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Ideas | David Scharfenberg

Manual labor goes upscale, one craft cocktail at a time

Five years ago, Wachusett Brewing Company launched its blueberry beer with a heavy dose of skepticism. But the fruity concoction has exploded in popularity, doubling in sales in recent years and becoming the Westminster brewery's most coveted beer. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

When charcuterie shops and high-end cocktail lounges suddenly pop up in long-vacant storefronts, it’s a sign the entire neighborhood is changing. But these emblems of gentrification are shifting the nature of work as well.

In his new book “Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy,” sociologist Richard E. Ocejo of John Jay College examines the new breed of bartenders, butchers, barbers, and distillers — ancient occupations now being reimagined in artisanal form. What Ocejo finds is a group of well-educated and culturally savvy young men out to change the meaning of manual labor.

Ideas recently spoke with Ocejo about cocktails, nostalgia, and blue-collar work today. The interview is condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: Bartending, cutting meat, cutting hair — these were not prestigious jobs 20 or 30 years ago. How did they become cool?


A: First, there’s a market for it. Consumers are looking for unique products, they’re looking for authentic products, handmade products, artisanal products.

But also, at a time of precariousness in the economy — more uncertainty, more risk — I think a lot of workers have an unsettled feeling. They aren’t really that interested in branding themselves, in making frequent lateral moves from firm to firm or industry to industry. In some cases, they’re looking to more stable, more traditional jobs — more physical kinds of jobs where they can use their hands, use their bodies, while also using their minds.

Q: Since the presidential election, we’ve heard a lot about the crisis of blue-collar work. How does this trend fit in?

A: These [new high-end craft] jobs are examples of how men can use their bodies to reclaim this lost sense of masculinity. But obviously, it’s very different from previous generations of manual labor — different from the blue-collar manufacturing jobs that President Trump and others were speaking about during the election. The people who are filling these jobs are people who have college degrees, have professional backgrounds, people who have other options — mostly because they have the cultural reference points that these jobs require.


A lot of people who voted for Trump have this feeling that the modern economy is really not for them. The people I studied have a similar feeling, except they’ve managed to find these alternative paths — out of the strictly knowledge- and technology-based work and into these more specialized forms of manual labor.

There’s an inequality angle to this. Not having a college degree obviously means that you’re not going to be qualified for a white-collar job, but here we’re seeing an example of how not having a degree — not having cultural capital — can eliminate these traditionally blue-collar jobs.

Q: If craft bartenders and artisanal butchers are setting up mostly in hip parts of big, post-industrial cities, doesn’t that place some limits on the phenomenon? At this point in Boston, or New York or Los Angeles, are there many more neighborhoods to be gentrified?

A: Oh, yeah, of course there are. There are poor neighborhoods everywhere. As long as there are people who are willing to be the pioneers and are willing to move there and live in substandard housing, then the amenities are going to follow.

But I have been reading about this idea of peak millennialism. For the most part, they’re graduating from college and moving to cities. The question is: Is the next generation of young people going to follow that path?

Q: They might not be able to move to the cities because they’re becoming so expensive?


A: That’s exactly it.

Q: Can this trend even exist outside hipster neighborhoods?

A: [An urban context] has been important for the barbers, the butchers, the bartenders — that’s all retail stuff, service-oriented businesses. But the distillers — we’ve seen the distillers and similar businesses like microbrewing, certain types of farming, open up in rural areas. And there is a potential to be successful in these places. After all, they trade on the idea of localness. And localness is irreplaceable. You can’t pick up and move something that is endemic to a particular region.

Q: There seems to be a certain amount of nostalgia built into this trend. Upscale bars dress up like Prohibition-era speakeasies, where bartenders mix vintage cocktails. Are these bartenders evoking some sort of golden age of the profession?

A: Their claim is that the bartending profession was once seen as a respected and honorable trade — that it was something one had to apprentice for, that workers had to demonstrate their skills and their knowledge to get some of the high-end jobs in the bartending world.

It’s a big part of their contemporary identity that they are bringing respectability back to the bartending profession. That’s why they always identify as “bartenders.” They always say, “I’m a bartender. I’m not a ‘mixologist’ or a ‘bar chef’ or any other fancy term. We’re reviving this respected trade and putting the honor back into it.”

David Scharfenberg can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.