A Day in the Life of a Cicerone

Canadians really love their beer. In fact, the barley-based concoction has been woven into our national culture for longer than we’ve called ourselves a country. What’s not to love? A cold pint is the perfect accessory for summer barbeques, late night concerts, cheering on your favourite team or a weekend at the cottage.

But what if we told you there are people who have turned their passion for beer into a career? That’s right; it’s their full-time job to taste beer, talk about how much they love it and educate the public on how best to enjoy it. These people really exist and they’re called Certified Cicerones®.

Just like a sommelier is a wine expert, a Cicerone is a beer expert. The term Cicerone refers to a sort of guide and that’s exactly what they do. Using a professional body of knowledge of beer, how it’s made, its ingredients and their translation into flavours and aromas, they guide beer drinkers through the differences in beer styles, how to best pair beer and food so that the flavours come together and how to serve brews for optimal taste and enjoyment. It may just be the coolest job ever.

Cicerones don’t have to use incredibly technical language to talk about beer. Michelle Tham, Head of Education at Labatt Breweries of Canada and Certified Cicerone, opts to communicate the complex in casual terms in order to make beer education accessible to all Canadians. “The appreciation for beer is an everyday thing and the occasions where we drink beer are a normal part of our lives,” says Tham. “It’s fun and it’s natural and it’s part of the fabric of our culture.”

So how does one become a Cicerone? The training process is very similar to that of a certified sommelier. The second level of a multi-tiered certification program, aspiring Cicerones first become Certified Beer Servers, of which there are over 300 across Canada working for Labatt, where Tham has been for the past three and a half years. After lots of theory, demonstration, tasting and testing, they at last earn the coveted title. Of the approximately 110 certified Cicerones across Canada, 11 are at Labatt.

Tham’s desire to become a Cicerone stemmed from her love of beer. Having worked in Toronto’s high-end restaurant industry for about 10 years, she had the opportunity to be exposed to different flavours and styles of beer, as well as the way that beer could be part of occasions. She dabbled in wine and cocktails, but what spoke to her was the simultaneous complexity and accessibility of beer. This passion led to experimenting, tasting and eventually studying. She has been a Certified Cicerone since 2013.

Tham’s typical workday involves talking to a lot of people, both internally with people who work at Labatt and externally, in an effort to elevate her own beer knowledge. The more she knows about beer, the more effectively she can communicate that knowledge to Canadians and build a culture of beer appreciation across the country. The coveted gig involves extensive travel, visiting everywhere from Victoria to Halifax to talk to Labatt employees, customers, those who sell or serve their beer and consumers. “At the end of the day, I love to taste beer and I love to talk about beer,” she says.

One of the reasons that Tham chose to work at Labatt was for the brand’s rich heritage and the history of its brews. Celebrating their 170th anniversary this year, the company has collected plenty of great stories to tell about theirs beers over its lifespan. They’ve been the instigator of many industry firsts, including creating Canada’s first light coloured ale, Labatt 50. Another reason is that their current portfolio of beers spans quite the range, with numerous diverse styles, varied flavours and a growing craft beer selection.

Tham’s favourite part about being a Cicerone? Talking to someone who loves beer but doesn’t know a lot about it. “I think what we are very good at doing in Canada is drinking beer. What we haven’t done a lot of tasting and appreciating it,” says Tham. “Walking someone through the process of evaluating the flavours and aromas, how they tie that back to its four natural ingredients and then also the way to best enjoy beer, whether it’s making sure that you drink it out of a glass so that you can properly smell it and taste it or the rituals are for certain beers, there’s a lot of ‘aha’ moments there when you see somebody has learned something new that they’re going to carry with them in all the ways and occasions that they drink beer in their everyday lives.”

A big dream for Tham in her role is to help more Canadians drink and appreciate beer in order to elevate the category of beer as a whole. “I think it’s a benefit to the entire industry and for all Canadians in the way that we enjoy and experience the occasions in our lives by appreciating beer and the over 100 different styles that exist in the world,” she says. “I think we’re on our way there.”