CAMBRIDGE - Rob Creighton had to lie his way into the brewing business. He loved it so much he’s still fermenting in it more than 35 years later.
Creighton, the head brewer at Grand River Brewing in Cambridge, was only 17 years old when he got his first job at the Labatt brewery in London in 1977. He fudged his age and claimed he had a driver's licence, hoping he'd get a job as a forklift operator.
He didn't. Instead, they offered him work on the brewing side - and his life would never be the same. He was immediately smitten with the suds business, surrounded by war veterans who drank nine beers per shift.
"You never saw those guys drunk. But you never really saw them sober, either, " said Creighton, 54. "It was a different era."
Back then, Creighton carried a brewer's textbook around in his coveralls and dreamed of running his own brewery. But craft brewing didn't exist then - if you drank beer, it always came from big, national companies.
He stuck around even after being pulled unconscious, overcome by carbon dioxide, from a fermentation tank he was cleaning. He didn't leave when he had the same close call two more times.
A fourth time, he had to escape the deadly gas - a byproduct of fermentation - by diving into an empty tank, sealing the lid and sitting on beech wood chips until paramedics arrived.
Beer making may seem glamorous to the public, but for Creighton it's also meant a lifetime of power-washing tanks and assembly lines, countless stainless steel cuts, fighting packing equipment and malfunctioning machines.
When he left the beer business, temporarily, to pursue a career in urban planning, he was quickly steered back on the advice of the late Jack Layton. Creighton was working with Layton when the politician was a Toronto city councillor, and Creighton was clearly unhappy.
"He looked at me and said: ‘Maybe you're in the wrong line of work, ' " Creighton recalled.
So he went back to his first love, and began working for Labatt in Waterloo. In 1985, he became the first employee of Upper Canada Brewing Company, an upstart beer maker out of Toronto.
He was there in the wild early days of Ontario's budding craft brewing business, when marketing campaigns were ad-libbed and off-the-wall. There was the time they hijacked a Miller-sponsored concert by the band Los Lobos, filling their room with Upper Canada brews and swag.
Another strange chapter unfolded when the little brewery flew in writer Hunter S. Thompson for a promotional event, and he absconded with their sales rep when she went to the airport to pick him up.
"They never got out of the airport. Then we get this phone call saying they're both in New Orleans, " he said.
He was there, too, when Upper Canada operated out of a rundown industrial park, surrounded by homeless people, using second-hand brewing equipment and machinery designed for the pop industry. In those days, it was normal for Kris Kristofferson and crew to drop by after shooting a movie at the warehouse next door.
"It was wild times, " he said. "I could tell you some stories."
Brewing is still a small fraternity in North America. Over the years, Creighton's job has taken him into breweries big and small across the continent, working as consultant, equipment salesperson, packaging expert and brewer.
Seven years ago, Creighton was working as a consultant to a brewery in Guelph when Grand River owner Bob Hanenberg approached him about an idea for a new brewery.
They created their brew house in an old knife factory on Ainslie Street, and Creighton never left.
Most of Creighton's job doesn't actually involve holding up a glass of beer to the light and admiring its colour.
As the small brewery's head brewer, he's also the general manager and in charge of packaging, human resources, distribution, marketing and purchasing the commodities they need to make their beer.
Of course, he does get to make beer, too. Like all brewers, he relies on the same four basic ingredients, albeit with great variations - water, hops, yeast and malt - to concoct dozens of different brews.
He reads translated German beer recipe books and scours the industry for the next great idea. Pumpkins, baked apples, whisky barrels and raspberries are all considered fair game.
Those new test runs are brewed in small pilot batches and called one-offs, typically sold to local pubs. Grand River also brews five year-round beers, and supplements those with limited-time, seasonal varieties.
"You're the alchemist and then some. You get to play, " he said. "You're constantly coming up with something new."
Creighton has to keep coming up with new beers because today's beer drinker is a fickle fellow. Gone are the days when consumers would pick their brand and stick with it through their entire life.
Being a brewer is a subjective profession, too, and Creighton relies on his own tastebuds when deciding which new beers get released and which get tossed.
"The most sophisticated tasting device that exists on earth is between your teeth, " he said. "My job is to make good-tasting versions of whatever is out there."
Today, drinkers want variety, which means it's a busy time at Grand River Brewing. They're expanding their brewing and storage capacity, building external grain and fermentation towers, and considering adding a canning line, too.
"The growth in the industry is expansive. It's just insane, " he said. "But for me, it's fabulous. It's been a long haul to get here."
It's busy, sure, hectic even. But there are moments, Creighton admits, when he pours himself a cold one at work and thinks he's still an awfully lucky man.
"I enjoy what I do. Can everyone say that?"