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Why does beer cost so much? Is it really that hard to be a bartender? Your questions answered

A bartender pours drinks for basketball fans at Trademark Sports Bar on Folsom Street during the Warriors playoff game in San Francisco on May 20, 2022. | Felix Uribe Jr for The Standard

Last week, The Standard published a story about whether tipping $1 per drink at bars was sufficient—and boy, did it touch a nerve. Within hours, it became one of our most-read and hotly debated articles, as readers inundated us with fiery comments. 

After combing through the feedback, we noticed several themes emerging around the complicated relationship between work and money. We researched your questions and discussed them with bartenders and bar owners alike. Here’s what we found. 

Trashposters and Edgelords and Haters—Oh My 

Let's get this one out of the way first. While the vast majority of the comments called for deeper consideration, some were disrespectful, and a few were even threatening and obscene. 

One of the more tame comments of this variety came from a reader who named themselves “NoTip4U” and asked, “So who is gonna pay me for waiting 15 minutes just to get one overpriced beer??”

The internet can be a dark place. Still, the comments speak to how divisive issues of money and class truly are. 

Bartenders Deserve Bigger Tips 

Though this opinion was in the minority, a fair number of you defended your local barkeep—particularly those who are tasked with shaking, stiring, straining and garnishing elaborately crafted mixed drinks. 

Reader Dan said that they tip entirely based on service, which varies whether you’re ordering a draft beer or a complex cocktail. “Remember what you’re tipping for, it’s not supposed to degrade someone’s dignity to a simple percentage,” they wrote. “They’re already trading their dignity for a tip, the least you can do is give an appropriate tip based on performance.”

We asked the same question of Max David, a software engineer who moved to San Francisco from Seattle, where he worked at a craft cocktail bar. He told The Standard that his tenure permanently altered the way he tips.  

“Because my livelihood depended so closely on tips, I’m a notably generous tipper,” David said. “My philosophy is that it takes literally an extra dollar from my life to go from an acceptable tip to an incredible tip, so it’s kind of a no-brainer for me.”

In addition to moral considerations, David said a healthy tip can also be a win-win proposition. “Nothing is more unattractive than someone being stingy, and poor tipping is probably the ugliest behavior I can imagine,” he said. “It makes you look better on dates, and makes you look cooler to the bartenders. Surely it’s no coincidence that I get as many free shots as I do when I’m no longer in the industry myself.” 

Phil Emerson, who co-founded a taproom in Dogpatch called Olfactory Brewing last December, said he’s found that mutual respect often earns him extra tips, even though most of his customers are first-timers, not regulars.

“We always try to connect and make sure they’re ordering what they really want,” he said. “A few times, without expectation, I’ve been surprised with a generous gift. To that end, I always tip more when I take more of the bartender’s time.” 

Likewise, Heidi Calhoun told The Standard she once received a $100 gift certificate to Chinatown dining destination China Live as a tip while working at the Hilton Hotel in SoMa.

A few of David’s loyal customers stretched the very definition of a tip. 

“I’ve been tipped weed, Ethereum, phone numbers and, one time, a potted peyote cactus,” he said. 

Bartender Rene Sanchez serves wine at 20 Spot in San Francisco on July 15, 2022 | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

How Hard Is This Job, Really?

Many commenters voiced the opinion that bartending is as simple as cracking open a beer or pulling a handle on a tap. We wondered if that might be a bit reductive, so we put it to San Francisco bartender Sean Olmstead. 

Olmstead said that serving beer is just one item in a laundry list of nightly duties, which includes washing dishes, changing out the kegs and cleaning vomit out of toilets—tasks that become more difficult the busier his bar gets. 

Alcohol Is Totally Overpriced. Why Do I Have To Tip on Top of That?

Plus, the old cliché that a bartender is a de facto therapist bears out, Olmstead said—whether he’s feeling up for it or not.

“If I’m feeling depressed or having any personal issues, I’m still expected to be on,” he said. “If I’m having a terrible day, and 30 people are asking me how I’m doing, for those 30 people, that’s 30 lies. It can take a toll.”  

It’s easy to become incensed when you see the markup on a bottle of High Life or a shot of Jack Daniels, but business owners have a mountain of other costs stacked against them.

You may have heard the term “tipflation,” but how about “beerflation?” Between the inflated cost of key ingredients like malt and supplies like aluminum cans to rising post-Covid commercial rents, it turns out beer may be more expensive than ever to produce. 

Emerson told The Standard that Olfactory’s production costs are more than 15% higher than when he and his co-founders drafted their business plan. 

“Global shipping and a couple of bad years of grain harvest [have made] prices high,” he said. “We use mostly California malt, which is already expensive but more insulated from those other factors. But all other inputs have gone up: utilities, cans, hops.”  

Nigel Lau, bar manager at the Lion’s Den bar and lounge, prepares drinks in Chinatown, San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday May 12, 2022. | Camille Cohen

Anybody Can Pour a Drink

You’ll notice that the headline for the story that started all this specified that tipping a $1 for a cocktail is insufficient. When it comes to craft cocktails—especially the kind that involve separating egg whites from egg yolks, prepping customized ice cubes or making clarified milk punch—we stand by that assertion.

A commenter who goes by “M.C.” pointed out that a specialty drink called “Coco’s Bearded Monkey” incorporates spiced rum, vanilla schnapps and orange juice in a martini glass topped with whipped cream, a twist of orange peel and a drizzle of pomegranate syrup—which is certainly more laborious than opening a can of PBR.

Meanwhile, commenter Hari Stahl noted that tips should apply to the service, not the product. 

“If the bar can’t seem to make the math work on a $12 glass of wine or a $15 cocktail, they need to rethink their finances,” they wrote.

Take the Ramos Gin Fizz, for example. This old-school cocktail, made with heavy cream and egg whites, is notoriously irksome to prepare—some mixologists shake it for up to 15 minutes. David said the Ramos Gin Fizz is a source of dread for many bartenders. Case in point: The Buena Vista Cafe took it off their official menu after it became a best-seller in the 1980s. 

The Business Owner Should Be Paying!

One reader suggested a modification to our headline so that it reads "Not Paying Your Bartender Enough so They Rely on Tips Makes You a Cheapskate.” As the story indicated, the entire premise of tipping puts the onus on customers to pay bartenders a wage that many feel the bar owner should be providing. 

Olmstead agrees with this complaint. 

“Ideally, people would be getting paid reasonable wages and tipping would only be an option if people thought their service was above and beyond,” he said. 

He added that his reliance on tips has corrupted the way he views his customers. 

“It’s hard to not let that seep into your perception of people, and it has a pretty gross effect on your psychology,” he said. “You’re basing your perception of people on how much cash they’re putting down on the bar. And that’s a pretty toxic way of doing business, and it’s a demeaning and dehumanizing thing.” 

Olmstead, who works at a neighborhood bar that has developed a reputation as a destination for first dates, said this feeling intensifies in a place like the Bay Area, “where the economic disparity is so stark.” 

“Where I work there’s a lot of young people making absurd amounts of money,” Olmstead continued. “You become acutely aware that you’re praying for a pittance from the people you’re serving.” 

Now that David works a relatively stable job in tech, he said he sees how flawed the tipping system is. “The wavering instability and, frankly, bonkers cultural norms around it will never make it worth it,” he said. “Please, just pay people a livable wage—I’m on my knees begging.” 

Aina Lopez, the Floor Manager of Terzo, and Horacio Bravo, the bartender, prepare to open the Marina District restaurant for the evening on Wednesday, July 6, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Should Bars and Restaurants Get Rid of Tipping Altogether?

Maybe. Several Bay Area restaurants have tried it out, finding that a flat service fee shared among the entire staff creates a more equitable workplace. A reader named Don wrote to The Standard that they’ve rarely received tips in the more than 30 years they’ve been working the back of the house, writing that kitchen workers are “literally working for peanuts.” 

Still, as Eater reported, some restaurants that eliminated tips found that it worsened sticker shock for customers and increased turnover among workers who feared their income might plummet with the absence of tips. 

Olmstead told The Standard he sees pros and cons to removing tips. On the one hand, it could stabilize the often unpredictable income of service workers. On the other hand, he said, tipping can empower the worker.

“It provides a degree of agency and autonomy for an employee,” he said. “No matter how much my boss might be making, I'm still making the same amount. At least with tipping, there is that reassurance that I’m in some control of my own financial success.”