Sheboygan, Wisconsin. In the 50's and 60's it seemed there was a bar on every Sheboygan corner, as well as a neighborhood butcher shop, with a name like Luedke, Poth, Shapiro, Alpert, each with it's own recipes, most if not all gone now, replaced by supermarkets, big boxes, even digital alternatives.
And then, there's Miesfeld's.
“There's grandpa and my dad who started the business back in '41,” said Chuck Miesfeld, the owner.
He has the photo history of his third-generation operation right there on the wall of his 17-year-old store covering some 29,000 square feet just off Sheboygan's northwest boundary, the building replacing the original, smaller Miesfeld's in town.
He's in the process of adding 7,000 more square feet.
Chuck has been there through it all.
“At 11, I was vacuuming floors,” he says. “At 12, I was twisting brats.”
If he were still doing the twisting today, that would come to about a million sausages a year, in 30 varieties.
“We just added a mac and cheese brat,” he says. “It's out of this world.”
All bratwurst starts the same way at Miesfeld's, as pork shoulder in the butcher shop.
“We that to have the best color. It's the most tender and the most lean.”
It arrives in a 2,000 pound vat called a “combo.” From there it goes to a grinder and onto the mixer where it's blended with spices.
The product then gets lifted into the the machinery that will “stuff it out,”as Miesfeld puts it, into natural casings. The once-manual twisting into links is done by machine.
“You know what the word 'brat' actually means?” Miesfeld asks.
“There are a lot of theories, but the one that I heard lately is 'meat that isn't wasted.' And then 'wurst' of course, is “sausage.' So, back in Germany, they would take the meat that they didn't want to waste and they'd put it in the casing and called it a 'bratwurst.'”
What sets Miesfeld's apart from the others?
That would be grandpa's 70 year old recipe. It's virtually unchanged and is under lock and key.
Grandpa is the reason why Miesfeld's is open only six days a week.
“If I open on Sundays my grandpa will come down and beat me,” he says. “He said, 'Kid, if you can't make it in six, you're not going to make it in seven.'”
How does a pro like Chuck Miesfeld go to the grill? It starts with a bath. For the brat.
“I soak it for about three or four minutes in ice cold water,” he recommends. “That gets the casing pliable.”
Miesfeld recoils when asked if he boils the raw sausage first. “No. No. No. No,” he says. “That's after.”
When it comes time to bring the heat, Miesfeld suggests coal, not wood.
“You got to let the coal burn down so it's not so hot,” he says, “even if you have to throw a little water on it.” Turn frequently to preserve the casing and leave the tongs in the kitchen.
“I always say a guy who knows what he's doing with brats won't use tongs–you use your fingers,” he says. “And you have no hair on your arm.”
Your digits then serve as both tongs and thermometer.
“Your fingers come in when you're turning the brat,” he points out. “You feel a little bit. When it starts firming up, you're done.”
Then comes the second bath: beer, butter and onions. “And that's just to keep 'em warm until you serve them,” he says. “You're not cooking in there at all.”
As he adds, “Anyone who has known the delight of a juicy brat, grilled to tempting golden brown over an outdoor charcoal fire and then sandwiched in a hard roll, will tell you there is nothing better – unless it's a double-brat.”
“Here's my theory,” Miesfeld says when asked about the origin of the two-sausage sandwich.
“People tasted it and it tasted so good they said, 'Why not put two on there–we're wasting all this room?' “
Just part of the taste that makes Sheboygan what it is.
“Sheboygan has built a solid reputation for top quality sausage,” he says.
“On any pleasant summer weekend and on every summer holiday, charcoal grills at homes throughout the community are put to work.”
Many of those corner stores from long ago are gone, but at least one remains – larger, with a tradition that carries on, in 30 varieties found in scores of supermarkets and restaurants around Wisconsin.