Monica Berg: bar industry needs ‘sustainability of people’
Leading bartender Monica Berg, of Himkok fame, discusses the challenges, trials and tribulations facing the global bartending industry.
*This feature was originally published in the July 2017 edition of The Spirits Business magazine
“One of the things that I feel is very important is sustainability of people,” says Monica Berg. “If you compare a bar station that was drawn by [pioneering US bartender] Jerry Thomas with a bar station of today, there aren’t that many differences. Sometimes you walk into a bar station – even one in a new bar that has never been worked in before – and you see it’s the same station you worked in 10 years ago, and you know its going to destroy your shoulders, break your back, destroy your knees. Why?”
Berg and I are chatting on the sunny rooftop of a hotel in Berlin’s Mitte, where she is a judge in the 2017 edition of the Bacardi Legacy Cocktail Competition. The event fosters the next generation of cocktail talent, providing bartenders with a platform to effectively market themselves, meet their peers and garner global attention. This ‘modern bartender’ reflects a wider movement in the industry, one that has been led by noted figures in the scene such as Berg, who formed the P(our) collective with the likes of Alex Kratena, Simone Caporale, Ryan Chetiyawardana and Jim Meehan. “The bartending community is growing up,” says Berg. “Before, the discussion was mostly focused on drinks, recipes, techniques and methods; now it’s moving into philosophical issues.”
Born in Norway, where “the amount of hours you work is not the most important thing – the quality of work you do in those hours is more important”, she says moving to London in 2013 was an “eye-opener”. “The pace, the pressure, the expectations are so high. We need to focus on how we can create a sustainable life for people, so they can spend their life in the industry and when they hit 30 they’re not just like, ‘uh! I’m burned out’.”
Challenging topics such as this form the basis of P(our), which aims to ‘explore new ideas, share information and exchange inspiration’. “It’s not about us controlling the conversation, we just want to facilitate it,” she says. While some topics are “very touchy”, the need to discuss them remains. Held in June, this year’s gender symposium sought to acknowledge the issues in the industry and explore ways to drive equality in hospitality. “It’s about just stating the fact that everyone – regardless of skin colour, sex, race, nationality, beliefs, anything – has a right not to be discriminated against,” says Berg, adding that when it comes to bartending it’s not important how strong or how fast the person is. While men, women, transgender and non-binary may all bring “different qualities, different skills, different strengths, and different weaknesses” to the bar, ultimately “it’s the team as a whole that makes the difference”.
She points to a recent conversation with a male bartender. “He didn’t believe that there was any discrimination towards female bartenders, and, in his experience, men were the ones that were being discriminated against – because women ‘always got more tips’ and ‘can always just show some cleavage’,” Berg tells me. “He said, ‘Female bartenders don’t want to carry the trash after the shift, they don’t want to re-stock the fridges, they don’t want to lift anything’. I said, ‘Well, then maybe you’re just working with the wrong people behind the bar?’”
That such conversations are still taking place in 2017 highlights the need for continued discussion about gender inequality – and, more specifically, male privilege. “Privilege is a tricky thing, because you don’t see it when you have it,” says Berg, highlighting her own experience: “I worked as a bartender for 15 years, and for the first 10 years I was just a bartender. Then five years ago I became a female bartender. People started asking me questions like: ‘How does it feel to be a female bartender?’ I didn’t even know – again, privilege – that it was such a big deal.”
It was only when Berg started to travel more that she realised the extent of the challenges facing women bartenders in other cultures. “I thought, ‘OK, if that’s the case then I need to change my perspective and start to more consciously support female bartenders’,” Berg says. “I would hate not to be a positive contributor to equality, because the only thing that we can do is address the wrongs that we see, in the way that we see them, and try to find ways to improve.”
Sustainability is another hot topic in the bartending community, with closed-loop cocktails, seasonally-curated menus and eco-friendly bar practices coming to the fore. In Berlin, Berg hosted a workshop about taste – specifically exploring how outside influences alter flavour perception, how the make-up of different foods make them suitable for cocktails, and ingredient sourcing. While it’s widely acknowledged that spirits are of a better quality now than they’ve ever been, she says the same attention has not been given to fresh produce.
“We don’t think about the fact that the world is different. When I grew up, a tomato was something we used to have at times of the year, because my father used to grow it in our garden. Now you can have tomatoes all year.”
The constant supply of fresh produce rarely makes us think about the impact on flavour. This is reflected in Berg’s work at Oslo-based micro-distillery bar Himkok, where she oversees the bar and spirits programme. Now in its second year, Himkok has placed a concerted focus on Norwegian farmers with its latest drinks offering. “Farmers are one of the most important parts of the ‘farm to table’ or ‘field to drink’ movement, and we need to support and protect them,” she says. The bar sources its ingredients from smaller farms, so the farmers can “keep more of the profits”, though this is not without its challenges. “We have to source our honey from two or three people because they can’t produce as much, and we want to make sure that we can have variety,” she says, adding that the dairy and whey used comes from several different farms, too.
The bar also has a craft focus, but in a broader sense that is not just limited to food and drink. The new cocktail menu re-imagines bunad – traditional costumes unique to each district or area of Norway. Each costume has been paired with a traditional ingredient specific to its geographical location. “It was a very rewarding experience,” says Berg. “It took 10 months to do all the research because the farmers work in a completely different way to us. They wake up at 5am – when we go to bed!” However, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. “People are proud because their costume is featured. It’s really cool.”
So, what’s it like to work in a bar that has been described as “a theme park for bartenders”? “It’s heaven,” says Berg. “Which bartender doesn’t want a distillery inside the bar, have a distiller at your disposal at any given moment?” Historically, bartenders have been restricted to creating cocktails inspired or influenced by existing spirits – now the team can take control of the flavours. While big spirits producers “are not opposed to innovation”, creating and distributing a new creation is a lengthy process. “Even if you have the best idea, it’s going to take time to take the spirit to market, whereas we can go downstairs and make it, and within a few days we have it.”
This is almost a tidy metaphor for the work that P(our) is pioneering – the symposiums, discussions and debate are products of the bar industry’s own environment, with no external help and therefore no limitations. “Hopefully in the future P(our) will be something that bartenders think of as their own,” says Berg. “We’ve seen fantastic responses from bartenders all over the world, so hopefully we’ll grow beyond the founders. Sometimes we just need someone to start something and then let it grow. Set it free, let it grow.”