Business Food & Drink

Michelle Tham, Labatt’s Beer Cicerone, on How to Have a Better Beer Drinking Experience

As the beer landscape becomes diversified, Tham wants you to be smart about your beer consumption.

When Michelle Tham talks about beer, she tells its story. 

When she presents you a food and beer pairing, she doesn’t outline what in the recipe makes it go well with the particular beer it’s served alongside. Tham instead explains the beer’s history, the necessity that bred invention — as opposed to telling us that the beer pairs well, she tells us why. She weaves a narrative that is packed with tension, drama, and romance; a story of each beer’s character and its particular dance with its food pairing. 

Tham is the Head of Education at Labatt Breweries of Canada — a role she forged for herself. She is also a Certified Cicerone. A Cicerone is to beer what a sommelier is to wine, Tham explains. The Cicerone program was inspired by a sophistication in beer drinking that took place in Chicago in 2008, she says. The program exists to accredit those who have a professional knowledge of beer: its ingredients, how its manufacturing process affects the beer’s flavours and aromas, along with extensive knowledge of how it pairs with food.

“Currently, there’s about 150 certified Cicerones in Canada,” Tham says, but this number is always changing. When Tham received her accreditation in 2013, she was one of 40 Certified Cicerones. But Tham is unique among them because her expansive knowledge is buttressed by her natural storytelling abilities.  

If beer drinking was just becoming sophisticated in 2008, today it’s downright refined. Mainstream attention paid to beer led to a wide range of breweries and brewing methods that now affords the average beer drinker many opportunities for a luxurious experience. This innovation is coming from craft breweries and from established breweries alike. Everyone’s feeling the urge to be creative, and this ingenuity in turn affects the standards by which beer can be judged, which in turn fosters greater innovativeness in beer manufacturing. “A lot of times when [beers are judged, something Tham is additionally accredited to do], [we’re] judging beers that are intending to fit into a defined style, but that doesn’t stop brewers from brewing beers outside of those boxes too,” Tham says.

While continuing to appreciate the traditions surrounding beer, what this heterogeneity translates to is diversification, both in the producers and in the product. “I think what’s driving a lot of the diversity is the way that we experience beer and drink beer,” Tham says. “We’re drinking beer increasingly more with food. Our savviness and knowledge of food and flavour has expanded.” This means that the more knowledgeable we are about our beer-drinking, the more diversity and nuance we encourage. 

“Part of my goal as a Cicerone and working with Labatt and our diverse portfolio of beers is helping Canadians understand that huge potential and all the different types of foods and flavors that can be paired with numerous styles of beer,” she says.

Accordingly, Tham wants to see Canadians enjoying beer at home with dinner and also while dining out. Tham hopes that the care and attention we give to finding the right wine pairing with our food will likewise be given to finding the right beer to have with dinner. Beer and dinner, she believes, can and should be an elevated experience. And this care will also allow Canadians to appreciate the expertise that goes into creating beer. All beers, Tham says, are brewed by people who take tremendous pride in what they do. “There’s a great amount of artisanship in beer,” she says.

It all comes down to respecting beer for Tham, because increased respect allows for the understanding that each brewery’s product interacts with food in a way unique to it. “I represent the viewpoint of someone who has great knowledge and respect for the way that beer is made,” Tham says.

If we are to learn anything from Tham, it’s that by learning beer’s story, we will not only be in a better place to incorporate it into our lives, but also in the empowered position of promoting a diverse Canadian culture. “I believe that beer is innately Canadian,” she says with a smile you can hear in her voice. “And that’s why I really enjoy working in beer.”