Bartending School, perhaps one of the biggest debates in the industry.

Is it a scam, or a useful stepping stone to get behind a bar? With such a controversial topic at hand, we turned to the Chilled 100 to ask them to share their thoughts. As you might expect, they had a lot to say, which is what we’re making this into a several part special where we share their stories, thoughts, and experiences so that you can walk away with a well informed opinion of your own.

Michael Huebner, a Chilled 100 Member from Chicago, started out our conversation. “You’d be hard-pressed to find me opposing any type of school in theory,” Huebner noted. “When schools are run for profit is when you start to run into trouble with predatory institutions.

Drink being poured

Drink being poured

Photo by Gonzalo Remy

There is currently no acknowledged industry-wide standard certification for a bartender – nor do I think there should be – so you really don’t know what you’re paying for. If your goal is just to gain employment; that’s not a guarantee.”

Are there programs that are better than others? “Absolutely. I’ve seen some well run and comprehensive programs for aspiring hospitality professionals at every skill and experience level, however most of them have been region-specific.”

We wondered, what the best way for someone with no background in bartending to learn the basics before entering the industry. “Watch a good bartender work. Ask questions. Study basic cocktail builds and theory in your free time. Buy or borrow some equipment for at-home practice. Study some of the essential texts that are more on the introductory side.”

If someone with no industry experience is looking at bartending programs – Huebner’s advice varies depending on what your end-gaol is. There are different programs that cater to different results. If you’re just looking for a job, for instance, your best bet is to ask a local bar manager. Not everyone will hire someone with no experience and a school certificate. In fact, in one of our recent articles another hiring manager mentioned that they specifically throw out resumes with bartending schools listed. But this isn’t the case for everyone, and every school.

“If you’re looking for a job, ask a bar manager if they know of any local courses that would be appealing on a resumé and worth your time,” Huebner adds. “If you’re looking for speciality, I’d ask some bartenders and beverage professionals. Maybe dig around online, lots of non-hands on stuff can be taught over the world wide web. There are also more books now on bartending, spirits, hospitality, etc. than any other point in time. Fill out that bookshelf. And finally, don’t expect a certification or a bartending degree to be some sort of magic cure-all for any setbacks you have experienced.”

What’s Huebner’s best advice for continuing education for bartenders? “Bartending is a craft. The interesting thing about crafts, specifically, is that you can never really master them. The same is true for the education surrounding the craft. The sooner you realize you know nothing at all, the better off you’ll be. Never stop consuming knowledge and finding ways to grow.”

After years working in a different industry, when Atlanta Georgia based Chilled 100 member Charles Freeland began his bar career, he turned to a school first. For Freeland, the topic of bartending school is loaded. Throughout his career he’s seen how little many think of schools, but when he most needed a hand, a bartending school taught him the basics he needed to start a career.

Bar

Bar

Photo by Oliver Frsh

“After 2008, I was unemployed or under-employed for a long time, having lost a business in the housing industry,” Freeland shared. “After a few failed starts, I decided I wanted to return to the restaurant industry, which I had worked in in my teen years. I was 39 at the time, and I thought bartending seemed like a thing I wanted to try. I borrowed $500 from a friend and signed up for a 1 week course at a bartending school that promised to help me find a job. I studied and worked hard during that week. I memorized roughly a hundred cocktails, most that would only be found on the TGI Friday’s menu in 70’s and 80’s, and very, very few of which I use in my daily life as a bartender. I learned some basic skills like how to use shaker tins and count pours.”

At the end of the one week class he could make 26 drinks in 6 minutes or less, something that brought him great pride and set him up with the skills to advance quickly in a crowded bar setting. But, once he graduated his program, he found himself faced with a new problem. “The school gave me a few leads, all catering businesses and when that didn’t result in work, their help dried up. With their certification on my resume I got a job as a barback at a dysfunctional sports bar where I was written off the schedule a month later with no explanation.”

After countless applications, someone told him not to mention the bartending school at all, leaving him with a less than enticing resume. “I was desperate, I needed a job fast,” Freeland remembered. “Before going to bartending school I had relocated from another state. I remembered two bars I’d frequented that had closed, and friends who had worked there. I lied about my experience and used them for references. Within a week I had a job.”

“The skills I learned in bar school were enough for me to show up and look like I knew what I was doing. Soon I was meeting with liquor reps. That restaurant was a family run place with no real bar manager or appreciation of bartending — They thought I was a rock star! I quickly moved on from there and was mentored by a series of very talented bartenders who taught me the deeper skills, knowledge and craft of bartending. I have done well for myself since in this industry. But I’ve never told anyone how I really got my first job or that I went to bartending school. Without the school, I would never have been able to do the job. No one else was willing to teach me the basics. But I had to lie about where I learned what I knew.”

“The industry has a huge double standard. They love the bartenders who want to learn, the ones who join groups and read books and experiment and compete, but they deride those who think attending a school will help them and actively discriminate against those who admit they did.” In Freeland’s eyes, attending a bartending school says something positive about a person — they want to learn, they’re teachable, and they know enough to be left along behind a bar when it’s slow.

“Bartending school will not make you a great bartender. But, in my experience, it will give you a solid foundation that 90% of bartenders who start in college at dive bars don’t have.”