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Do You Need Bartending Certification to Become a Bartender?

by Rob Doherty

To the uninitiated, it can seem like getting into bartending must involve some sort of special training process. Alcohol is, after all, a fairly volatile substance, especially when combined with a feisty bachelorette party or a 250 lb. biker with anger management issues (as a bartender, you will most likely deal with both of these situations), and it would make sense that some form of certification should be necessary in order to make sure you have what it takes to handle the unpredictable situations that accompany the bar life. Non-bartenders commonly believe that one must attend a bartending school to earn a diploma, but in reality, there are very few credentials needed to work as a bartender, and those you may need can be easily acquired at a very low cost.

A License to Serve Alcohol

The only certification you might be required to obtain is a license to serve alcohol, and I say “might” because alcohol certification laws change from state to state, county to county, and even city to city. The most common rules state that you must become certified within 30, 60, or 90 days of becoming employed as a bartender. In same places you don’t need one at all, and in others you must have one before you can start working. In some places you can only become certified once you’re 21, and others allow you to serve alcohol at 18 as long as a manager is supervising. It is easy to learn your state laws using a simple web search.

If you do need certification, you’re going to have to attend a course that can vary between one and six hours in length in which you will be taught all of the local serving laws pertaining to customer drink limits, pricing, and a variety of other information from an experienced professional, usually a bartender. While it is not required knowledge, the instructor will often teach you a few trade secrets about how to spot a fake ID, tell if someone is drunk, or deal with a fight.

Certification is cheap, usually costing between $25 and $50, and it’s generally pretty easy to get into a class. In some regions, however, classes might only happen once a month and they might have an extremely limited class size, so make sure you enroll well before starting your bartending job or reaching the end of your however-many day probational period.

Depending on your state laws and whether or not the bar you’ll be working at serves food, you might also have to get a food handler’s permit. These cost around ten dollars and can easily be obtained by taking an online quiz about food temperatures and a variety of kitchen information.

So What about Bartending School?

While there is much confusion about the necessity for bartending school, there isn’t a single state in the US where it is required in order to work a bar. Bartending schools are privately run institutions that are meant for people who are looking to get a leg up when it comes to breaking into the industry. They usually cost a few hundred dollars, take up to two weeks, and teach you the basics of bartending such as what the tools are and how to use them, drink recipes, well arrangement, and a variety of other information.

Opinions vary as to whether or not bartending school is useful when it comes to landing a job. Proponents point out that the schools often offer job placement programs, while detractors say that bartenders are usually promoted to the position from within an establishment, and that the surest way to land a bartending position is to work your was up from a kitchen or serving role.

Neither side is necessarily wrong, but it’s a fact that most bartenders do start out in lower positions, not at bartending school. Overall, the classes are helpful if you are interested in jumping into bartending, don’t know much about what the job entails, and want to learn about it quickly.

Qualified Is Just As Important As Certified

Regardless of whether or not you are required to gain certification in your area, it is important to consider if you are qualified to work as a bartender. While it is not all that demanding of a job, there are a number of characteristics that make it easier, ensure that you will be a better bartender, and keep you from losing your mind when madness pops up. More than anything, you need to be able to keep a clear head and take control of any situation, no matter what could arise.

And essentially, that’s what a liquor serving certification course teaches you. They may seem like a boring hassle (and depending on the instructor, they are), but you can get some really valuable insight into what it takes to keep things under control. This knowledge, especially when it comes to that first crisis that emerges early on in your career before you’ve had time to learn through experience, can save the safety and sanity of both you and your customers.

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