By Joe Taschler
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
OCONOMOWOC, WIS. - The humble, unassuming bratwurst has become an indispensable part of many small businesses across Wisconsin of late, and along the way the sausage has undergone a makeover that would make a high-brow fashionista drool.
The transformation of the brat comes as small meat markets and grocers seek to stand out in a crowded market where everyone from pharmacies to home improvement warehouses are selling food. The result has been an increasingly wild variety of brats, and consumers are snarfing them up by the ton.
“People have embraced unique flavored bratwursts,” said Jeff Sindelar, an associate professor who studies the meat industry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Many consumers are looking for the next unique flavor of bratwurst.
“You see that across the state.”
These days, brats contain everything from chicken to dried cranberries to pineapple to applesauce to peppers of every color and spice level.
“The driving trend in the meat industry in the past decade has really been what’s new, what’s different, what’s unique?” said Sindelar, who is also a UW Extension meat specialist and a barbecue contest judge who is certified by the Kansas City Barbeque Society.
“The average consumer today is much more food savvy. They are always looking for a new eating experience and a new flavor profile.”
Fox Bros. Piggly Wiggly stores this month was closing in on a million brats manufactured at its Oconomowoc, Wis., store. It makes the sausage at the store and then ships it to its other five stores in southern Wisconsin where they sell briskly, said company president Pat Fox.
“Our challenge is how do we compete against multibillion-dollar (retail food) companies?” Fox said. “That’s the whole key.”
He said his stores seek to compete on service and quality - and sausage you can’t buy anywhere else.
“We’ve been selling 3,000 to 7,000 pounds of brats a week,” he said. “It’s very important. It differentiates us.”
The store’s traditional brat is still Fox Bros.’ bestseller. But a close second is a spicy Southwest style chicken brat with jalapeño peppers and cheddar cheese.
Sausage has been a hot topic among members of the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors.
“It’s probably been growing in acceptance for the past 10 years,” said Matthew Bayer, president of the association and owner of Country Fresh Meats in Weston near Wausau, Wis. “We’ve seen a lot of growth as far as the variety of brats and the variety of sausages.”
The trendiness of exotic foods, spices and an increasingly health-conscious population is also driving the growth.
“The spice thing, people are just looking for something different all the time,” said Brian Pernat, owner of Pernat-Haase Meats, with locations in Juneau and Johnson Creek, Wis.
One of Pernat’s bestsellers is a chicken fajita brat. “Anything that has a little jalapeno in it, those are always big,” he said.
Chicken is seen as a healthier alternative to some of the traditional meat ingredients in brats. “That’s the perception and in some cases, it’s true,” Sindelar said.
Chicken, nontraditional spices and vegetables aren’t the only things making their way into brats these days.
“We’ve done a Craisin pineapple brat and that turned out very well,” Bayer said. Craisins are dried cranberries.
The success of such creations has surprised Bayer.
“Our customers sure like it,” he said. “You have to do what the customers want. They are looking for a variety.”
The guy in charge of brat variety at Fox Bros. is chief sausage-maker Dean Rindahl.
With 38 years in the meat business, Rindahl combines a mad scientist’s passion with an old-time butcher’s sensibility and creates all sorts of brat flavors.
Rindahl will talk sausage with you for hours and never drop his energy level or enthusiasm for what he creates.
“Ultimately, I view Dean as an artist,” Fox said.
Rindahl views himself and fellow brat-makers as craftsmen.
“It’s almost like being a chef,” said Chip Bunzel, third generation co-owner of Bunzel’s Old-Fashioned Meat Market in Milwaukee. “You have to come up with different ideas.”
Meanwhile, the brainstorming over new flavors continues.
A corned beef and cabbage brat for St. Patrick’s Day? “I haven’t thought about that one yet,” Bunzel said.
“You never know,” Sindelar said.
“I’ve always wanted to try making a seafood brat,” Rindahl said.