Bratwurst. Secret Stadium Sauce. Sauerkraut. Those three words seem more familiar to Milwaukee Brewers fans than the team's current Villar-Gennett-Carter double play combination.
Or perhaps they are the most famous three-way combination this side of Yount-Gantner-Cooper. They and Paul Molitor made turning double plays easy, but put incredible work, time and preparation into it.
It's the same work, time and preparation with the Miller Park bratwurst you eat at a Brewers game – a much more complicated process than just sticking a brat on a grill and pairing it up with a bun and toppings.
It's also a process that lends itself to tradition – from the smell of a brat that has wafted through the Menomonee Valley 81 times a year for 47 years, to some of the concession stand team members who have handed it to you and your fellow Brewers fans for that long.
“We take it very, very seriously. We are Milwaukee. We are Wisconsin. We are bratwurst,” explains Mike Schwartz, the Milwaukee Brewers' Director of Food and Beverage Hospitality.
He is just one part of a vast team that make your brat. And 4,999 others on an average Brewers gameday. And enough quantifies of about 99 other items to feed tens of thousands for about four to five hours every game.
“We have far and away the largest number of team members we have at Miller Park, dedicated to our food and beverage operation,” said Schwartz.
“This is a team process unlike any other. We have 1,200 to 1,600 people who are a total part of this team. The vast majority of them, they work for our concessionary, Delaware North, but Delaware North and the Brewers are very much a partnership in all of this.”
1,600 restaurant employees compared to 25 men who take the field for the Brewers? It seems sort of like a brat-and-beer bistro with dozens of restaurant employees and one person doing entertainment…but on a grander scale.
“We talk a lot here that we want people to think of us as a restaurant. Instead of the live entertainment being a band, the live entertainment is baseball. We do service a lot more folks than you might have in a restaurant…we serve over 40,000 on some nights. There is a lot of planning that goes into it.”
Gameday: The 10-hour process of how a brat becomes your Miller Park meal
How long does it take to cook a Miller Park bratwurst? Perhaps 15 minutes on a 400-degree flat top grill.
How long does it take to prepare that brat for you? Considering it's one of 5,000 fans will eat on an average gameday, you can add more than a few hours to the process.
“From a day standpoint, if we have a 7:00 p.m. game, the first people who will be touching our food and beverage operation will be here at about 8:00 a.m.,” said Schwartz.
“8 a.m., you'll have people working in our warehouse, looking at the forecasts we've put together of how many people we'll have for the game, which sections will be most populated, which stands we should have open, which stands we will not need to have open, and they'll start to make decisions to make sure each stand has enough food in it so you can actually service everybody.”
What's being serviced is bratwurst that's already been delivered over only a nine-minute drive from a sausage company on East Lincoln Avenue.
“Klement's brings them to our ballpark. Folks who are working in our warehouse are storing thse to make sure we're maintaining the utmost level of freshness,” said Schwartz.
The average gameday brings just about one-fifth of the actual number of brats Miller Park's service level coolers store.
“Any given time, you could have anywhere between 2,500 to 5,000 lbs. of bratwurst. There's five bratwurst per pound,” said Schwartz.
“The reason we have that many: You're serving a lot of bratwurst a day, especially when you're having high attendance games. You want to have about a week's worth on hand. Most homestands are about a week. You want to make sure you have enough to satisfy each full homestand here in the cooler.”
When you transfer your brats from the cooler to your grill on your deck, it's a relatively easy process.
Not when you have to transport 5,000 of them to different parts of the stadium. The Brewers prepare for that with about 30 different concession stands with coolers at the ready, and it's a long, complicated process.
“9 a.m., 10 a.m., you are starting to transport the bratwurst, the hot dogs…put them in refrigerators so you can properly store the stands and we'll be ready for the day,” he shared.
The early afternoon is often taken up with food preparation for things from secret stadium sauce to…well…much more gourmet items.
“Throughout the day, there are other things going on. You have chefs (where) a lot of our sauces, salsas are made from scratch, especially up on the club level. There's a lot of food items where it's not just taking them out of the freezer and putting them in the microwave. We are making them from scratch. That's a very long process,” said Schwartz.
Then comes a critical moment of the day – about three hours before first pitch. Right when fans can begin their tailgates is the moment when grills fire up…inside Miller Park.
“The next big touch point is probably 4 p.m. when you start firing up all of our grills, getting your equipment ready so that when the gates open at 5:40, we actually start having items we're cooking fresh in the stand,” said Schwartz.
“At 5:20, 5:30, those are actually starting to get prepared so at 5:40 when the gate opens and (somebody) orders that first bratwurst, we're able to take it fresh off the grill for them.”
Notice: Grill. Not boil.
Miller Park knows Milwaukeeans know bratwurst
“At the end of the day, we're grilling these because that's how brats are supposed to be enjoyed…it's really important to us that we replicate the grill experience that people are expecting when we have a really great bratwurst. That's why we take the extra step. When you grill a bratwurst, you get that really nice browning, really nice crisp bite. You can't replicate that when you're boiling it.”
You also can't replicate a bratwurst experience with any old hot dog bun. The Brewers' food service team knows that.
“You'd say it's a standard bun. There's no score on the bun. It's actually a smaller bun because a hot dog is typically a little bit smaller of a sausage than a bratwurst, an Italian, a Polish or a Chorizo, the other sausages we have here,” said Schwartz.
“Our sausage bun is a little bit bigger of a bun so it can support a bit bigger, heartier of a sausage. You'll actually have more toppings on a sausage. You have the score down the center of it. it does a little bit more to support the sausage. It gives you a little bit better, more authentic backyard sausage experience with that bun.”
These brats are also so popular that there could be the risk of running out at a particular stand. Schwartz's team plans for that.
“We have porters who will be down in our service level, the lowest level of the ballpark where we store all of our food in coolers, freezers, everything else,” he explained.
“We try to avoid stockouts at any stand at any time. When we hit a certain level of product, our stand leader will call downstairs and say 'We need bratwurst at this stand in the left field corner of the field level.' Our porters will load up this pushcart and bring it upstairs. You need to have a really well-run network communication-wise, and with enough porters because you may have, within two minutes of each other, the left field corner on the field level and the right field corner on the terrace level, they need bratwurst, so making sure we can send people everywhere so we can do everything we possibly can to make sure that we always have enough product on hand to immediately service our guests.”
It's brat-cooking time!
Schwartz than chose me to service their guests – with a lot of help from a team that knows what it's doing.
I was paired up with one of two brothers who have dished out bratwurst at Brewers games…well…as long as there have been Brewers games.
“We have brothers, actually, the Mullins brothers. Thomas Mullins who is in the stands with us today,” Schwartz said.
“Thomas has been doing it for 44 years. Alan has been doing it for 46 years. The first year the Brewers were in Milwaukee was 1970, so basically the entire span the Brewers have been here, we've had these guys here. You've had fans who have been coming here for many, many years and only come to Thomas. We saw someone tonight who said, 'Hey, we'll see you tomorrow night.' I really think it speaks to Milwaukee at its core. You love to be around the ballpark, around this team, around this people…this really is a family like atmosphere.”
They're attracted to the atmospheric smells. The people. And the tastes…which is where I came in.
Part one to the equation of making a bratwurst: Food safety. Every team member wears gloves for food safety.
Every single bratwurst, all 5,000 of them, will have a poke mark in them.
Why? Someone put a thermometer in them.
“We actually do check every single sausage to make sure we get to 165 degrees…food safety, but also that peak level of taste due to having that exact right temperature,” explained Schwartz.
“It's just a process as you're cooking it, turning the sausage back and forth to get the really nice browning on both sides, get the really delicious char. You can get that really great snap when you're eating it.”
It's a good 15 minutes before the cylindrical pieces of meaty goodness get four sides of char on them and are ready for being placed in the ready-to-eat container of bratwurst, which goes right next to the hot condiments you get the choice of having put on for you.
“The true Miller Park Milwaukee Brewers way of doing bratwurst is to dip the bratwurst in our warm secret stadium sauce and once you put that into the bun, you then top it with warm sauerkraut. That is the way the Brewers have been serving bratwurst since 1970, since we've been here. You have fans who will come up and say 'Yes, this is how I've been eating this bratwurst my entire life.' That's what we like to say is the Miller Park way of doing it.”
I didn't find many people asking for those hot condiments. I did find out, however, that even without it, it's a much more involved process to make sure each bratwurst is made perfectly.
Delicate sausage buns. Perfectly-charred brats to the right temperature. And a system of delivery behind the counter that is clockwork.
A crew that has worked together for years, perhaps decades, letting me botch the cutting of these perfect sausage buns until “take three” creates the perfect cut to encase the perfectly cooked encased meat to meet customer satisfaction.
All in Milwaukee's biggest bar and grill. Seating 45,000 seats. With a Brewers game going on.
Watch the video of the process involved in making your Miller Park bratwurst, and scroll through for photos by WTMJ's Jennifer Fischer of rarely-seen parts of Miller Park where the bratwurst magic happens. It's all in your media gallery above.