About a year ago, a bartender friend of mine told me about the European Bartender School, also known as EBS, a group of bartending schools around the world. A few days later it was announced that Marian Beke, at the time bar manager at Nightjar in London, had joined EBS’ education board. That got me thinking and, when my plans to go to New York for a publishing course fell through, I decided to sign up for EBS 4-week international bartender course. After contemplating several destinations, including New York, Sydney and Phuket (I really think EBS should reconsider their name), I finally decided on London. It’s one of my favourite cities in the world and I’d always felt frustrated of never spending enough time there, what with only going there on weekends. I liked the idea of living there for a whole month and becoming a student again. Also, London is considered one of the top two cities in the world for cocktails and bartending; the other being New York. Finally it allowed me to spend more time with my sister who lives there and hit London’s famous cocktail scene with her!
EBS London is located in Bermondsey, in the basement of one of the buildings of “The Biscuit Factory”, a collection of buildings turned into studio, workshop and office spaces. The school is divided into 5 main areas: a flexible sitting corner where theory classes were held twice a week and where students sat for the daily tests on recipes and the weekly and end of course theory exams, the practice stations, the free pouring practice area, the flair room and the break room. The stations are equipped with all the necessary bar tools to prepare cocktails. However, to avoid waste of both products and glassware, coloured water replaces spirits and fruit juices and the glasses, including the shaker’s glasses, are made of plastic.
As hinted in its title, the course lasts a total of 4 weeks with about 6 hours of classes per day. Participants learn 80 classic cocktail recipes and how to prepare them using the appropriate techniques. They practice freepouring with one and two hands and with one or two bottles in each hand. Finally, they learn a working flair and an exhibition flair routine.
Mornings start with a quiz on the recipes that were assigned as homework the previous day. Then students are split into groups for the practice sessions: they either start with flair, bar or freepouring. They will rotate all throughout the day. Once a week there is also a theory class about either the basic rules of bartending and the equipment or the different categories of spirits, their history, their production and characteristics followed by a tasting.
To obtain their certificate students must pass the bar exam (30%), the final pour test (20%), the final theory (15%) and recipe exams (25%; the daily quizzes will count in the note as well). Finally, they also have to pass the flair exam (10%). Regarding the latter they can decide if they only want to take EBS’ exam or if they want to try and pass the WFA (the World Flair Association)’s yellow level. The routines are exactly the same; only the criteria and number of tries differ.
I have a mitigated opinion on EBS 4-week international course but, in general, I’d say it is an excellent introduction to bartending. The daily freepouring and training at the bar help create working reflexes and speed. The learning of 80 different recipes builds the knowledge of as many classic cocktails people might order (just don’t forget that every bar might adjust the quantities of ingredients or use another brand of spirit for the same cocktail, thus changing the recipe a bit). The bar simulation exercises on the last week of the course build the ability to take multiple orders at the same time and make them as fast as possible.
The only regret there is is the fact that practices are done with coloured water and not real alcohol. While it’s perfectly understandable in terms of waste, it’s a pity in terms of learning. If you can’t taste if the drink you’ve just prepared is well balanced, how will you know if you poured the quantities right or if you diluted it correctly while shaking/stirring? There is only one day at the end of the week, when there is a recap of the recipes learned throughout the week during which each student gets their turn behind the bar to make one of the cocktails with real spirits to understand their balance, flavour and appareance. Once a week, one drink per student…in my opinion it’s not enough. “Practice makes perfect” only works if you know you’re practicing correctly.
Also I didn’t enjoy the flair lessons very much unfortunately. I was excited to learn some moves but the lack of support of the instructor was rather unfortunate. He was preparing for the World Flair final a month or so later and you could tell his focus was elsewhere. He would show us the moves once or twice then let us practice and only walk through us once to correct us. Only the aptest students would get a bit more of his attention. Alas I wasn’t one of them. He gave me more tips to improve my moves during the exam than during the whole course. So, yeah, I didn’t get much from that course except many bruises on my right hand and elbow but other students had a blast with it. So this is really my personal opinion. Also the instructor has now left EBS to pursue other ventures so hopefully future students will benefit from a teacher who’ll be more dedicated to teaching.
So, all in all, if you want to 1) learn about the bartending trade and spirits, 2) want to learn the basic techniques to develop working habits/automatisms for a job behind a bar 3) and have some interest in learning a few basic flair moves, while not expecting to become the next Tom Dyer (who, by the way, happens to be another member of EBS’s board of education), EBS is a great place to acquaint yourself with the trade of bartender.
Funny side effect of attending EBS n°1: We were taught to call “Backs” whenever we walked behind someone to let them know we were there. It became so ingrained in my mind that I ended up telling it to an innocent lady in a library.
Funny side effect n°2: At the end of each day at EBS, we had to clean up your stations. When I returned home and to my favourite bar after the course, I got antsy watching the bartenders closing the bar and couldn’t stand the idleness so I ended up helping them out.