The Bar Institute is a new series of annual events around the US, dedicated to many areas of skill development for bar industry types. I have just returned from three days attending the Bar Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. There should be several posts to follow about a number of excellent individual events I attended, but I want to start with an outline of exactly what goes on at a Bar Institute, what it is, and what it is not. I think this is important because the BI’s marketing materials give a slick and beautiful idea of what kind of people would benefit from attending, they leave out a lot of detail about what to expect. I think that might leave a lot of people who should go hesitant to do so, and hopefully this may help a few of you decide to take the plunge.
Bar Institute is the direct descendant/successor to the education component of Portland Cocktail Week. This is an excellent pedigree, and it is good for the industry to see the program expanded to other geographic areas. This year, there are five regional gatherings, and a national event to culminate the year. The northeast and southwest regionals have already occurred, in Baltimore and Phoenix, and the remaining 2016 cities are Miami, Austin, and Portland, with the national event in New York.
The specific content from one city to the next will vary, as will the presenters, but the categories will be the same throughout. The three main categories are:
- Advanced Bartending & Technique. These classes cover subjects ranging from skills and techniques, to the use or creation of specialty ingredients, to customer interaction, with some oddball but useful classes like one on the differences in creating a menu for a large, mature market, versus a smaller one. This last subject came up in several classes I attended, and I mention it here specifically because I think it is an important point of failure for a lot of otherwise promising projects in cities like Columbus where I live.
- Bar Management & Ownership. More classes were offered in this category than any other, which reflects the Bar Institute’s underlying focus on the somewhat novel concept that with this much money flowing through this industry, it really ought to be profitable for somebody. The selections here range from nuts and bolts things like costing a menu or reading a cash flow statement, to aspirational stuff like assembling a staff that will make you proud. Each regional BI has a different focus, and many sessions in the southwest event were centered on the design aesthetic from lighting to upon what what you decide to let your customers set their asses.
- Consulting & Ambassadorship. For those professionals who aspire to challenges (and income) beyond crafting drinks, but who don’t incline toward the eternal dance with fiscal death that is bar ownership, the modern cocktail industry offers a host of jobs, large and small, to satisfy that urge. The classes in this category focus on these opportunities, with some additional insights on how bar workers and owners can leverage these services as well.
- Proprietors 360. This is a special category of classes, all of which are offered by the principals of Proprietors, LLC, the bar ownership and consultant group behind Death & Co, and many more. These classes cover subjects in all of the first three categories, but offer a cohesive set of real-world examples that ties them all together.
- Electives. Many of these classes focus on professional health and wellness issues for bar professionals. Like athletes, a bartender’s body is their livelihood. Other classes hosted discussions about entertainment and work life balance. A session on the increasing opportunities for women in the upper professional ranks turned out to be especially timely….
As a whole, the aforementioned subjects form the meat of the curriculum for Bar Institute, and are almost all one hour classes. They run from 10:00 AM to 3:30 PM on Monday and Tuesday, with half hour breaks in between. Attendees may attend any and all classes that they wish. There is no advance signup for classes, so seats are allocated on a first arrived, first taken basis until the room is full. Most classes had plenty of room, however. As for the one or two I attended that completely filled up… bartenders are friendly folk and make room where it is to be had. Just be prepared for a good bit of The Grass is Greener feeling, as there are between five and eight offerings during each block.
The other two major daytime elements of Bar Institute are the Upfronts and the Exhibition.
The Upfronts start about the time of the last class, and run until dinnertime. These are a bit like TEDTalks. Each Upfront is a presentation by the management and ownership of a particularly interesting establishment in the region, showcasing their concept, menu, and other elements of their story. The Upfronts are entertaining and a good look at how many different ways there are to successfully put together the granular sort of concepts covered earlier in the classes.
The Exhibition is essentially the trade show floor of Bar Institute. It is open on Sunday afternoon and all day Monday and Tuesday. It is the only real daytime “content” on Sunday, so I wold recommend you take the time explore it a good deal on that day, as you will not have the time to do so if you take advantage of all the other offerings on Monday and Tuesday. The Exhibition at Southwest was not particularly large, but still had plenty of interesting stuff, more stuff, in fact, than an attendee could take in if he or she attended a full slate of classes and Upfronts. Gentleman Jack had a booth that was larger, and better decorated, than some good bars I’ve been in. At various times, they offered a photographer taking professional headshots, a social media maven presenting a mini class in Instagram PR, and make your own bitters workshops with fellow exhibitor Hella Bitters. Other brands, large and small, offered tastings and cocktails throughout the day. Local Phoenix bars rotated through a mini “Upfront” booth, showing off their stories and their drinks. and there were other offerings that don’t fit into these categories as well. Hopefully, I’ll get to some posts about individual elements of the Exhibition before I run out of steam.
Evenings are obviously an important part of Bar Institute. To paraphrase Cyndi Lauper, “Bartenders, they wanna have fun.” Specific evening entertainment varies from city to city, of course, but at southwest, attendees were offered two nights (Monday and Tuesday) of sponsored free food, drink, and entertainment for dinner, and two late nights (Sunday and Monday) of free drink and frivolity. (Warning: Chain-shooting coconut rum after an evening of good cocktails can make that morning class you were looking forward to seem awfully optional when the sun comes up.)
That wraps up most of the kind of details I think potential attendees might be interested in, but aren’t really covered by Bar institute’s own promotional stuff. I want to finish with what Bar Institute is not.
It is not Tales of the Cocktail. Nor is it trying to be. First off, it is a butt-load cheaper. Aside from travel expenses, total cost of attending a three day Bar Institute is twenty five bucks. Total. That’s for admission, dinners, parties, and all the classes you can go to without a time machine.
BI classes are very different in character to Tales sessions. Classes are smaller, more focused on serious subject matter, and have more opportunity for give and take discussion. Individual Bar Institute classes are not sponsored, however, so there are no cocktails provided during them. The upsides are that there is no bandwidth wasted on promoting sponsors, and your chances of remembering what you learned are vastly higher. The downsides are, no drinks, a dearth of crazy over-the-top demonstrations, nothing outright weird, and no drinks. Your day-drinking opportunities at Bar Institute are limited (with some exceptions during the Upfronts) to the Exhibition, where you will have to make do with local original cocktails, lounging in a tent on floor cushions while sipping Chartreuse, or guzzling Hennessey XO.