By Lynn Petrak, Special Projects Editor
In a class of their own, this elite group of experts carries on the tradition and art of sausage making.
I n the culinary world, there are those who make food and there are those who make food an art.
Not that there is anything wrong, of course, with manufacturing foods in a high-volume fashion to meet ever-increasing demands from consumers. But in an era where the buzz is constantly about bigger, quicker, and more efficient, it is important to remember that there are food professionals still at work fashioning foodstuffs using centuries-old techniques and a dedication that is a hallmark not just of a job – but also of a vocation.
The wine industry has its wine masters. The cheese industry is home to a select group of cheese masters. The bakery industry includes esteemed pastry masters. The meat industry, for its part, is known for its Sausage Masters.
Sausage masters are considered elite in the field because of their training, skill, and sheer commitment to the craft. They are the ones who have perfected the method of grinding, seasoning, stuffing, linking, and, in some cases, cooking meats. They are the individuals who continue the legacy of Masters from different generations and continents, and who are inspiring a new class of culinary craftsmen.
Today’s sausage masters, like the products they create, are comprised of a combination of elements. Many of them run their own businesses as meat-market owners or specialty sausage company entrepreneurs. Others work as consultants or on-site experts for large meat processors with well-known national brands.
For every sausage master, meanwhile, there likely is a different recipe. Some prefer traditional chopped pork and spices, as others get creative with poultry and a host of sweet and savory ingredients. Sausage masters in the United States use both natural and synthetic casings and labor at their craft using a range of equipment and materials, from the traditional to the cutting-edge.
The definition of a true sausage master is not, to borrow a relevant turn of phrase, exactly cut and dried. Steve Krut, executive director of the Elizabethtown, PA-based American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP), likens this group to those in the Old World who are trained at a level on par with medical professionals. “I think a sausage master ultimately would be someone who has gone through training in terms of an apprenticeship, usually from a three- to six-year program. They learn about everything – casings that are effective, the importance of relative humidity, grinding equipment, shelf life, spices, and even developing new products,” he remarks, adding that a certain personality also fits the bill. “Even if he doesn’t know something, he’s not afraid to find out by asking.”
Herb Ockerman, a professor in the animal science department at The Ohio State University, agrees that a sausage master is a person who is highly trained, experienced, driven, and worldly in the understanding of meat processing and marketing. He, too, cites extensive training programs common in European countries like Italy, France, and, perhaps most notably, Germany. “If you were talking about the cradle of the industry, they were making sausages before we were even discovered,” he says of the European meisters, adding that the expertise behind their work is hard to mimic. “You almost have to work with one and be observant in the way he is doing it.”
Those close to the industry also say that a sausage master is defined not just by the quality of their product but the mastery of the techniques behind it. “I feel true sausage masters are still in small butcher shops. The big guys have lots of resources, yes, which they can basically obtain anything they need to produce a product which they think is needed for the market,” says Mark Henry, vice president of Henry & Sons Inc., a Bradley, CA-based supplier of sausage stuffers, fillers, and parts, adding that the category has room for high-volume producers as well as smaller-batch craftsmen. “Anyone that can take cheapest [cuts] and throw them together with some spices and sell it for a pretty penny needs some respect. On the other hand, the true masters only use the best ingredients trying to make the best possible product with cost not being an issue.”
Klaus Benz, West Coast sales manager for Mundelein, IL-based clip closure manufacturer Poly-clip System USA, was a true sausage master before he eventually left his own sausage company to work for the supply side of the business. A gold-medal winner in the esteemed sausage competition in Germany after his apprenticeship there, Benz knows what it takes to be an authentic expert of the trade. “It is like any other industry – you have to go through certain training and understand the business you are in,” he observes.
Others who are known as sausage masters, by both training and reputation, recognize that their work is distinctive in today’s marketplace, from the ingredients they choose to the ways in which they make sausage. “You have to have quality to start, with and you need good equipment and good seasonings to put in,” says Joe Leonard, an international award-winning sausage maker and owner of Farmer’s Place market in South Edmonton, NY.
Sausage maker Helmut Wagner, owner of Walters Meat Company, Erie, PA, had years of training for his award-winning sausages and underscores the importance of quality combined with know-how. “You learn the entire end of the business – the merchandising and the livestock buying. We also have high standards, and we try to do things the old-fashioned way,” he notes.
California sausage maker Bruce Aidells, who started the Aidells Sausage Company in the 1980s and still lends his name to the brand now owned by another entity, is among the nation’s sausage making elite. According to Aidells, sticking to time-tested methods is what sets the masters apart. “If I were to define a sausage master, I would say it is about making sausage the way it was made fifty or more years ago.”
The demand for expertly made, high-quality sausage products is still strong, after all of these centuries. “I think nothing will replace Old-World flavors, like polish or frankfurter,” says Benz. Aidells agrees: “I think the market is anything but saturated.” NP