Life Behind the Stick

In 2013, following two long stints at restaurants in Denver—Rock Bottom for 14 years, Elway’s in Cherry Creek for 10—Belk accepted a position as bar director for the Edible Beats group, which owns El Five, Ophelia’s, Linger, and a handful of other bar-eateries around town. This presented his first large-scale opportunity to mentor a group of up-and-coming bartenders. He started a program called BarLab, a midday workshop conducted once a month in the empty dining room at El Five, where anyone from Edible Beats can learn directly from Belk about the finer points of cocktail craft.

On a recent Wednesday, Belk led a workshop on the long-term health considerations of bartending. In attendance were six women and five men, all under the age of 40. Belk strolled into El Five wearing a colorful plaid shirt, olive-green pants, and brown loafers, drinking coffee from a porcelain mug.

“For those of you thinking of doing this for 20 or 30 years,” he said, picking up a metal cocktail shaker, “you need to be smart about the way you work. I’m deaf in my right ear because of 28 years of this.” He held the shaker next to his head, the way almost all bartenders do, and pumped it back and forth. Using a digital projector, he showed the group a YouTube video of famous bartenders executing different kinds of cocktail shakes. He told everyone to get behind the bar and practice.

When the workshop ended and the students had left, Belk said, “Not all of them will stick with it, of course. For some, this is just a temporary job.” Success as a career bartender requires many things, Belk believes, but above all it requires grit and stubbornness to make it past that period in life, around age 35, when doubts about the long-term viability of the job start to creep in. “The mid-thirties are a moment when people start to question what they’re doing,” he says. “Should I get a real estate license? Should I go back to school? Should I get a job job? If you make it through this period of doubt, you’re a bartender.”

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A Friday night, late in the summer. Belk is working the bar at Ophelia’s for an event called “SNAP! 90s Dance Party.” Under yellow and purple lights, which cast the black walls of the venue in a neon glow, he pours drinks for a roomful of spirited millennials who have turned out to wax nostalgic over pop hits from their shared childhood, 20 years ago. On his apron, he wears two small, golden pins over his heart—the New Belgium bicycle logo and the emblem of Denver’s Ratio Beerworks.

“The pin thing is relatively new,” he says. “Just in the last year or so. All these brands are making pins because they’ve realized bartenders will actually wear them. You see some guys just covered. I’m a pin minimalist. I have a bunch, but I wear one or two, depending on what’s on tap.”

The pins, Belk explains, are a fad—but they point to a larger, more interesting trend. “Liquor companies have woken up to the fact that bartenders themselves are a great marketing opportunity—especially with the rise of the craft cocktail movement. Respect for the job has gone way up. People look up to bartenders now.”

This gets him thinking—and waxing nostalgic himself—about changes in the industry over the last few decades, which have been abundant and dramatic. “Things we do now wouldn’t have crossed my mind in the ’80s and ’90s,” he says. “Now, we pay attention to everything. How we treat ice. How flavors are perceived at a neurological level.In the old days, there was one type of bitters—angostura—and a bottle would last a year and no one really knew what they went in.” Today, he says, technique is king; in days gone by, the emphasis was on showmanship. “That Tom Cruise movie Cocktail, where he’s flipping the shakers while the crowd cheers,” Belk says, “that nailed it. That was bartending back then.”

He’s lost in his thoughts for a moment, looking out across the dark interior of Ophelia’s. A young woman, clearly in her very early 20s, splits from her group of friends and walks over to the bar. Belk pours her a vodka cranberry. She pays with a credit card and disappears back into the crowd. A little distance away, another bartender, a man with a ponytail and a string of turquoise beads around his neck, sways to the pulse of the music.

“In terms of the future, I’m happy with the situation I have,” Belk says, shaking a cocktail down by his waist, away from his ear. “But as with any business, somebody else is only going to pay you so much. Maybe at some point I’ll open a little place of my own. Maybe in Denver, maybe somewhere else. That’s what retirement looks like to me. That’s the next dream.”

jigger

Weighing the costs and advantages of his career—as he’s had much time to do—Belk has come to the following conclusion. “People go to bars,” he says, “because they like talking to bartenders. That, to me, is the best part of the job. It’s not just a place to drink. It’s a place to connect.”

One evening at El Five, Belk found himself talking to a woman who had wandered into the restaurant alone and had chosen to sit at the bar. The conversation came easily. She had been reading, she told Belk, about non-alcoholic cocktail recipes coming out of places like Iraq and Iran. “As a bartender, how do you feel about that?” she asked. “Does it defeat the purpose to take alcohol out of the equation?”

Belk wiped the inside of a tumbler and thought seriously for a moment. Finally, he offered a scenario. Two people walk into a bar, he said, and ask for recommendations. The bartender hears them out, offers advice, and builds their drinks, one with alcohol, one without. “If both people walk away happy,” he said, “are the emotional transactions the same? If the point is to create joy, does alcohol really have anything to do with it?”

The woman smiled and nodded. Belk, smiling back, poured her another drink.

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