By Peter Cooper
Gannett News Service
You may not have heard of Sheboygan, but you may have eaten its brats.
Like hot sausage bursting through a fork-pierced casing, bratwurst has strayed Wisconsin state borders.
Spicier and heartier than a typical hot dog but not as assertive as an Italian sausage, the brat is to the wiener as salsa is to ketchup. And, as bratwursts' national market share grows, "Dairy State" natives who have long preferred grilling brats to grilling burgers are pleased to share the wealth.
"We're still the bratwurst capital of the world," says Denny Moyer, who manages the convention and visitors bureau for the Sheboygan County Chamber of Commerce.
"There's a little place in Ohio that claims they're the capital, but they don't know a bratwurst from second base,"Moyer says.
That Ohio city would be Bucyrus (north of Columbus). But Sheboygan County is, for our purposes, the undisputed center of the Bratwurst Nation, as evidenced by the presence of Johnsonville Sausage, the world's largest purveyor of brats.
Johnsonville is the production and marketing force behind the bratwurst's unprecedented expansion. Through savvy advertising and enhanced product placement, the new millennium has found the bratwurst's reach extending beyond Wisconsin and into grocery stores and football stadiums nationwide.
"We did a (market) penetration study in 1999," says Jim Miller, Johnsonville's senior brand manager. "We called it our 'share of grill' research, where we tried to determine what were the most popular items for people to grill. Roughly 80 percent of people grilled hot dogs, hamburgers or chicken back then, and brats were about 19 percent. Our penetration went from 19 percent in 1999 to 28 percent in 2002."
If that research is even close to correct, that means millions of Americans who had never heard of bratwurst a few years ago are now at the very least familiar with the concept.
Johnsonville's manifest destiny-like expansion has not been at the expense of the all-American hot dog, and Miller says Johnsonville isn't seeking to chip away at dog dominance: "It isn't 'We want a bigger piece of the pie,' it's 'How big can the pie be?' " he mused.
Traditional Sheboygan Double Brat
10 fresh bratwurst links
5 round hard rolls, hoagie buns, or other full-bodied crusty rolls
Traditional brat toppings: coarse-ground horseradish, ale or German-style mustard, dill pickle slices, thinly sliced sweet raw onion
2 cans of beer (optional)
Fire up the grill with hardwood charcoal. Wait until coals become gray and covered with light ash. Place brats on the grate with each link running parallel to the bars of the grate. Grill fresh brats slowly over medium heat. Watch brats closely, turning every few minutes. To prevent piercing the casing and to retain the juices, use tongs instead of a fork to turn sausages on the grill.
Grill about 25 minutes until casing is evenly browned and a bit crisp, or until internal temperature reaches 180 degrees. If sausages in the center of the grate are nearly done, rotate them to a cooler part of the grill and finish cooking there. Place two brats on a round hard roll slathered with mustard. Top with onions and pickles. Pop open a cold beer to wash it down, sit back and enjoy. Makes 5 sandwiches.
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