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Training underage bar servers

young bartender mixing cocktail

Question:

I am a server at a microbrew pub. The brewer did a training of new beers and I attended and drank, of course. I’m 20 and the next day I got put on probation [at work] for drinking and being under 21. The manager said I should have refused the beers we were given to try. My feeling is they know how old I am so if they are going to have us train, it should be allowed for us to taste. It’s not like I was hanging out all night at the bar.

– Server, Brewpub, Philadelphia

Answer:

There’s no question that product knowledge and tasting is key to providing great service and sales, especially in an environment like a brewpub.

Laws vary extensively by state, from requiring all servers to be 21 years of age or older, to allowing minors as young as 17 to serve alcohol.  Most states do allow employees 18 years of age or older to serve alcohol, at least in restaurants. Some states require that servers in bars and nightclubs be 21. Others only allow servers under 21 if the employee has completed responsible alcohol service training.

Some states (Pennsylvania is not one of them) have provisions for minors to attend supervised tastings for training and educational purposes, as in the case of minors taking a wine course in a hospitality or culinary school. Whether a server training session would qualify as an educational setting is doubtful, however. For example, Colorado’s provision makes an allowance for a student who “tastes but does not imbibe an alcohol beverage only while under the direct supervision of an instructor who is at least twenty-one years of age and employed by a post-secondary school; Is enrolled in a university or a post-secondary school accredited or certified by an agency recognized by the United States department of education, a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association, or the Private Occupational Education Act of 1981; … Is participating in a culinary arts, food service, or restaurant management degree program; and tastes but does not imbibe the alcohol beverage for instructional purposes as a part of a required course in which the alcohol beverage, except the portion the student tastes, remains under the control of the instructor.” So, even where education is technically allowed, it would be a stretch to apply that rule to a restaurant setting.

As often happens in Advice Guy questions, the problem is one of differing expectations caused by lack of communication. My advice is that the operation needs to be clear about policies for the hire and training of underage servers. If you knew in advance that you would not be allowed to taste, you likely would have been fine—the unclear boundaries are the problem. Restaurants that are serious about their beverage program and beverage training would also benefit from keeping their state and local laws in mind—yes, it’s hard to find talented servers, but you also need servers who can be legally knowledgeable about the product.

As always, consult with your restaurant association and attorney as laws vary widely and continue to evolve. 

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