San Francisco

Meet C.A.B.A.M., A New Mid-Market Academy For Aspiring Barkeeps

Before you waltz in and order a Moscow mule, you'll want to note that the inviting new bar at 1035 Market St. isn't actually a bar. It's actually C.A.B.A.M., short for the California Academy of Bartending and Mixology, which has just launched its "beta" class.

The use of the tech term is a purposeful one: the academy's entire curriculum is fueled by custom-designed technology. A sensor is hung around the neck of each and every bottle behind the bar, and each of its 16 training stations is equipped with an iPad. In addition to daily lessons, every class includes "drills" behind the bar, with the help of an iPad app.

At first, these game-like exercises are pretty simple. The app shows a customer requesting a drink, and the recipe pops up on a screen facing the bar. The student makes the order as quickly and as accurately as possible, pressing a button on the app to complete the order when they're done.

But thanks to the sensors strapped to each bottle, the app can track whether the right liquor and the proper amount was poured to make the drink. If so, the app congratulates the student on a "perfect pour," awarding them a $1 tip.

The app, in the middle of a drill where three drink orders are placed at once.

As students progress through the program, the drills become more challenging: time limits for each order, customers lining up at the bar, more intensive drink orders and other obstacles. Scoring the full $1 tip requires more speed and accuracy.

C.A.B.A.M.'s goal is to make bartending school a legitimate educational pursuit, say Shawn Refoua, partner and creative director, and Mike Levin, director of operations. In their opinion, bartending is the only profession where education is stigmatized, primarily because those hiring assume that anyone who's been to school in the field assumes they know it all. Employers behind the bar, they say, don't want to work with people who think they know it all already. They want to train people to do the job the way they want it done.

At the moment, if an aspiring bartender walks into a San Francisco bar or restaurant and cites a "certificate" from a bartending school as a credential, they'll get laughed out of the place, they said. As a result, many of the city's most influential bartenders have attended bartending school, but haven't told a soul. And that needs to change.

Instead of luring in students by promising "certificates" or guaranteed job placement upon completion, C.A.B.A.M. is promoting its course as a "stepping stone" that will prepare aspiring bartenders for even more learning on the job, Levin said.

Refoua (left) and Levin inside the brand-new mixology academy.

Refoua and Levin both have long histories in bartending. Refoua, who began bartending in 1997, moved into teaching and consulting before launching SF Mixology, which hosts interactive mixology workshops and company team-building events. Levin has worked in operations at SF Mixology, as well as at a number of downtown nightclubs, including The Cellar, Sugar Cafe and Infusion Lounge.

In addition to legitimizing bartending school, the pair hope to use their technology to identify the right jobs for their students. With access to each person's app-based drill history, they say they'll be able to tailor their lessons and pinpoint which candidates' skill sets are suited for incoming job opportunities—whether it's a nightclub looking for security and speed behind the bar, or a fine-dining establishment that prioritizes pour accuracy to keep costs down.

Once the current four-person beta class wraps up, Levin says C.A.B.A.M. will spend a week ironing out any kinks before launching its introductory and advanced courses to the public.

The program is currently $300 for a two-week curriculum, but C.A.B.A.M. also hopes to offer a month-long program that goes deeper into local mixology trends, as well as a program that's tailored to specific beverage niches, including high-end restaurants, nightclubs and dive bars. Intro courses will be offered in the morning, afternoon, and evening on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, while advanced courses will be held on Thursdays and Fridays. Accelerated weekend programs will be offered to accommodate those with full-time jobs, and those who aren't interested in becoming pros will still be able to attend tastings, workshops and other educational offerings. 

One other notable hurdle for C.A.B.A.M. remains to be cleared: securing their liquor license. The bottles behind the bar may be equipped with fancy sensors, but they're currently filled with colored water. 


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