Best Way to Become a Bartender: Bartender School vs. Barbacking
We all need to start off somewhere, but when it comes down to how you should prepare yourself for your first bar job there are a few ways you can go about it. The two mains way are by getting a bar backing job in a place that you would eventually like to tend at or going to a bartending school. Both will give you the grounding in the industry, one practical the other theoretical. Neither will prepare you for that first night behind the mahogany.
There is no harder worker behind the bar than the all-knowing bar back. When it's quiet and the bartender is conversing with the wood doing his thing, the faithful bar back is washing glassware, restocking fridges and making sure everything is going to run smoothly for the night. They do all of this without getting in the way or being obvious. The blood, sweat and tears go into every shift.
This grass roots experience gives them good grounding when it comes to taking the role of barman. If they have been paying attention to the bartender that they have been working with they should have picked up a few trade secrets. They also have the back of house stuff down pat, nine times out of ten a hard working bar back will be an even harder working bartender. A good bar back needs a mentor to become a great bartender, just a little bit of education goes a long way.
This brings me to the newly graduated bartending students. Bartending schools can and will only ever teach you the basics. But a bartending course does not make you a master bartender, although I have seen someone advertising a "certified mixology" course. You can't become a master bartender from a week long course! Just because you have a piece of paper from a bar school doesn't mean you can walk into a bar and get a sweet gig.
They will show you how to pour a decent drink, maybe a few cocktails and how to get around the bar. They give you a fantastic theoretical background, and this is the only advantage that a "green horn grad" has over the bar back. Chances are the "green horn grad" will still fall on his ass the first night when he's faced with the screaming demons we call customers.
So where do I stand: who do I prefer working beside me when I am slashing through the weeds? I will take either; both of them can be moulded into a master bartender. One has a theoretical background and just needed to be beat into working their ass off, the other has the practical background and needs that little bit of nurturing to get him there. So when you're deciding how to approach that first job, think about this: where do you want your grounding to lie? I believe the practical far outweighs the theoretical, the theory can be learned (the right way) from following bartenders.