Beer may have made Milwaukee famous, but Wisconsin wouldn't be the same without its brats, summer sausage, hot dogs and much, much more.
Name another state where sausage racing is a part of the national pastime. Only at the Milwaukee’s Miller Park will you see four racers dressed up as giant sausages running around the bases between innings of Brewers games. The Racing Sausages, sponsored by Klement’s Sausage, are a bratwurst, Polish sausage, Italian sausage and hot dog. For the record, as of late June, the Italian had a commanding lead over the others, with 17 wins.
There are more than the large sausage producers in the state, of course. The Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors (WAMP) alone has more than 120 members, including many small and mid-sized businesses. Those shops are continuing a tradition that goes back to the Old World.
“Wisconsin and some of our neighboring states are where the Europeans settled, and they came with true sausage backgrounds,” says Jim Peterson, central regional sales manager for Alkar-RapidPak. Peterson formerly owned his own sausage company, Lodi Locker, in Wisconsin. “It’s hard to go to many small towns in Wisconsin and not find a sausage-maker yet who’s still operating, with their own shops,” he adds.
Mike Vold, secretary of Hart and Vold Meat Market in Baraboo, and president of WAMP, says consumers appreciate the hands-on approach that the small sausage companies provide. “[Customers] can come in and pick out their meat in the meat case and know where it’s coming from. They know it’s not coming off a big truck,” he says.
Some companies have been in the same location for multiple generations, making them an institution. Nueske’s Applewood Smoked Meats, for instance, has been in Wittenberg since 1933. In a town of about 1,200 people, the company has 150 employees, making it one of the larger providers in town. “I would venture to say that for most of the families that work for us now, parts of their family worked for us 40 years ago,” says Tanya Nueske, national sales manager.
It’s more than tradition that keeps people coming back to these processors; it’s the quality. “The Wal-Marts open up, and everybody goes there because it’s cheap, but they know that we still have the quality,” says Tom Tasse, president of Hewitt Meats in Marshfield. “People are coming back to us.”
Larry Clark, President and owner of Lodi Sausage Co. in Lodi, notes that the sausage makers in WAMP hold regular competitions. “We all compete against each other in conventions on taste and flavor to keep the consumer coming back,” he says.
Clark notes that some sausage makers are starting to make a spicier sausage and increase the variety of sausages. Both of these concepts have been consumer driven. “Some of these sausage-makers are making 20 or 30 different flavors of bratwurst,” he says.
“When my father started, he had a pork brat,” Tesse adds. “Two or three years later, he had a potato brat. Now we’ve got 18 [varieties].”
Tom Chermak, president of Cher-Make Sausage Co., located in Manitowoc, says, “While Wisconsin is a fairly traditional market in regards to sausage items, we have been seeing a wider range of bolder flavor profiles and non-traditional ingredients such as feta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and roasted garlic in the marketplace.”
Fruits are also becoming a more popular ingredient in sausages, and it’s not uncommon to see apricots and cranberries in a summer sausage, or a blueberry-and-cheese bratwurst.
American Foods Group, with corporate offices in Green Bay, as well as Omaha, Neb., and Alexandria, Minn., has reintroduced products from Sheboygan Sausage Co. into the marketplace. Steve Giroux, vice president of field sales, notes several trends in marketplace. “The growth in the category is coming from natural-casing hot dogs and the dinner-sausage category, as well as the private-label category at retail,” he says. “The growth at foodservice is coming from precooked items, such as brats and Italian sausage, because of convenience and food safety.”
Like any other industry, the Wisconsin sausage-makers do face several challenges. In this instance, one of the biggest challenges is coming from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, and its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs. “There’s just so much paperwork that we have to do now, along with the other work,” Tasse points out. “Being a small business, we’re going to want to make sure that everything that goes out the door is in good shape, and we do that, but it’s a son of a gun to have to go through all the paperwork that they’re making us do. It might just put you under.”
Clark also notes the cost and the extra work that comes from implementing a HACCP plan, but he says that there are benefits to the program as well. “Some of the plans make it easier to manage your business, because you’re checking things better and making a better-quality product. There are costs involved that are [just] going to have to be passed on,” he says.
While the challenges facing sausage-makers have changed since Wisconsin’s early days, and the sausages are certainly different — how would a cranberry-and-cheese summer sausage have done 70 years ago? — the appreciation of an excellent, high-quality bratwurst or Polish sausage is firmly ingrained in its residents. As long as that’s the case, the state’s sausage-making heritage is safe.
“There’s not a lot of from-scratch bakeries anymore,” Alkar-RapidPak’s Peterson says, “and there’s not a lot of people that make the shoes and shirts they sell in their shop anymore. I think [sausage-making] is the last true trade left in America, where you actually make a product, retail it and sell it, like the Old World used to be.” NP