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ArtHoning Ethiopia’s next master bartender

Honing Ethiopia’s next master bartender

It has been said that great bartenders are born, not made. Bartenders’ success is based on how they carry themselves and how they relate to other people. The basic skills of the job can be taught, and the nuts and bolts of the job do not require an advanced degree, but a truly great bartender has the natural compulsion to anticipate the smallest details, and the training required to ensure each one is executed correctly. And that is what Ethiopian bartenders are getting from Diageo’s Master Bar Academy, writes Elyse Wurm.

Ian Fleming’s fictional British Secret Service agent James Bond is known for many things. The super spy is one of the world’s most famous characters and his presence in the global pop culture is overwhelming. The way he takes his martini and the way he says, “Bond. James Bond.” are implanted in the minds of millions around the world. The way the suave secret agent takes his cocktail has become a catchphrase. “Shaken, not stirred” is the preference for the preparation of his martini.

That particular cocktail would later be referred to as a “Vesper”, after the original Bond girl, Vesper Lynd. However, a Vesper differs from Bond’s usual cocktail of choice, the martini, in that it uses both gin and vodka, Kina Lillet instead of vermouth, and lemon peel instead of an olive.

Knocking up a perfectly balanced cocktail is a skill that takes time to conquer, but many bartenders around Addis Ababa are well on their way to becoming world class mix-masters after joining the Diageo Master Bar Academy.

Launched on the 9th of January at Vault Lounge, the Master Bar Academy (MBA) is a program run by premium drinks maker Diageo. Diageo has a collection of beverage alcohol brands across spirits, wines, and beer categories. These brands include Johnnie Walker, Guinness, Smirnoff, J&B, Baileys, Tanqueray Gordon’s, Captain Morgan, Crown Royal, Beaulieu Vineyard and Sterling Vineyards wines. In Ethiopia, Diageo owns Meta Beer.

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Diageo is a global company, trading in more than 180 countries around the world. The company is listed on both the New York Stock Exchange and the London Stock Exchange.

Through the program Diageo targets 300 bartenders in Ethiopia and aims to transform service standards by enhancing knowledge and professionalism within the hospitality industry.

“We have a motto called: Raise the bar behind the bar. So that’s the main [aim] of this bartender session,” Daniel Mulugeta, a coordinator at MBA, says. “We just wanted to make bartending [a] more popular and respected profession and equip people to increase this hospitality industry.”

The largest program of its kind in Africa, MBA has trained over 14,000 bartenders in more than 40 cities across Africa in countries including South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Kenya and Seychelles. The program is available in three languages and is divided into three modules, MBA 101, MBA 202 and MBA 303, to offer bartenders comprehensive accreditation in their field.

“Through the training we are trying to teach them how to be a responsible bartender,” Daniel says. “Then through that, bartenders will learn how to act on their profession and how to act on ethical [standards].”

Starting with MBA 101, bartenders learn fundamental knowledge such as customer service skills, bartending tips, product information and responsible drinking strategies.  Leaving with a manual and link to a mobi-site in hand; participants then move onto MBA 202. This module takes place online through the mobi-site and includes an 80 question exam to assess the knowledge they have acquired.

The top 25 highest scoring bartenders are then invited to undertake the third and final module, MBA 303. Another one-day training workshop, MBA 303 goes deeper into the art of bartending and cocktail making. The bartenders are also put through their paces with a series of tests to narrow down the field to a group of five finalists.

These finalists then compete in a live showdown on 27th March 2017 to crown the Top Master Bartender, a title that bestows prestige on the winner as well as awarding them USD 1,000 and an iPad containing exclusive cocktail apps. All finalists also receive an MBA certificate and merchandise including a cocktail kit.

Over the past couple of weeks, bartenders from drinking hot spots around Addis Ababa were invited to take part in MBA 101 at the Ramada Addis Hotel to kick-start their training journey. With pens poised and laptops alight, they listened intently to the words of wisdom being imparted by their MBA trainer, Justine Coetzer.

“We’re trying to really get them to understand the basics of how to use certain tools and how to understand the flavors and tastes of the alcohol that they serve every single day,” Coetzer says. “Actually realizing that there’s more to it than it’s just vodka or it’s just gin. It’s got flavors, it’s got a story, it’s got a history.”

Hailing from South Africa, Coetzer is one of twelve multilingual African trainers taking part in the program. By teaching basic bartending skills, she aims to spark a little more inspiration and passion within participants whilst also demonstrating that there is more to the profession than simply pouring liquids into a glass.

Bartenders can then use this knowledge as a platform for experimentation to create their own unique concoctions and inject a bit more excitement into Ethiopian nightlife.

“We’re trying to show them how it should be done and that they can actually change the game with new ideas and new experiences. So they leave here with a little more light in their eyes, a little happier, a little more excited,” Coetzer says.

Newfound pride in their profession may be on offer for bartenders that take part in the MBA program, but for Diageo the responsible drinking messages that are instilled are equally, if not more, important.

Handling situations such as underage drinking, drink driving and disorderly conduct can be extremely challenging, so bartenders need to have effective strategies in their repertoire to discourage potentially harmful conduct.

According to Nicholas Mutinda, Commercial Representative in Ethiopia for Diageo GB, Diageo has an obligation as an alcohol provider to ensure those selling the products uphold appropriate standards that reinforce responsible drinking.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that also whoever’s behind the bar, they really embrace the virtues of responsible drinking which Diageo stands for,” he says. “Just to realize that it’s not just about selling it, how do you become a responsible bartender [and] embracing that. Not only for our brands but for every alcoholic brand that you sell. It’s one of the big things that we need to stand for in this industry.”

Over its six-year lifespan, MBA has successfully lifted service standards in a number of African countries. Through ongoing training and support, Kenya and South Africa have now reached a level at which they can send participants to Diageo World Class, a fierce international competition for the best in the bartending fraternity.

Ethiopian bartenders can also aspire to these heights, as those who reach Top Master Bartender status as well as two to three runners-up will be offered World Class training to prepare them for the competition. It is expected that within two years, Ethiopia will be cheering on their own national representatives on the international stage.

Word spread quickly throughout Addis Ababa about the valuable training on offer through MBA and most of the recent MBA 101 sessions hit their 30 person per day capacity. With all costs for the program covered by Diageo, it puts training well within reach of bartenders harboring a desire to hone their craft.  

For Biniam Hirphasa, a bartender at Ramada Addis Hotel, who completed MBA 101, the program presented a rare opportunity to develop a greater understanding of the intricacies of the hospitality industry.

“I learn a lot of things from this training especially how to run and how to manage a bar, and the different kinds of liquors and the histories behind them,” he says. “I really appreciate and thank Diageo for giving me this chance. Really, I didn’t get any training like this before.”

Local drinking establishments are also enjoying the spoils of more highly trained bartenders. By enhancing the quality of service, bars can provide a positive drinking experience for customers who create a number of commercial benefits including increasing sales and securing return visitors.

For Tariku Hailu, the Food and Beverage Manager at Ramada Addis Hotel, the biggest change has been seen in the engagement of the bartenders. Despite most of his bar staff boasting a high-level of experience, he noticed a great degree of initiative being displayed after they took part in the MBA 101 session.

“Whenever they come to the bar they want to try to change something by applying what they learned out of the training,” he says.

Tariku was also pleased that the program emphasizes the broad range of skills as this enables the bartenders to provide well-rounded service to everyone who walks through the door.  

“It helps a lot because bartending has [a] wide range of activities; not just pouring drinks or displaying bars. There are a lot of techniques that you need to apply in order to handle your customers,” he says.  

With new drinking establishments popping up rapidly throughout Addis Ababa, the demand for a program such as MBA is only expected to grow. Quality of staff is a key tactic new venues can use to stand out from the crowd, as certification from a renowned global brand can serve as a trusted endorsement of credibility and legitimacy.

“Hopefully, this training is going to be very standard. It’s going to be very standard and outlet owners and other folks will ask for the certificate before they hire [a] bartender from now on, hopefully,” Daniel says.

The MBA program is currently structured as a yearly event, so all three modules will be repeated again next year. Previous participants as well as those looking to get a head start are able to find ongoing support through the Master Bar Academy Facebook Page, which provides recipes and perspectives from a global network of bartenders.

By embracing new knowledge and connecting with the international bartending scene, the Ethiopian hospitality industry has found itself in a prosperous position. Through dedication and commitment, its potential can be fully realized as local bartenders further expand their understanding of what’s possible in their profession.

Ed.’s Note: The writer is on an internship at The Reporter.

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