The Tradition of Apprenticeship

Apprenticeship is a tradition that stretches back centuries and across cultures, well before the sound of the first cocktail shaker graced the ears of thirsty bar patrons. In many ways, it’s a more formalized Mentor-Mentee relationship. The original structures created centuries ago by tradespeople and guilds the world over are still the framework for training in any skilled profession today. Actors have understudies, priests have their novitiates, Journeymen butchers have their apprentices.

The craft of tending bar is no exception. You would no more hand the keys to a bar to a teenage barback any more than you would ask a pre-med student to conduct surgery. Whether it was a stretch in the trenches of barbacking or learning from a wizened master, senior bartenders will all attest to the importance of their own humble beginnings. The finest aged spirits take skill and a good bit of time to reach full maturity. It is only after years of dedicated work that bartenders find themselves at the top of their field or local market.

In another era, becoming an apprentice was as easy as having your parent essentially hand you over as a child to the local craftsperson for a term of 3 to 7 years. The roadmap to apprenticeship may be a little different today from its medieval roots, but it’s still there for those that want to learn a trade, and no less important. Tending bar is a skilled profession, and if your goal in the world of bartending is to succeed, your primary goal is to become skilled.

This article kicks off a four-part series on apprenticeship. First, we’ll talk a bit about why it’s important and how you can find “apprenticeship” opportunities close to home.

The Roadmap to Success

There is no official “career path” in the hospitality industry. Growing your career consists of finding opportunities to learn and grow your skills, whether or not they come with a change in job title.

The Barback

While there is no official “career path” in the hospitality industry, it is largely understood that barbacks are the understudy for the bartender. That said, many of the more famous cocktail-centric bars of the world have a distinct system in place; those who have watched the documentary “Hey, Bartender!” will recall Steve Schneider’s promotion at Employees Only and a new chef’s coat denoting his position.

While far from glamorous, the role of the barback is an essential part of any bar, and an invaluable education for the fledgling bartender. It’s a perfect perspective to learn how a bar works, without having the full weight of service on your shoulders.

Beyond the Title

Beyond the job title, promotions to busier shifts or invitations to sit in on meetings with management or liquor reps are another form of professional recognition. In this same vein, some bars and restaurants are able to send employees to sister locations, distilleries or breweries to increase their education.

Other bars will spread and share responsibility; while there may be an official “Lead Bartender” or “Beverage Director”,there’s also likely to be a trusted and trained employee who takes care of things like ordering should the boss ever find time for a vacation.

Getting the Job

Each of these roles has its parallels in apprenticeship: while unofficial, they provide valuable experience and education that allow a novice to build their skill set. Then, when an operation expands, it’s often these well-groomed and proven apprentices that get the first shot at promotion.

Still others may find themselves promoted on the fly in a dramatic fashion when a family emergency crops up, or someone quits unexpectedly. If you approach your work with a growth mindset and seek to learn every day, you’ll be able to take advantage of opportunity as it arises.

Always a Pleasure

Just because you’re an apprentice or just starting out doesn’t mean you get to act like a novice. Quite the contrary – as a new bartender you have a fresh and clean reputation that can be quickly tarnished.

No matter what you’re setting out to do, remember that in the bartending industry, you’re always on the clock. Reputation is currency, and if you maintain a friendly and honest disposition and a strong work ethic, you can go far. Publicly trashing brands, bars and bartenders isn’t just needlessly rude, it’s something people will remember you for. It’s also generally the mark of an unseasoned and unprofessional bartender.

Just as putting in consistent hard work on the clock is vital for those official promotions, cultivating a strong sense of professionalism helps establish yourself as a rising star. Sometimes the ears in the room might belong to someone you cross paths with professionally down the road.

The road you’re on might not always be apparent to you, but you can bet there are others watching and either hoping to see you make the next move or ready to help. When it comes to looking for opportunity within the bartending community, always remember that you reap what you sow.

The Fast track

Looking for the fast track to more responsibility? You’re in luck! There’s no shortage of opportunity for an enterprising and curious bartender, so long as you’re willing to get your hands dirty.

Starting Local

When in doubt, ask for more work in a different area of the restaurant. And while experience is doesn’t pay the bills: always make sure it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. Working for free is a slippery slope and can give you the reputation of being a pushover. Provided you come to a good agreement with management, the sky is the limit. Help reorganize a beer cooler, help with inventory, work a shift on the floor, cross train in the kitchen.

Thinking Big

Consider thinking even bigger than your bar – look for experiences in other bars and restaurants, be they across town or a world away. In many instances, not only are experiences out of your comfort zone a welcome break from routine, but they are a great opportunity to travel. Alternatively, use your leisure travel time as another opportunity to learn. Mixing business with pleasure is a great cocktail no matter how you shake it.

Bring a notebook when you visit new cities, talk with other bartenders, collect ideas, share your own. Taking time to stop and smell the garnishes is always nice, but being able to supercharge your career at the same time is the perfect pour. Even better, if you can take the time to set up a guest bartending shift ahead of time, it is well worth the extra effort. However you come by it, time as an apprentice is an amazing way to steer your career into the express lane.

Tagging Along

Find someone you view as a mentor and latch on. Cozying up to a brand ambassador and riding along with them or assisting with an offsite event can sometimes blossom into an apprenticeship of its own, where you learn a lot of the same lessons you would at a traditional stage, guest shift or cocktail event. Better yet, you may find great mentor as well!

Your teachers don’t even have to be in the industry, but as long as you’re working at improving and learning applicable skills every day, you’re on the fast track. Teamwork, leadership, batching, event planning and execution are all skills in high demand in the bartending world, from working a bridal party to helping serve thousands of people at a cocktail convention. There’s more than one way to learn the finer points of these skills and accelerate your career.

A Long Tradition

Apprenticeship is a long tradition, and one that has helped bring about a second Golden Age for cocktails and bar culture. While there are many ways to approach it, the goal of improving and adding to a set of skills remains the same. By maintaining a strong professional curiosity and courteous approach to a career tending bar, opportunities will constantly present themselves.

It’s up to you to know what will best suit you in the moment, but so long as you seek to excel and evolve in your craft, you’re undoubtedly find yourself in some form of apprenticeship.

In the next article, we’ll discuss the role of stagiaire, its roots in apprenticeship and French culinary traditions, and what it means to stage (pronounced stahhdge) behind someone else’s bar.

J. Endress

J. Endress is a restaurant industry veteran with nearly 20 years of experience, over half of that behind a bar. He's an alumnus of the BAR 5 Day program, Tales of the Cocktail's Cocktail Apprentice Program, San Antonio Cocktail Conference's Leadership as well as a Camp Runamok Squirrel. He is the co-founder of the travel and lifestyle blog Two by Tour. Follow J. on Twitter @86composure for all things literary, nerdy and boozy.