking into different programs, I read reviews, I scoured the bartending forums, and I read every single blog post I could find on the subject.
And what I found out was interesting.
It seems that the only websites recommending bartending schools are the schools themselves. Almost every working bartender out there discourages attending bartending school. They think it’s a waste of time and money. And they recommend starting out as a barback or server first, before progressing into a bartender’s role.
Jason Shurtz, founder of ‘The Bartending Blueprint‘ and YouTube channel ‘BartendingPro‘, says it straight in his post: Bartending School Scams: The Facts They Don’t Want You To Know.
Jefferey Morganthaler, infamous cocktail expert and author of ‘The Bar Book‘, discourages bartending school and recommends starting out a barback first, when he answer’s a fan’s question in his post here.
AND VinePair writer, Nick Hines, even attended a bartending school and documented the process. It turns out that even the instructor acknowledges that you’ll still have to start out as a barback or server first.
Why do Bartenders Hate Bartending School?
After reading all of these negative reviews, I was surprised. My initial instincts were that it could only be a good thing. I mean, you get to learn about bartending before you become a bartender!
How could that not be useful??
So I dug a little deeper and it turns out there are two main reasons why bartenders discourage formal bartending classes, scammy bartending schools and arrogant graduates.
Scammy Bartending Schools
Unfortunately, there are a lot of scammy bartending schools out there. These schools don’t care if you become a bartender or not. They just want your money and they’ll try and convince you to attend their school by making you guarantees they can’t keep. Or worse, completely lying to you.
More specifically, these schools will guarantee you a bartending job upon graduation, when in reality, they’ll scurry you out the door with a list of bars & restaurants to apply to. As far as your job hunt goes, you’ll be in exactly the same position you were before you attended the school.
They’ll also try and convince you that you need a bartending license or certificate in order to become a bartender. And that if you attend their school, you’ll receive your bartending license upon graduation and be bartending in no time…
Just for the record, you DON’T need a bartending license or certificate to become a bartender! They are useless pieces of paper that only indicate you’ve “graduated” from that school.
**Note** This is not to be confused with an ‘Alcohol Awareness Program’ or ‘Alcohol Beverage Control’. You may need one of these, see Chapter 2: Proof You can Become a Great Bartender.
Finally, the worst of these schools will teach you useless (and sometimes inaccurate) theory to fill in time, which ultimately, wastes your time & money.
If you’re set on attending a bartending course, make sure you do your research first. Because you want to avoid these scammy bartending schools at all costs!
The other reason why bartenders discourage formal bartending education is because they’ve met graduates who often think that they’re amazing bartenders even though they’ve never worked behind a real bar before…
These graduates think that they don’t need to pay their dues and work their way up as a barback or server first.
They think that they should be working the best shifts right away because they attended a 4-week course and they know where Tequila comes from!
To experienced bartenders & bar managers, this kind of attitude is very off-putting. NO amount of schooling can teach you what it’s like to work behind a REAL bar.
And because of these arrogant graduates, they assume that bartending school is a waste of time and that the people who attended them aren’t worth employing.
Experience is the king in this arena.
So whatever you do, don’t assume that bartending school will transform you into an amazing bartender. Stay humble and be willing to work your way up.
The Pros & Cons of Bartending School
Before I continue, I’d like to point out that there are some legit bartending schools out there. Not all of them are trying to steal your money and some of them will actually help you prepare for what it’s like to work behind the bar.
Let’s take a look at some of the pros & cons of legit bartending courses.
Pro: They’re Fun & You’ll Meet Like-Minded People
School can be a fun and interactive way to learn about bartending. You’ll also meet a bunch of other like-minded aspiring bartenders who are eager to learn about bartending too!
If you’re a social butterfly and learn better in group settings, a formal bartending education may be for you.
Con: They’re Expensive
But it can be expensive, both in time and money. Some of them will take you 4 weeks and a whopping $2000 to complete…
The question you need to ask yourself is, are you spending money on a bartending course to meet people? Or are you trying to get a job?
Pro: You’ll Learn a lot of Theory
Most schools place an emphasis on theory. Even the legit schools. You’ll learn about the history of alcohol, how alcohol is made, you’ll learn about beer, wine & spirits, and you’ll learn tons of cocktail recipes.
Con: Most of it will be Useless
However, the theory that you learn is often too in-depth. For example, most bartenders only need to learn a maximum of 30 cocktail recipes (not 150). And you’ll never need to recite the history of alcohol at a job interview.
On top of that, a lot of the theory that you learn will be difficult to apply in a real-life setting. And since you won’t be using it, you’ll end up forgetting most of it. Which will make you wonder why you learned it in the first place…
Pro: Basic Practice in a Safe Setting
Probably the best part about these bartending classes is that you actually get to practice basic bartending techniques. You’ll get to practice making cocktails, pouring draught beer, pouring alcohol, serving customers, etc.
And you’ll get to practice all of this in safe setting without customers yelling at you for being too slow.
Con: No Practice in a Real Setting
Customers will rarely yell at you for being slow! In fact, most of the time they’re very understanding of beginners. Practicing in a safe setting might seem like the way to go, but pouring drinks without anyone to serve is easy. You can practice that at home.
One of the most important aspects of bartending is being able to serve customers & make drinks in a dynamic setting. You need to practice pouring drinks while customers are watching, others are waiting, and when you’ve got a handful of other things to do.
That’s what real bartending is. Wouldn’t you rather practice that?
Pro: Job Assistance Upon Graduation
Almost every school will guarantee you some kind of job assistance upon graduation. If they’re legit, they might actually assist you in finding a job. But not as much as you think.
They’ll probably help you out with your resume, they’ll tell you how to look for work, they’ll give you some interviewing tips, and some might even give you exclusive access to an online job placement board.
Con: They Can’t Guarantee a Bar Will Hire You
But they can’t guarantee a bar will hire you. And they certainly can’t guarantee that you’ll start out as a bartender. That’s up to the bar’s managers.
And some bar managers despise bartending schools. So when they’ve seen that you attended one, they’ll throw your resume in the bin without even considering you.
Harsh, but unfortunately true.
So What are Your Alternatives?
By far the best way to learn how to bartend is on-the-job. No amount of schooling or study can replace on-the-job experience. That’s why you should focus on breaking into the industry as soon as possible.
Start Out as a Barback or Server
If you have no experience, finding a job as a bartender is going to be tough. It can be done, but it’s unlikely. When you’re looking for work, by all means, apply for bartending roles. You just need to make sure you let potential employers know that you’re willing (and happy) to start out as a barback or server first.
The chances are, they’ll be the only positions employers will want you for.
But that’s not a bad thing!
Almost every great bartender started out as a barback or server first. It teaches you some of the fundamental skills you’ll need to succeed as a bartender.
It might not seem as glamorous as bartending, but what you’ll learn is priceless.
You’ll learn how to work hard in a high-pressure environment. It will teach you how to interact with the chefs, other bartenders, wait staff, customers, managers, and the boss. You’ll learn bartending terminology, how to change kegs, where the stock is, what the stock is, and how to break down & set up the bar.
In short, you’ll build up a base-level of experience that will be invaluable to you and your employer when you progress into a bartender’s role. And once you’ve proved yourself as a barback or server, you’ll be first in line when any bartending positions open up.
Support the on the job experience with some self-study, and you’ll become a great bartender in no time.
What do I mean by self-study?
Basically, anything that’s going to teach you the theory behind bartending, drinks, food, customer service, people skills, techniques, and the hospitality industry in general. That could be through reading books & blogs, watching YouTube videos, or by taking online courses (I’m a HUGE fan of online courses!).
Live training sessions & courses (including legit bartending schools) are also an option. But things you can re-visit are the best.
Is Bartending School Worth It?
For most of you, I’d say no.
If you want to become a bartender as quick as possible, don’t go to bartending school (read the rest of this guide instead!). It’s not worth it. Bartending is a skill that’s cultivated with experience and developed over time..
I.e. Bartending is learned on the job, not in the classroom.
Schools are expensive, they can’t guarantee you a job, you’ll learn a lot of useless theory, and you won’t be practicing in the right setting. On top of that, having attended one might even dissuade potential employers.
With that being said, if you’re a social butterfly, you learn better in group settings, you want to have some fun, and you want to learn about alcohol, cocktails, and bartending right away, bartending school could be for you.
If you do choose to take formal bartending classes, make sure you do your research because you want to avoid those scammy bartending schools at all costs.
And finally, whatever you do, don’t assume that the school will transform you into an amazing bartender with bars & restaurants lining up to hire you. Bar managers hate that!
What about you? What are your thoughts on bartending school? Have you been? Did you enjoy it? How useful was it really? Let me know in the comments section below!