Toward Being a More Knowledgeable Drinker – All The Parts of a Bar

Toward Being a More Knowledgeable Drinker – All The Parts of a Bar

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

In an effort to become a more knowledgeable craft fan, I recently undertook a small project to learn more about those bars that Walter and I sit at so often. Neither of us have ever worked behind a bar (without being asked politely to leave), so many of the components of a bar are foreign to us. But they all have names and functions, and here is a short primer to help everyone who hasn’t slung beer or otherwise worked behind a bar. Put them all together the right way and you end up with something beautiful, like the bar at 5 Arch Brewing in Centerville.

There are three main parts to a bar, the front bar, the back bar, and the under bar. Your drink rests on one part of the front bar. Your bartender’s tools are often in the under bar, while the back bar is often on the wall behind the front/under bar so products or merchandise can be displayed. However, the back bar often has working parts like the under bar as well. We’ll start with the front bar, as its components are most familiar to us.

A) Front Bar – This is the part we all as drinkers lean on more and more as the night goes on, and is made up of the bar front, the foot rail, and the drink rail. The bar front itself is made up of three pieces, the bar top, the bar wall, and the bar rail.

Bar tops can be made from, or feature, just about anything. This one is an aquarium. image credit: imgur

1) Bar Top – Made from anything you can think of, the bar top is where you rest your drink for those small amounts of time when you aren’t actually drinking. Concrete, marble, wood of all sorts, hammered or plate copper, different materials covered with epoxy, etc. the bar top is one of the most visible parts of a bar, and works to give it a lot of its personality.

The bar top also has dimensions that fit into certain ranges. You don’t want one that is so wide that workers have a hard time reaching empties or handing drinks or plates over, but it also needs to be wide enough that there is room to work and place items. The overhang on the patron side is usually 6-9 inches, while the over hang on the bartender side is usually 11 inches. Add in the width of the bar die (the vertical base that the bar top sits on) and you usually have a bar that is somewhere around 22-24 inches wide in total.

The bar top is most often 42-45 inches off the ground, to give adequate leg room when using the typical 30 inch bar stool. Most of the time I stand at the bar rather than sit and I have found that a 43” height is perfect for me and my laptop, but I can’t say I’ve ever left a bar because I didn’t like their bar height.

2) Bar wall – This is one of the most important features of a bar, according to Walter. She has some definite ideas about what should and shouldn’t be included with a bar wall, and what they should be made from. To define it, the bar wall is the vertical front that separates the customer space from the worker’s under bar (see below). Walter says is should be made of something smooth, not rustic, because she has a tendency to strike her leg on it, and something rough can run a pair of stockings or leave a mark.

Typical bar rail millwork. image credit: Blumer and Stanton

Even more important, the bar wall is where you now they put the add-ons that have become more important or at least more common lately. It’s where you find purse hooks (or umbrella hooks, or coat hooks), and outlets for laptop and phone charging. Walter says that a bar wall or overhang without a hook represents an establishment that isn’t working hard enough to reach out to women. I’m more focused on the electrical outlet; three prong is a must, but the ones that have both three prongs and USB plug-ins are also fine.

3) Bar rail – The bar rail is the drinker’s best friend, especially when they’re a few drinks into the session. The rail is usually a concave piece of material that i) gives people somewhere to rest their arm, ii) provides a decorative edge for the bar top, and iii) most importantly, keeps your drink from sliding off the front of the bar or spills from running off into your lap.

True, the bar rail is important, but it’s not indispensable. Some bars don’t have one, especially wood bar tops with natural edges, so I guess you can live without it, but that bar top better be dang beautiful if you’re going to go without the rail.

So those are the three parts of the bar front, now we can talk about the other parts of the front bar – yes, bar front and front bar different, we’ll see that word reversal again later on.

You can see the metal foot rail. It is anchored in the open drain for spittoon spitting (and other things). Click for a larger image. image credit: Wooodenboat Magazine

4) Foot rail – I think the foot rail is just as important as the bar rail, and it’s much more historical than the bar rail. According to the magazine, Imbibe, the foot rail dates back to the early 19th century as a way to make standing at the bar more comfortable and therefore induce people to stay longer and buy more drinks. They were placed at ankle height and were round (more ergonomically pleasing), but nowadays, many of the foot rails are blocked off and right up again the bar wall.

In the late 20th century, bars started using bar stools to keep people there even longer, and the foot rail fell out of favor just a bit. The bar stool has a tendency to run into the foot rail when you scoot the stool in, but my informal poll at Black Acre Garden says that even sitters enjoy the foot rail, and if the bar stool runs into the foot rail, it’s a matter of poor design – either too wide a foot rail or to narrow of a bar top overhang.

One other historical reason for the foot rail – often there used to be a drain with flowing water at the base of the bar wall. For water/mud/manure on boots, to act as a free flow spittoon, or at times used as a urinal, the bar drain has mostly disappeared from all but the most historical bars still in service. The foot rail was placed so that people’s feet were protected from the drain. I’m kind of glad the bar drain has gone the way of the dodo.

5) Drink rail – If the bar rail is to keep you from spilling your drink off the front to the bar, the drink rail serves just about the same purpose for the bartender. Located on the working side of the bar top, this is an area for making drinks and usually has a trough and drain. This is where the bartenders set the longer drink mats that have raised rubber nubs to keep the drinks off the surface so that they don’t sit in any spilled liquid. Some drink mats have squares at the end with no nubs that are flatter and more stable for preparing drinks. There are also larger drink mats for putting out finished drinks to be picked up by servers and for empties that come back. All of them can be perforated and/or have nubs.

The drink rail helps when the bartender/server is a bit clumsy. Hi Jen! image credit: beer metal works

However, there is another definition for a drink rail – it can be a narrow standing table area somewhere out in the seating area (often by a window/garage door or behind the bar seats) for standing with a drink. It is most often skinny enough to be considered a rail, and people put their drink on it while standing/lounging (like along the front window at ZwanzigZ in Columbus). They’re efficient uses of space because they take less room than a table and can accommodate people standing. They may or may not have bar stools with them.

B) Back Bar – The back bar can serve many purposes for the business and/or the bartender. It used to be that the back bar was behind the bar, when the vast majority of bars were straight and along a wall. Like in the old John Wayne movies, the saloon had a straight bar, a gap for the bartender, and then a back bar with the large bar mirror above it.

Nowadays, a few more bars are curved, and they can actually have two back bars, one in the central gap of the curve and one along the back wall. This is how it works at Blind Owl Brewery in Indianapolis, and The Guardian Brewing in Muncie. This makes things a bit speedier for the bartender, although you still have to make sure there is adequate room between the front bar and the back bar for two bartenders to pass by one another (at least 36 inches).

While the back bar can house many of the tools and storage that the bartender will need, making it serve as an under bar (see below), the back bar is often used to display high end spirits bottles, or merchandise for sale. Once again there is a chance for confusion here; don’t confuse the “back bar” and the “bar back” – the former is a thing and the latter is a person. A bar back a worker who runs drinks, fills the ice bin, washes the glasses, runs food, etc.

A typical speed rail or bar well. image credit: ebay

C) Under Bar – Behind the bar wall is the storage and workspace that a bartender counts on. Pros get to know the under bar as well as the backs of their hands and have things they like to see and things they hate. Setting up a bar is apparently a personal thing; all kinds of preferences can be reflected I how an under bar is arranged.

Whether the under bar is on the back side of the bar wall or along the bar back, there are certain things it is likely to have:

Cooler/refrigerator – obvious, but bars can have preferences for them – glass front, which side they open on, size, height, etc.

Speed rail/bar well – this is a set of shelves or racks that hold liquor bottles and are fast to serve from, hence the name. The bottles on the speed rail/bar well are easy to reach, ie. the ones they use most often, ie. the cheap ones. The expensive bottles are up on the top shelf, hence the names “top shelf drinks” and “well drinks.”

Sinks – there may be two or three basins, for washing glassware quickly – wash, rinse or wash, rinse. You can add in a waterproof glass washer that has a motor that sticks up from the bottom of the sink and a spinning cleaner that is just under the level of the water.

Maybe a Dishwasher – They can be rotary style, door style, or carousel style (Walter wants one of the carousel style washers for our house). They are for washing more glassware, more efficiently.

Ice bin or ice machine – obvious, even if all you serve is beer and wine. It’s a rule that you shouldn’t leave the scoop in the bin.

A beautiful draft tower can make all the difference. image credit: Square One Brewery, St. Louis

Racks or shelves for glasses and tools – the glass shelf is obvious, although some bars like displaying them in hanging racks above the bar. The tools are various, but often include strainers, spoons (there are at least four different types), shakers (there are something like five different types), jigger, zester, and a wine key.

Draft tower – this is the apparatus where the draft beer taps are located. It has a drink rail and a drain below it, and should have glass rinsers that spray a fine mist of water up into the glass to remove dust and lower surface tension to so beer won’t foam over as much. Did you know that one of those glass rinsers goes for about $300!

Bar gun or soda gun – Invented in 1958 by Clarence D. Firstenberg of Los Angeles, CA, the bar gun can dispense water, carb. water, syrups and mixes at various ratios. You’ve all seen it, it’s that hose with the handle that has all the buttons – I suppose people like having this set up in particular ways too, but the letters and their positions are almost universal. There are some general guidelines for the bar gun to tell which button does what: Q= tonic water, T= Tab or Diet Coke, L= lemon lime soda, G= ginger ale, C= cola or cranberry juice, S= club soda, W= water, P= pineapple juice or Pepsi, SS= sour mix

Soda guns can be of the pre-mix or post mix type. Post mix means the different fluids travel through the different lines and are mixed within the bar gun, while post-mix means that the syrups and water are mixed before they go through the long line. Pre-mix is more like a draft beer tower.

So those are the parts of a bar – do you feel like a smarter drinker now? It should at least help you win a few bar bets.

1Comment
  • Kyle Turner
    Posted at 17:51h, 17 August Reply

    Cool piece thanks for including us we appreciate! 5 Arch Brewing

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