BALTIMORE, Md. (McClatchy) — The birthday party brimmed with laughter, conversations and palpable good feelings. Attendees stuck temporary tattoos to their faces while others played oversized games of Jenga and Connect 4.
On paper, it sounds like a children’s celebration. But this was an event at Union Craft Brewing, the spirited beer company that calls Baltimore home. And a closer look at the tattoos revealed the reason more than 500 people passed through the brewery that recent Saturday afternoon: They were the illustrated face of Henry “Zadie” Benesch, the facility’s oldest employee. In January, he turned 98.
“Old friends, new friends — it’s amazing,” Benesch said. “I did not realize I had touched so many people, and that they think so much of me.”
All day, Benesch was the center of attention. Whether he was inside or in the parking lot to take a cigar break, friends, family members, Union employees and strangers regularly approached Benesch to offer good wishes. He has that effect on people, said his grandson, Union co-founder Adam Benesch — particularly on the workers.
“For the most part, our staff is made up of 20-somethings and 30-somethings, and he’s able to connect with people who are 50 or 60 years younger than him on a daily level,” Adam Benesch said. “He’s really become a critical figure of the brewery.”
When Union’s brewery was merely a warehouse shell in 2012, Zadie Benesch began showing up to watch the space’s development. At least, so his grandson thought. After awhile, Adam Benesch suggested he pitch in by building the cardboard cases Union cans are delivered in. He’s been volunteering 25 to 30 hours per week ever since.
“I come down and spend four or five hours, make about 500 to 600 boxes and call it a day,” said Zadie Benesch, who lives in Pikesville. In 2017, he made more than 80,000 boxes, according to his grandson.
At the start of Benesch’s shifts, Union employee Jenna Dutton greets him with a cup of black coffee. For her first year of working at Union, she didn’t know the origin of Benesch’s nickname. When she learned it was a play on the Yiddish word for grandfather, it all clicked.
“I went up to Adam and said, ‘Zadie’s not just your grandfather anymore. He’s everybody’s grandpa here!’ ” Dutton said.
At his birthday party, Union honored Benesch by surrounding him with his favorite things. Cigars from 1998 could be purchased, and Vent Coffee Roasters offered cups of coffee (which Benesch drinks each shift) for 98 cents. His favorite Union beer, Blackwing dark lager, cost 98 cents, as well, though Benesch said he only drinks once in awhile. When he does, he prefers bourbon.
With a slice of pie made by Dangerously Delicious Pies by Benesch’s side (the fluffy lemon meringue, another favorite), Union presented the man of the hour with an unexpected gift: new cardboard boxes bearing his bearded face that read, “This box was assembled by Zadie.”
Surrounded by family — including some who drove hours from Pennsylvania and Virginia — he marveled at the box. It wasn’t a one-off token of appreciation, but Union’s new standard boxes moving forward.
“It’s the face that launched a thousand beers,” Benesch said with a laugh. “That was amazing to me. Whatever they do, they look out for me.”
From Union’s perspective, he’s more than earned it — not only from his contributions to the brewery, but through the life he’s lived.
Benesch grew up in Northeast Baltimore, then joined the Army, became a service representative with the Burroughs Corp. and, after retiring in 1980, traveled the world with his wife. He said he climbed pyramids in Egypt and swam in the Dead Sea.
“We’d be away for three or four months” at a time, Benesch said. “For 13 years, we traveled like that. Been to a lot of amazing places.”
Though age has slowed him a bit, Benesch remains active, taking Lyft rides to and from the brewery for his shifts. The employees watch over him, but also energize Benesch with their camaraderie and teamwork, he said.
“I can’t even lift a cup without them trying to do it for me,” he said. “It’s amazing the way they work together, and what they’ve been able to do.”
Benesch plans to remain the brewery grandfather — and box-folder — as the company moves to the much larger Union Collective space in nearby Medfield later this year, with the goal of continuing to volunteer as long as he can.
A couple days after the party, he was back on the line, folding boxes. Benesch said he’s not sure what to credit for feeling so good at 98 — “I don’t eat anything green, and I don’t exercise,” he said — but he isn’t asking too many questions either.
“I don’t know, but it’s working,” he said before returning back to work. “I hope everyone can do the same thing.”