Deep dive: Is bartending school worth it?

If you’re looking for a fun, fast-paced job with great tips, there are few better options than bartending. But as with most jobs, you can’t just become a great bartender overnight.

At a fundamental level, bartending requires both knowledge, the memorization of a large library of drinks, and skill, being able to recreate those drinks in a speedy, high-quality fashion. Some folks attend bartending school to learn and practice the fundamentals — but others may choose to do so by working as a barback or similar position. This might lead you to wonder: Is bartending school worth it?

What is bartending school?

Let’s begin by examining what exactly bartending school involves. At a high level, it’s designed to teach you about bartending, how to do it, and everything involved therein. There are many bartending schools in the U.S., both online and in-person, but the curriculum can vary between each. However, any good bartending school will cover virtually everything new bartenders need to know on their first day of work. This may include:

  • Glassware
  • Bar equipment
  • Bar setup and breakdown
  • Bar cleaning and maintenance
  • How to change a keg
  • Alcohol awareness
  • Local alcohol laws and restrictions
  • Pouring and cocktailing techniques
  • Classic cocktails and how to make them
  • Beer knowledge
  • Wine knowledge
  • Spirit knowledge
  • Industry lingo

At the end of the class, you will usually take an exam and be awarded a certificate of completion if you pass.

Do you need to go to bartending school?

Laws and regulations around serving alcohol vary widely based on location (see here for a state-by-state guide). In Utah, for example, you must attend a state-approved training program; in California, however, there are no such statewide requirements. Even if the place you live doesn’t require any formal training to be a bartender, though, it can help you in your job search — especially if the establishment you apply to quizzes candidates or runs them through a trial shift before hiring them.

However, this knowledge and experience can also be gained on the job as a barback or similar position. Many establishments train long-term barbacks to become bartenders; it is often a major reason why people take the job. In light of this, it’s not surprising that people might ask, “Is bartending school worth it?”  

While work experience is one route into bartending, bartending school offers another, expedited route for those who may not be able to work as a barback or a similar position for an extended period of learning. This is especially helpful if you have little to no knowledge of spirits and the skills needed to bartend — having bartending school on your resume can help you get your foot in the door for a bartending position. That being said, it can also be helpful in supplementing on-the-job learning as a barback — it’s up to you to decide what’s best.

How much does bartending school cost?

For many people wondering, “Is bartending school worth it?” it all comes down to price. Online bartending school usually costs between $150-$200 while in-person bartending school usually amounts to between $400-$800.

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In-person bartending school often consists of one 40-hour week spent in a “classroom” with your instructor and other students. Some schools do offer evening classes instead of the one week of intense training. These do take longer to complete, but they may allow you to better fit schooling into your personal schedule.

Online bartending schools, on the other hand, consist of eLearning modules and tests. Often, they give you much more time to complete the curriculum, maybe 30 or 60 days, allowing for greater flexibility in your schedule. And because online bartending school can be completed from anywhere with internet access, you don’t have to commute to wherever the classes are being held like you would at an in-person bartending school.

Although online bartending schools are generally much cheaper than their in-person counterparts, they put more focus on building a knowledge base than a practical skill base. At an in-person bartending school, you’ll get your hands on bottles and actually pour drinks with an expert instructor there beside you. When you’re attending online bartending school, you don’t get this style of hands-on education with an instructor, which can be instrumental in succeeding behind a real bar. In-person bartending school also allows you to ask your instructor any questions which may arise, while online bartending schools may not have this option.

Is bartending school worth it from a financial perspective?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median hourly wage for bartenders at $12 per hour — using this estimate, and the ones above on bartending school costs ($150 for an online class to $800 for an in-person class), it could take you anywhere from 12.5 to 67 hours to make back the money you spent on bartending school. But this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule — many different things can affect a bartender’s take-home pay, such as:

  • Base pay: Because restaurant owners and managers count on much of a bartender’s income coming from tips, their base pay isn’t always great — on Instawork, however, the hourly pay tends to be well above average.
  • How busy you are: The more drinks you serve, the more money you make.
  • The size of the establishment: A bigger bar means more guests, which means more checks, which usually equates to more take-home pay at the end of the night.
  • The type of establishment: In fine dining, the checks are often larger because the offerings are more expensive, and, therefore, the tips are larger. In a dive bar, the offerings are cheaper, the checks are smaller, and the tips are smaller per ticket.
  • Which shift you’re on: Mid-week day shifts can be slow for a bartender, however Friday and Saturday night can be extremely busy.
  • Tip-out percentages: At the end of the night, both bartenders and waitstaff will share part of their tips with their support staff. For servers, this means tipping out bartenders, because they made the drinks, but tip-out percentage can vary drastically by establishment. In some places, and more commonly since the pandemic, tip pooling has been favored to tipping out, meaning that bartenders and waitstaff add all their tips together and divide them up equally.
  • Your attitude: In customer-facing jobs, your demeanor can have a huge impact on your pay. If you treat your guests poorly, they are not going to tip you well. If, however, you build a great relationship with your guests, they might leave you a handsome tip and may even want to come back to see you for your next shift — one of the highest honors for a bartender.

Because there are so many outside factors involved, it’s hard to quantify whether becoming a bartender will increase the size of your paycheck. That being said, bartenders typically earn considerably more than support staff (bussers, hosts, barbacks, etc.) and often more than waitstaff. Bartending is a specialized skill, which can increase your value in the eyes of an employer.

Who is bartending school a good fit for?

Simply put, bartending school is a good fit for anyone who sees themselves working behind a bar in the future. It’s also an excellent introduction not only to the world of cocktails, but also beer, wine, and spirits. As such, it can be beneficial to most anyone working a front-of-house service position in the hospitality sector — when you know more about what you have to offer, you can usually do a better job at up-selling, increasing check amounts and ultimately, tips.

Bartending school is also a good fit for anyone who may want to work toward a hospitality management track. It allows you insight into an integral part of restaurants which may currently be unfamiliar or intimidating to you. With this in mind, some bartending schools even offer additional inventory and employee management lessons.

Keep in mind that bartending itself, like many customer-facing positions, requires the right temperament: ideally, friendly, patient, and level-headed. It is, however, a unique position in that your customers are usually seated in front of you watching your every move — so if you take pride in your showmanship, bartending could be a great fit for you! And remember, bars are often more conducive to building personal relationships with your customers than other types of establishments — bar patrons often speak more candidly to their bartenders than they do with other members of a restaurant’s service staff, so being a people-person can really help.

Bartending schools around the nation

If you’re wondering which bartending school to attend, you can start by comparing some of these options. Here are some schools available online, as well as in a few major metropolises:

Online bartending schools

Bartending schools in Dallas

Bartending schools in Chicago

Bartending schools in Atlanta

Bartending schools in Los Angeles

Bartending schools in New Jersey

Last Call

The answer to the question, “Is bartending school worth it?” depends a lot on an individual’s situation, especially when it comes to the time they’re able to put into it, how much they’re currently making, and how interested they are in the profession. But hopefully, this brief guide gave you a good sense of what bartending school is, how much it costs, where to attend, and whether or not it’s right for you. And remember — there are always high-paid bartending shifts waiting for you on Instawork once you’ve completed bartending school!

 

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