Tamara Lilien shares her unique expertise as cannabis sommelier
By Jean Ko Din
Cannabis sommelier seems like the dream job.
For Tamara Lilien, it really has been. She has worked with and sampled products from licensed producers throughout the Canadian cannabis industry. Most notably, she has trained senior leadership team at the Ontario Cannabis Store.
In 2019, she was selected as one of eight members of the world’s first Cannabis Curation Committee with AHLOT. Lilien was handpicked from more than 25,000 applicants to curate the best cannabis cultivars Canada has to offer. She is also the only committee member to hold a Level 2 Cannabis Sommelier certification and Cannabis Educator certificate.
Before entering the cannabis industry, Lilien worked as a manager of special projects at Sunnybrook Hospital for 13 years. It was while she was working on patient-focused care initiatives in palliative care that she began to explore the medical research around cannabis as a form of therapy. She became a kind of “cannabis expert” on the team.
Grow Opportunity talked with Lilien to talk about her unique set of skills and how the role of the cannabis sommelier fits into the industry.
Grow Opportunity: You’ve worked with some of the biggest brands in the Canadian legal market. What is something that you wish more LPs knew?
Lilien: On the whole, I would say that the biggest missed opportunity for LPs right now is not engaging with people who were part of the legacy market.
If you present me with two jars of cannabis, whether it’s sourced from the legal or legacy market, that’s less important to me than the quality of the cannabis. If the quality of the cannabis is higher from the legacy market than the legal market, anyone who’s in a position where they want the highest quality flower, well, it makes the decision kind of a no-brainer for them.
With the way that legalization and licensing was rolled out, many people from the legacy market were totally alienated, and they weren’t empowered to become legal. That seems so backwards and illogical. It really is in the best interests of the industry, and consumers alike, to empower people who have 20, 30, 40 years of experience to participate in the legal sector.
GO: While some people will call it a dream job, are there drawbacks to being a cannabis sommelier?
Lilien: I’m not going to say I don’t like it, but what I find challenging is the variability of the quality of the cannabis. Because as an evaluator, I try to always wear my objective hat. Someone else might light up a joint and after a couple of puffs, say ‘I don’t like this’ and put it out. But part of the job is to have so much integrity built into the assessment that even if you find something thoroughly unpleasant, even abhorrent, you still complete the full assessment and you seek to understand why.
Because I might walk away saying, I don’t think I’d want to smoke this flower ever again but I would damn sure cook with it or I might use it in a topical. So it’s about being very, very thoughtful and not closing any doors.
GO: Do you feel a huge sense of responsibility as a member of the Cannabis Curation Committee?
Lilien: I feel an enormous sense of responsibility and that’s part of the reason that people think that I’m quite unusual. They say, “Oh my god, you get paid to smoke weed. That’s so cool!” I mean, yes, it’s cool but it’s also serious. My integrity is in the mix here and I’m certainly not going to do anything that compromises that. Actually, the team has identified me as one of the harsher critics and I think it’s because I have high standards. I’ve been trained to identify good quality versus quality that is less so, and I stick to my guns. For me, integrity always comes first.
GO: What training did you have to go through to become a cannabis sommelier?
Lilien: To date, my training has involved completing Cannareps Sommelier training, Level 1 and 2, a Cannabis Educator Certificate from Michener Institute, and a number of other smaller courses, like CBD basics by Ringing Cedars. Since there are no industry standards on the nature and parameters of the role, cannabis sommeliers have to chart their own course. Ultimately, this role demands a lifelong commitment to excellence and learning, and a willingness to get your hands dirty. There is an abundance of undiscovered information, researching, reading and studying cannabis every day.
GO: Where do you see the role of the cannabis sommelier evolving within the larger value chain of the industry?
Lilien: Cannabis sommeliers have the capacity to enhance any part of the cannabis delivery process. So it could be anything from consulting on phenotype selection for growers, to doing quality assessments on flower after harvest, and everything in between.
I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate on some incredible projects because of my cannabis sommelier certification, like doing all the curation for a retail store, hosting cannabis-themed holiday parties (virtual and in-person), team-building workshops, and I’ve also been invited to speak at a variety of cannabis conferences and expos, as well as schools like the University of Toronto. The world is your oyster as a cannabis sommelier and it’s really up to you to determine what you want to do with the job.