Brat business in Wisconsin

Winter means more flavors to savor

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By 9 a.m. on Super Bowl Sunday, volunteer firefighters in Brillion are ready to serve the quintessential Wisconsin meal – brats, potato salad, baked beans and from-scratch desserts – to churchgoers and anyone else who shows up at the fire station. The event ends at 2 p.m., hours before the big game begins, and the food usually vanishes earlier.

It’s been this way for 45 years, and football has little to do with it. In 2011, the 130-year-old Brillion Fire Department raised $17,000, enough to buy cold-water rescue equipment and leather boots for the 36 firefighters. “We do this in winter because that’s when we’ve always done it,” says Fire Chief Rich Janke, who has been in the department for 27 years. “By February, everybody wants a brat or a burger from the grill.” That day, they go through about 1,500 of each – not bad for a community of 3,000. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 20 above or 20 below,” Janke says. “People still show up.”

Brats are a summer staple in Wisconsin, but only the hardiest fire up the grill year-round. Pat Fox says weekly bratwurst production at his Fox Bros. Piggly Wiggly in Oconomowoc slows to 1,000 pounds by November; in summer it’s four times as much. At Usinger’s in Milwaukee, the Italian sausage tops the brat in popularity during winter. “That’s when sausages are used more as a cooking ingredient than a grilling item,” says Jon Gabe, vice president of sales. The brat is definitely No. 2 in winter, he adds.

But a drop in the temperature and snow on the ground doesn’t mean you have to say goodbye to brats for six months. When production slows in the winter, many Wisconsin butcher shops produce specialty brat concoctions, adding fruit, vegetables or other types of protein like chicken or corned beef to the pork.

“In late winter and early spring, we’re experimenting and adjusting flavor profiles,” says Kelly Nolechek, who with brother Bill operates the 60-year-old Nolechek’s Meats in Thorp. The siblings introduce at least one new specialty brat every year, but they don’t mess with their grandfather’s fresh brat recipe, which has stacked up numerous state and national awards.

In the inventory are 40 types of brats, each made in 50- or 100-pound batches. Their first specialty brat debuted in the early 1990s and features wild rice and cranberries. Not all creations are successful, however. “We tried adding Tabasco powder, but it was hard to get it just right,” Kathy says. She adds that each variation is still technically a bratwurst because of the seasoning used.

Nolechek says specialty brat production “has exploded in the last 10 years or so,” but the stiffest competition is with other Wisconsin meat shops. Other states don’t show the same sizzle for it.

The American Association of Meat Processors crams brat judging into two categories: small-diameter smoked/cooked sausage, and specialty flavors. The annual Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors competition, the largest of any state, contains six bratwurst categories: fresh (not cooked); cooked (but not cured with sodium nitrite); or smoked/cooked/cured. The other three categories are for specialty brats, which means the sausage contains a non-meat ingredient, everything from apricots to blue cheese. Both Nolechek’s Meats and Fox Bros. won one of the specialty brat categories in 2011.

Veering from tradition is not for everyone. “If somebody likes what you add and calls it a brat, that’s fine,” says Usinger’s Jon Gabe. “We don’t do that because we’re more of a traditional sausage company” that sticks with Old World recipes. Unusual specialties work “if you’re in a smaller town that makes small batches, but there’s not a mass appeal for these items,” he says. “It’s like ice cream: You might like butter pecan, but what sells the most? Vanilla.”

For Pat Fox, an interesting brat selection “is one of many things we do to distinguish ourselves from the zillion other places to buy food.” Fox Bros. operates six Piggly Wiggly stores, each of which will eventually have its own outdoor brat stand for nonprofit groups to use in fundraising.

He considers the quality and ingenuity of Wisconsin meat products to be exceptional, and the state’s producers have a slew of national awards to prove it. But just like cheesemakers and beer brewers, “we need to work on marketing what we have here,” he says – all year long.

Writer Mary Bergin of Madison routinely slows down for brat frys and bake sales. This article appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of Wisconsin Trails.

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