When I first started working as a professional alcohol dispenser, I knew very little indeed about the science of pulling pints. It may look easy, but pouring beer requires dexterity, patience and a keen eye for small details. You have to understand that there was no such thing as the perfect pint. There is no universally accepted way to achieve the perfect amount of head or the correct degree of fizz. You have to learn how to control and manipulate all aspects of this beer, that beer and whatever other beer your boss expects you to transfer from tap to glass without it turning into a foaming booze geyser.
The bottom line is that there are all sorts of strange nuances to bar work, some of which you only find out after you’ve taken the job and most of which you will never truly master. Bar work is high pressure, demanding and thoroughly odd, and these are 10 things I’ve learned:
1. Slinging Drinks
As anyone who has served booze on a Saturday night can tell you, everybody wants their drinks and they want them now! However, because bars (at least for now) still obey the laws of time and space, you cannot pour a dozen beers from the same tap while also reaching for the peanuts and going into the back room to fetch more ice. Somebody is going have to wait and nobody will want to, so learning to be efficient and turn out the alcohol quickly is vital. It’s hard at first but, like anything else where you have to be fast and good, you’ll find yourself picking it up quite rapidly.
2. It All Adds Up
While I’m perfectly competent and comfortable with the concepts of mathematics, I am terrible at doing sums in my head. Even basic addition is like banging rocks together hoping for a spark, especially when you’re under the gun. Tills can only help you out so much, and often times you’ll find them working against you instead. Tills are evil and cannot be trusted. You have to learn how to crunch the numbers quickly and keep them in your head while you do everything else as well. However, once you’re used to doing this, you’ll find that putting two and two together is a useful thing to be able to do, both at work and elsewhere.
3. Shut Up And Listen
Barmen, barwomen and barpersons-of-personally-defined-identity are often put in the awkward position of wanting to appear friendly and approachable without actually being genuinely friendly or approachable. It’s extremely tempting to shoot the breeze and chat with the customers but, while you’re discussing the metaphysical implications of beef crisps with Phil, Jim and Barry are growing impatient at the lack of service. Instead, listen when people talk to you and use positive responses to keep the conversation ticking over while keeping your head on a swivel for anyone with an empty glass. Yep. Definitely.
4. Old Shoes
If you have a favourite pair of comfy shoes, NEVER wear them behind the bar. Nothing ruins footwear like spilt booze. Be smart and wear something with a good grip and no sentimental value.
5. Working In Confined Spaces
Bars come in all shapes and sizes, but most of them are far from roomy. If you’re going to do well behind one, especially if you’re working with others who are similarly packed in, you have to adjust your expectations of personal space. You have to be fast, agile, light on your feet, and try to ignore the fact that you just awkwardly brushed butts with your boss while touching their shoulder. It happened. It’s going to happen again. It’s going to happen a lot.
6. Stupid Machines
As previously mentioned, tills are evil and cannot be trusted, and neither can glass washers, beer taps or light switches. Fate demands that these things will always fail at the worst possible moment, often with frustrating results. Having even a basic notion of how to rectify these inevitable technological disasters will save you both time and heartache, as well as make you look extremely on top of things to your boss, which goes a long way to making up for all those awkward butt brushes you seem to keep having.
7. Breaking Glass
I managed to go four months before I broke my first glass. It was full of beer and shattered into what looked like a million pieces, and everyone laughed at me. This is the moment many a barperson dreads. Having lived through this traumatic event, however, I can personally attest that any embarrassment promptly evaporates when you realise that it’s really not that big of deal. You’re human. Humans drop things. It’s just another facet of shared experience that we all have. It’s not like you threw a drink over someone. THAT is the moment you SHOULD live in fear of!
8. Questionable Persons
Sooner or later, you’re going to run into the customer who asks you one of those awkward questions. Some are reasonable. Some are frustrating. Some force you to re-evaluate your faith in humanity as a whole. All this and more is just par for the course for anyone working in the service industry, unfortunately. Just try to answer the questions as best you can and keep whatever judgements may be forming inside your head quietly held back until you can write an article for the internet finally expressing your naked contempt for anyone who ever walked into your bar and asked for a headless lager.
9. Busy Is Better
It’s undeniably stressful when the bar is full, everyone wants their drinks and you are the only poor sap serving. However, I would trade a busy Saturday night for a lazy Sunday afternoon anytime. While some might see the appeal of getting paid to do nothing, it very quickly starts to feel like your time is just being wasted. It’s much better to have something productive to do and doing nothing blunts your ability to work well when things hit the fan again. Use slow days to figure out ways to work more efficiently. It’ll pay off massively the next time a group of fifteen storms in and demands alcohol and snacks.
10. Expect The Unexpected
There is no such thing as a normal day at work. This is especially true working behind the bar. Bars are where people come to relax, unwind and cut loose with the finest of alcoholic assistants, leading to a heady mixture to confusing conversations, bizarre behaviour, inexplicable innuendos and unfathomable philosophical ramblings. I’ve been witness to all manner of strange situations while slinging drinks, from the delightfully whimsical to the kind of spontaneous semi-nudity that makes you wish that you were born blind. The duty of the barman is to maintain sanity in the face of insanity and keep putting drinks on the table. At least you’ll have some stories to tell when you finally get to have a night out of your own, and you’ll never be bored on the job.
You also quickly learn how to get drunk on a budget.