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, and 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.
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 a 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 shift. When she arrived, she was confident & happy, and after briefly talking with her, I thought she showed promise.
But, less than 30 seconds into the shift, I questioned whether she’d ever 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 ‘graduates’. I’d always assumed that bartending was learned on-the-job. It’s how I learned and how everyone other bartender I’d worked with had learned as well.
The fact that you don’t need to go to school was one of the reasons why I thought bartending was such a great profession. You could start earning an income straight away.
Yet, here this girl was, a bartending school graduate. And despite having attended one, it was obvious she wasn’t prepared. Even outside of my bar, she would struggle to find a bartending job.
Unfortunately for her, school just can’t prepare a beginner for what it’s actually like to work behind a busy bar. That’s something only experience can teach you.
Anyway, at this point, I would just send an unsuccessful trial home. She obviously wasn’t good enough and I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. But I was intrigued. She clearly wanted to become a professional bartender (enough to spend a large chunk of cash on school), so I felt obliged to show her the ropes.
I was up-front and told her that I couldn’t give her a job, but I also said that she was welcome to stay on for a couple of hours and experience what it’s really like to work behind a 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 bartending courses existed, I was genuinely interested in them. How could learning the theory of alcohol and how to mix drinks not be useful for an aspiring bartender? For that matter, any bartender!
So I started looking into different programs, I read reviews, I scoured the bartending forums, and I even spoke with a friend who worked as a trainer at one of these schools.
It seems that the biggest problem with bartending schools is that they convince potential students that they’ll be able to more easily become a bartender if they attend one of their schools.
As I’m sure you’re aware, one of the difficulties aspiring bartenders face when they’re looking for work is that most bartending jobs require the applicant to have experience. If you don’t have any, landing a job is difficult – this is where bartending classes are “supposed” to help you out.
However, they don’t help at all!
Bar managers place NO weight on these courses because mixing drinks in a classroom setting is completely different to mixing drinks in a real bar. That’s why most working bartenders discourage attending these schools.
They won’t help you get a job so what’s the point?
The most ridiculous part of this whole thing is that bartending schools know that they can’t guarantee their students a job and they’ll only tell you this towards the end of their course. After they’ve taken your money, I might add…
Why do Bartenders Hate Bartending School?
There are 2 main reasons why bartenders discourage formal bartending classes, scammy 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 guarantees they can’t keep.
More specifically, these schools will guarantee you a 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’re in the exact the same position you were before you attended the school.
They’ll also try and convince you that you need their bartending certification in order to work as a bartender.
Just for the record, you DON’T need a 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 a ‘Bartending License’. You may need one of these, depending on where you’re from.
Finally, the worst of these schools will teach you useless (and sometimes inaccurate) theory which ultimately, wastes your time & money.
So if you’re set on taking a bartending course, make sure you do your research first. Because you want to avoid these scammy schools at all costs!
The other reason why bartenders discourage formal bartending education is because they’ve met some graduates who 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. And they think that they should be working the best shifts right away because they attended a 2-week course and they know what vodka is!
To experienced bartenders & managers, this attitude is off-putting. Remember, 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 all graduates 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.
With all that being said, bartending classes aren’t a complete waste of time and money. In fact, if you’re going for the right reasons, they’re absolutely worth it.
The Pros & Cons of Bartending School
Before I continue, I’d like to point out that there are legit bartending schools out there. Not all of them are trying to steal your money and some of them will actually help prepare you for what it’s like to work behind a bar.
They’re are also some real advantages of getting a formal bartending education before you step behind the bar.
For instance, you learn the basics of the bar, how to mix drinks, the theory of alcohol, a few solid cocktail recipes, and it might even give you the confidence necessary to get out there and start looking for work.
Let’s take a look at some of the pros & cons in more detail.
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 you learn better in group settings, formal bartending classes may be perfect for you.
Con: They’re Expensive
These schools don’t come cheap. As you’ll see below, they can cost anywhere between $400 for a 1-week course, all the way up to $2000 for a 4-week course.
Pro: You’ll Learn a lot of Theory
Most schools place an emphasis on theory. Even legit schools. This is actually useful because knowing what you’re serving is important. Some of the things you’ll learn are, the history of alcohol, how its made, and the difference between well-spirits & top-shelf liquor.
Con: Some of it will be Useless
Not all the theory you learn will be useful when you get a bartending job. And if you’re not using what you’ve learnt, it’s likely you’ll forget it. For example, most bartenders only need to learn a maximum of 30 cocktail recipes (not 150).
You’ll also never need to recite the history of alcohol at a job interview, even though it’s interesting to learn about.
Pro: Basic Practice in a Safe Setting
This is the best part about formal bartending classes – you get to practice how to mix drinks in a safe setting with the supervision of a trained (hopefully) bartender. You’ll get to practice making cocktails, pouring draught beer, pouring alcohol, serving customers (other classmates), etc.
When you eventually step behind the bar, at least you won’t start at 0.
Con: No Practice in a Real Setting
Practicing in a safe setting is completely different to a real bar. Real bars are hectic, things go wrong, customers get angry, and you’ve got to learn how to deal with it all. Bartending school can’t prepare you for that.
Also, the majority of these schools won’t let you use real alcohol or real ingredients when you’re practicing how to make drinks – that’s too expensive. Instead, you’ll use coloured water and foam garnishes so you won’t actually get to experience what these drinks taste, smell and ‘feel’ like.
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 help you find a job.
Most of the time, that means they’ll give you some solid job-hunting advice, help with your resume, and give you access to an exclusive online job placement board.
Con: They Can’t Guarantee a Bar Will Hire You
No school can guarantee that 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.
Also, remember that some bar managers despise bartending school graduates. 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.
How Much Does Bartending School Cost?
It depends on the school and how comprehensive & long the specific course you’re choosing to take is.
Online bartending schools are the cheapest. They can range from anywhere between $50 to $250. The more expensive ones are more comprehensive and they’ll usually throw in a bartending license program as well so you don’t have to get that elsewhere.
Live bartending classes are obviously going to be more expensive because they’re more expensive to run – an instructor is needed. They can cost anywhere between $400 to $2000.
The European Bartending School runs some of the most comprehensive & well-known courses, but they’re also the most expensive – around the $2000 mark. These courses last for 3-4 weeks and include over 100 hours of instructor led classes. So although it’s expensive, you get a lot out of it.
ABC Bartending is a school that has locations all around the States. Usually, they run a 30-hour program that costs between $400-500.
The New York Bartending School runs two different programs. One is a ‘Drinks & Preparation’ course that goes through the basics of mixing drinks – it costs $395 and takes 1 week (around 20 hours) to complete.
The other is a bartending/mixology course (which includes an alcohol awareness program – very useful) that costs $695 and takes 1-2 weeks/40-50 hours to complete.
In all of these cases, you get what you pay for.
So What are Your Alternatives?
If you think the cost of bartending classes is too steep (don’t blame you), your best alternative is on-the-job experience. NO amount of schooling can replace on-the-job experience so if you want to become a bartender, you’ll need to get this anyway.
“But Tom, how do I get a bartending job if I have no experience? That’s why I wanted to attend bartending school in the first place!”
Simple, start out as a barback or server instead, learn the ropes, then progress into the bartender’s shoes from there. That’s the fastest & most reliable way to becoming a professional bartender.
Start Out as a Barback or Server
If you have no experience, it’s no secret that finding a job as a bartender will be tough. It can be done, but it’s unlikely. So when you’re looking for work, by all means, apply for bartending roles, but you should also 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 later on.
It might not be as glamorous as bartending, but what you learn is priceless.
You learn how to work hard in a high-pressure environment as well as interact with the chefs, other bartenders, wait staff, customers, managers, and the boss. You also 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 build up a base-level of experience that will be invaluable to you and your employer when you progress into the bartender’s role later on. And when you’re ready and a bartending position opens up, who do you think they’re going to hire?
The unknown bartending school graduate? Or the barback who’s worked their arse off for them for the past 6 months and who already knows where everything is?
99.999999995% of the time, it’s going to be the barback.
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 of 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.
Live training sessions & courses (including legit bartending schools) are also an option. But things you can re-visit are the best.
If you choose the self-study route, a solid bartender’s guide (like this one) is your best bet.
Is Bartending School Worth It?
It depends. If you’re attending a school for the right reasons (i.e. to learn how to mix drinks, NOT to become a bartender) and you don’t mind spending the money, bartending school is great.
You learn the fundamentals of bartending with an instructor there to supervise you and you might even get your bartending license out of it as well. Plus, you’re probably going to have a good time and meet other like-minded individuals.
On the other hand, if you think bartending school will help you get a job faster and skip the roles of barbacking or serving first, forget it. If that’s why you’re attending, it will be a complete waste of time and money.
Instead, get out there, hand out your resumes, shake hands, and become a bartender the old-fashioned way.
That’s how most us bartenders got started anyway and it works really well.
Finally, if you choose to take live bartending classes, remember to do some thorough research first because you want to avoid the scammy ones at all costs.
I hope this article has helped answer your questions. If you have anymore, please leave them in the comments section below.