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Bartending School: When to Consider Formal Training (And When Not To)

Updated on January 10, 2014

Ask bartenders already in the business and they'll give you very definite opinions on whether bartending school would be a waste of time and money. Many bartenders already in the workforce got to where they are on their own, no formal training involved, learned on the job. They'll tell you that whatever you can learn in a bartending school can also be figured out on your own. Just look up a few basic drink recipes, learn how to pour a draft beer and learn how to open and serve wine. If you can do this, you should be able to bartend, right?

What to Consider When Deciding

I've found the answer to that is that it depends on what type of venue you're interested in joining. If you want to learn on the job, you almost always need an “in” of some sort at whatever establishment where you seek employment. Alternately, you can invent past work experience that included some type of bartending or alcoholic beverage service, although this route is risky and not recommended. Instead, being a server in an establishment that regularly serves alcohol can give you a step up to becoming a bartender, since servers are required to know almost as much about the drinks they are serving as the bartender who makes them. Ultimately, these methods work best if you seek employment in restaurant or pub settings, or possibly within a neighborhood bar, although even restaurants will sometimes hire through bartending schools.

Variety of drinks and drink types
Variety of drinks and drink types | Source

When Formal Training is an Advantage

If, however, you wish to work in stricter environments such as a sports venue, performing arts center, and some upscale restaurant venues, becoming certified through a bartending school may be a solid first step to getting your foot in the door. For one, most reputable bartending schools include TIPS, or Training for Intervention Procedures, for alcohol responsibility. This is required by most sporting arenas and stadiums which are governed by stricter laws regarding alcohol sales and consumption. And as many of these venues tend to hold hiring events at certain times of the year, being able to provide proof of certification could give you an advantage over the myriad other candidates that generally respond.

Bartending school may be a recommended option if you wish to work in a more upscale restaurant where you will be expected to know a wide variety of drink recipes beyond the basic cocktails, beer and wine. When attending a bartending school, lessons tend to be centered on particular types of drinks each day, such as tropical drinks covered in one lesson and cream drinks covered in another lesson, etc. In addition, you are usually provided a good overview of the various types of beers, wines, and spirits so that you can appear more knowledgeable about the options with that customer that prefers a white wine that is a little sweeter or fruitier rather than dry or the patron that likes a “hoppier” beer. Knowing the difference between scotch whiskey, blended whiskey and bourbon, for example, or the flavors of various liquors can also mean the difference between being a basic bartender and being a mixologist, able to confidently upsell your product and offer suggestions to those customers that just can’t decide what they want and expect you to tell them.

What to Look For in a Bartending Course

Finally, if you decide to pursue a bartending course, there are a few things to look for when choosing a school. Seek out a school that offers job placement assistance at the end of the course, and make sure it is truly job placement assistance and not simply a list of leads. With the current state of the economy, any and all help getting a foot in the door is generally a reason on its own to pursue certification as a bartender. Also, while most schools provide plenty of hands-on practice time making the drinks that you are learning about, look for a school with tests on both accuracy and speed. You will likely learn not only the drink recipes in this type of school but also ways to minimize the number of moves needed to make each drink and how to group drinks with like ingredients together in your head, making you not only an accurate bartender but a more efficient one.

The decision to fork over the money for a bartending course is a completely individual one. If you are already an established bartender simply looking to upgrade your place of employment or work in a stricter venue, you can seek out TIPS training by itself as needed. You can also choose to work your way up from server or hostess and learn on the job if you have enough motivation and the right connections. In the end, only you can decide what works best for you.

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