Food Consumer & Creator
“We would spend hours in the fields amongst his supers and honey bees, and he would share the story of the honeybee and its importance to our ecosystems. I was in my little bee keepers suit that he handmade for me. He was a very creative man.”
My earliest and most prominent food memory is that of my grandfather harvesting and extracting honey. He had a big impact on my life. He was a storyteller, a connector to emotions and experiences, which was odd, because he did not seem to be an emotional guy. When I was very young, about six-years-old, he took me under his wing. I had very personal experiences with him and one that always comes to my mind is beekeeping. We would spend hours in the fields amongst his supers while he would share stories of the honeybee and its importance to our ecosystems. I was in my little bee keepers suit that he handmade for me. He was a very creative man.
I was his little shadow, walking with him, experiencing the supers, checking on the bees, extracting the honey in the “honey house”. I know so much about the honey business for not being in the honey business.
He passed away about six years ago now. My mom has now taken to beekeeping, but it is hard for her, both emotionally and physically. All of my siblings grew up with similar experiences to mine and my wife and I even got our son into it. When he was three years-old, before my grandfather passed away, we got him a little keepers suit and he came out with us into the fields. Our grandfather did leave us so much honey! A garage full. Honey never goes bad, it is one of those amazing things.
I am in a small shack with smoke rising from the chimney in the north woods of Wisconsin. I am surrounded by trees and I am with my grandfather. He has a white beard like someone who has lived many lives in his seventy years, or like Santa Claus! It is time to extract the honey, so we round up all the supers and take them back to the “honey house”. At his peak production, he had eighty to ninety supers. We are in full beekeeping gear, the house is heated to 110 degrees. It needs to be super hot to extract honey.
My grandfather grew up on a farm in southeast Wisconsin. The family originally lived in Nebraska, but moved when my grandfather was a young child. In the late 1930s when my grandfather was eighteen, he was working in the fields and began seeing planes overhead, which sparked his curiosity about flying. World War II was just beginning so he entered the Army Air Corps. When the war ended, he received his G.I. Bill at the University of Wisconsin and joined the Air Force when it was established in 1947. He had a twenty-six year career in the Air Force as a pilot. Although he loved flying, he grew up as a farmer and always felt connected to the land, so eventually he found himself back tending to the fields and his bees.
I smell a sweetness and earthiness in the air as honey is extracted. I can feel the humidity mixed with the heat and my sweat. We use a hot knife to take the waxen caps off, then put them in an extractor, spin it really fast, and here comes the honey.
He traveled the world for bees–from South Africa, to Argentina, to Europe. He was very invested in the bee and honey industry. He would partner with different farmers in Wisconsin depending on what they were growing. Some would grow alfalfa, or buckwheat, and he would use that to create a different flavored honey. It was much darker, a little smoky, and had a tobacco flavor. He would have bee exhibits at the state fair in Wisconsin where he would explain to kids how bee systems work. He never stopped until the day he died. He was the honey guy. There was nothing he liked better in his morning coffee, then a big spoonful of honey.
Bees are all over! It is a pretty miserable experience. I feel tired and drained from the work, but also exhilarated when I taste the freshly extracted honey. When I was stung for the first time, I realized there is a good reason why it happened, because I am taking away their honey.
My grandfather followed his passions, from flying, to running a small business, to growing a family. He was curious and he was a leader. These traits inspired my own pursuits with Veteran Roasters. I am always trying to learn, to develop relationships, to find the right partners, and to help others. It is fun, challenging, and hard work, all of those things that my grandfather instilled in me at a young age. My goal for Veteran Roasters is to be the largest wholesale coffee roaster with a social impact. I’m not going to let COVID get us down. We’re going to keep fighting.
Branden is the owner of Veteran Roasters Cup O’ Joe Coffee, a Chicago-based, small-batch coffee company focused on hiring homeless and chronically unemployed veterans by providing them skills and experience in the coffee industry. As an active veteran advocate both in Chicago and across the US, Branden has helped thousands of veterans by building networks of support through organizations such as Rags of Honor, Combined Arms Chicago and the Department of Defense Warrior Games. Prior to his work in the daily brew business, Branden served as helicopter pilot and Navy officer which led to his passion of supporting, assisting and leading those who served in the military and are currently struggling to reintegrate back into their communities.
[ Branden Marty is photographed at the Veteran Roasters headquarters, in Chicago, on 120mm film. ]