Brats is the short for "bratwurst" . . . the German sausage that literally translates from "brat" that means "finely chopped meat" and "wurst" which is sausage. Brats is what locally everyone in Wisconsin calls this grilled mainstay at picnics and tailgate parties throughout the state. You will find them in every pub or corner bar in every town, as well as many diners and family restaurants.
Wisconsin has the largest number of people who can trace their heritage back to Germany and their immigration to America back in the mid 1800's. It is little wonder that it was here that bratwurst factories flourished as they fine-tuned recipes over the past two centuries.
Sheboygan is credited for the increase in popularity when a local butcher shop starting making bratwurst to order for daily pick-up by local residents back in the 1920's. Later in 1953 bratwurst sandwiches went national when the Major League Baseball stadium in Milwaukee began serving brats at their snack bars. (Fun fact . . . Milwaukee's baseball team in 1953 was the Milwaukee Braves. They later moved to Atlanta in 1966.)
Today you can buy brats at any supermarket as well as specialty butcher and meat shops. In planning for this particular journal, I was hoping to find a brat factory that provided public tours. Unfortunately, my contact with the three best known companies here in SE Wisconsin was a bust in terms of finding a tour to take.
If you are interested in buying locally made, authentic bratwurst as well as the many flavor variations that have been developed over the years, there are three well known companies that offer both retail and online sales.
Klement's Sausage Company (www.klements.com) was originally the Badger Sausage Company, founded in 1927. In 1956 the "Klements Brothers" (Ronald, George and John) purchased the Badger Sausage Company in order to produce their family's recipe received from "Grandpa Frank". If you have attended a sporting event at Miller Park or the BMO Harris Bradley Center, you have probably had a Klement's product.
They are also the sponsor of the world famous "Sausage Races" that take place nightly at all Milwaukee Brewers' home games! In 2003 ESPN fans around the world saw the Italian Sausage take one for the team when a Pittsburgh Pirates' player struck her with a baseball bat, knocking her and another sausage racer to the ground. Awww what great baseball history as been made here in Brew City.
Back to Klement's . . . while they do not offer factory tours, they do have a well stocked outlet store onsite at 2751 S. Chase Avenue, Milwaukee. I recently paid them a visit and purchased more than 24 lbs of meat products (brats, summer sausage and ham) for $41. Anyone considering a visit and purchase, be sure to check online for discount coupons. I was able to score a $10 off a purchase of $50 or more from the folks who publish the Entertainment Books found throughout the USA.
Usinger's Famous Sausage Company (www.usinger.com) was founded by Fred Usinger when the young German immigrant arrived in Milwaukee with just $400 in his pocket. As a "wurstmacher" (sausage maker) apprentice from Frankfort, he brought with him recipes for his favorite sausages. Working at an established downtown butcher shop, Usinger began producing products for the store that he later purchased, establishing Usinger's in 1880 as one of the premier sausage companies in the United States.
Today visitors to Milwaukee's Old World Third Street can stop into the original storefront where Usinger's Sausages began. The recipes used today remain true to Fred Usinger's original German heritage. They do operate a deli and store at their downtown Milwaukee location, as well as mail order by phone or internet.
Johnsonville Sausage, LLC (www.johnsonville.com) was founded in 1945 and is located about an hour north of Milwaukee in Sheboygan Falls. This company grew from a small butcher shop that brought their family's Austrian recipe to America in the 19th century. From all that I've been able to research on Johnsonville, they offer mail order from their website, but do not have an onsite store, nor do they offer tours. They are a popular grocery store and bulk foods (i.e., Sam's Club) brand. They have also partnered with McDonald's to offer their products on the fast food giant's breakfast menu. Thanks to placement in such outlets, Johnsonville generates the greatest sausage sales in the United States in terms of total volume.
Maybe it is all for the better than these large sausage makers do not provide factory tours, as I have heard it said "Do you really want to know what goes into sausage or how it is made??"
That said, there is nothing like a grilled bratwurst sandwich! If you are visiting or traveling through Wisconsin, you owe it to yourself to at least sample this wonderful German delight.