Right next to the large tanks in Union Craft Brewing is a table stacked high with cardboard trays that the brewery uses to package multiple six-packs.
“Every case there, I made,” says Henry “Zadie” Benesch, 97.
Zadie, the grandfather of Union co-founder Adam Benesch (the nickname “Zadie” comes from the Yiddish word for grandfather), has worked at the brewery since it opened, and still puts in three or four days a week folding trays on days when they’re canning beer.
Well before that he fought in the South Pacific during World War II, remaining in the Army Reserve into the 1970s, and held jobs as an engineer at the Burroughs Corporation and, post-retirement, an usher at Laurel Park.
Union is throwing a big party this Saturday for Zadie to celebrate his 98th birthday, and it will feature some of his favorite cigars on sale, grilled cheese and his favorite Union beer, Blacking Lager, for just $.98. The brewery is dubbing Zadie “the world’s oldest brewery worker.” While that’d be nearly impossible to verify, you gotta like the odds of it being true, right?
Ahead of the birthday bash, which Union is calling Zay Day, I caught up with Zadie to talk about why he enjoys his job so much, his favorite parts of working in a brewery and more.
Baltimore Fishbowl: What did you do before you started working here?
What did I do? I didn’t do anything, I was retired. I’d been retired since 1980.
BFB: And what was your profession before that?
I was a field engineer for Burroughs Corporation.
BFB: What do they do?
Business machines. And I retired in 1980, I didn’t do much of anything then. I traveled a lot with my wife. I traveled all over the world. Then I had a part-time job at the Laurel Park.
I was an usher at the race track when they ran, which is a nice job because it’s only a couple months of the year. And the rest of the year my wife and I would travel all over the world.
I was retired from the Army, so we used to fly with the Air Force. Wherever they went, we went.
BFB: That’s a nice perk.
Yes, it was a very nice perk. And the sad thing is she died 18 years ago.
After awhile, I didn’t do anything, and then my grandson Adam started opening the business. I was down here from the beginning, when it was just a shell. I used to watch them fix it up, put in all the equipment, and then I said: “What can I do? I want to do something. I want to come down and help you.”
And he said, “Well, we don’t have anything for you to do.” So then they started cases and I said, “Well, why can’t I make the cases?” They said, “Well, we don’t know what we can pay you.” I said, “You ain’t got enough money to pay me, I’ll volunteer my work.” So I volunteered.
I come down three or four days a week and make the boxes.
BFB: Still on a volunteer basis?
On a volunteer basis. It’s like I volunteered for the USO for 11 years.
BFB: What do you like about the work?
It gives me something to do, and it gets me out of the house. And the people who work here are tremendous. The girls and the young men that work here, it’s amazing the way they get together and work as a team, as one big team.
BFB: Now that it’s so big, did you imagine you’d stay here as long as you have?
Oh, I’ll stay here as long as I’m able to get up and get out of bed. I mean, I hope as long as they let me. But I’ll be 98 next week, so I’m getting to the point where I don’t get around like I used to.
I think I’m helping. And if I don’t come down, they make out.
BFB: What’s the best part about working in a brewery?
It’s just like any other place you work in. If you enjoy the work, you enjoy the place. When I worked for Burroughs, I was always out on the street, business was all over the state. This is just one place.
BFB: What’s it been like to see it grow like it has, given that it’s something your grandson had a hand in?
That’s an amazing thing. I mean, it’s amazing to see what it started at, and they just kept growing and growing like topsy til they outgrew themselves. And if you see back here now, there’s no more room to grow. And they still got a few more buildings, this building and the two next door, for storage. So there’s no place to go.
So now they have a place to go, [Union Collective]. And we’re looking forward to that.
BFB: How do you feel about them having this party for you?
Well, I think it’s unnecessary, because they treat me good, they let me come in, they let me do what I’m gonna do. If I don’t come in it’s OK, and if I do come in it’s OK. And I told them it’s not necessary, I have a birthday every year. Every five years I have a big party–my 95th birthday we had it here at the brewery. We had about a hundred people here, friends and family–I have a very big family.
But they wanted to do something special this year. I’ll be here. [laughs].
BFB: I would hope so. It sounds like they have your favorite things: cigars and sandwiches.
Yeah, cigars and beer and sandwiches.
BFB: So I feel like a lot of these types of interviews ask, “What’s the secret to a long life?” The answer’s gotta be beer for you, right?
No, no. No, I’m a bourbon drinker. But there are some beers that I like. The Blackwing I like, and that’s why they’re having the special: 98 cents a can instead of $5 a can.
And the reason for a long life, I don’t know. I ask the doctors and they don’t know. They say, “Oh, what do you do?” I say, “Well, you know, the things I’ve done earlier in life maybe is what’s making me live longer.”
They say, “What did you do?” I say, Well, I drank from the Fountain of Youth in Florida when I got called to go into the Army. And I shipped overseas. We had an allotment of beer or cigars, so I started smoking cigars–I would take the cigars instead of the beer. So I’ve been smoking cigars since 1942.
So I guess smoking cigars and drinking bourbon and running with fast women, that’s the secret to life.
Zay Day is Jan. 13 from noon to 5 p.m. at Union Craft Brewing, 1700 Union Ave., Suite D, (410) 467-0290, unioncraftbrewing.com.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.