Three days a week, in the rear of a converted brick house, you’ll find a Polish immigrant making sausage the old-fashioned way: grinding fresh pork, seasoning it with garlic, paprika and parsley, and stuffing it in natural casings. His audience of one, a young apprentice, looks on with studious concentration, imbibing the lessons in flavor and texture and techniques – stuffing, twisting and boiling – used in the age-old European method of sausage-making.
The shop owner, Frank Jakubczak, 73, is soft-spoken as he explains the craft, more a friendly teacher than a task-master. Jakubczak has been making sausage for more than four decades, and handling customers and apprentices with the same shy smile and neighborly conversations. His South Side shop, European Homemade Sausage, has been a Milwaukee mainstay for more than a generation.
Once a city of immigrants, Milwaukee still boasts many sausage-makers who continue to honor and pass on the Old World traditions. Jakubczak’s small shop boasts a long case of smoked, fresh and cured sausages, and beyond the counter, thick glass windows offer a glimpse of hanging sausages; row after row of large and small links curing to perfection. You can feel the weight of tradition, yet the store has a disarming simplicity: The light pouring in through the enormous storefront windows shows not a single advertising banner, decorative photo or product label. It’s just Frank, his assistant, the store clerk, and lots of fresh sausage, cured meats and Polish specialties.
But take your first bite of the sausage, and you encounter a delicious, complex mix of flavors and textures: the snapping crunch of the outer casing, the juicy, coarsely ground interior, the distinctive taste in every meaty bite. Sausages are anything but simple, each one a small work of culinary art composed of different meat blends, secret spice combinations and particular texture preferences. Whether seasoned traditionally or with New World ingenuity, all are rooted in the work of immigrant generations and the traditions created by ancestors half a world away.
Sausage is suddenly chic. High-end restaurants on either coast have discovered it, and suddenly everything from chorizo to smoked andouille is a gourmet option. Milwaukee’s big sausage-makers, like Usinger’s and Klement’s, are well-known, but there are also many mom-and-pop shops, timeless creators of handcrafted goodness that offer some of the town’s best wurst.
Bernie’s Fine Meats
119 N. Franklin St., Port Washington
The original 1940s sign and faded brick painted logo hint at the shop’s place in Port Washington history. Opened in 1941, Bernie’s has changed ownership three times over its 70 years of history, each transition leading to changes in the spice blends and sausage-making techniques.
“I try to hold true to as much tradition as I was originally taught,” current owner Steve Bennett says. “I’ll make some things fine-ground or coarse-ground, because traditionally, it should have a little more texture to it. It’s as old-school as a young guy can do. I bought the recipes from Bernie’s Fine Meats, but the recipes I use now are 95 percent tweaked or invented by me.&rdquo
Bennett appreciates the old techniques of his predecessors – initially Bernie Skeris, then John and Jan Salchert – but also brings artisanal pride to the new spinoffs he creates. Using his own blend of spices, Bennett revels in combinations like cheddar and bacon, mozzarella and green pepper, and Italian and mushroom Swiss sausages.
Check the case for Bennett’s constantly changing styles of bratwurst.
Bunzel’s Old-Fashioned Meat Market
8415 W. Burleigh St.
Wow, it’s hot. Owner Chip Bunzel’s XXX Hungarian will make your pores drip and your forehead sweat. The flaming kick of the XXX lures heat-crazed eaters from near and far. A step up from the traditional spicy Hungarian (which is on par with the heat of Tabasco sauce), the XXX is not for the timid.
“We joke that the spicy Hungarian is hot enough, you need a beer to wash it down. As for the XXX, well, that takes it up a notch,” laughs Bunzel.
The Bunzel family has run the shop for 35 years and offers handmade Italian and Polish sausages and brats, as well as seasonally changing brat flavors like sauerkraut, chicken, and beer and onion.
XXX Hungarian with (of course) a glass of beer.
Brossman’s Meat Market
6900 Highway 31, Racine
At Brossman’s, you can go the whole hog, should you so desire. With 36 flavors of housemade sausages stuffed, twisted and ready to grill, Brossman’s uses everything in the pig but the squeal.
Family-owned and operated for more than 25 years, Brossman’s opened in 1972. “My dad was in the army during Vietnam and after that got a job as a meat cutter for several years,” owner Shane Brossman says. “He experimented with a lot of different recipes; what we make now is a combination of his and mine.”
The original bratwurst (with hints of nutmeg and onion) is still the customers’ favorite. Brossman works on special varieties but still follows his father’s high-quality technique, using natural casings for all varieties and twisting them by hand in small batches.
“I think with the smaller batches, you can pay attention to the details, and all those things add up to a better sausage,” Brossman says.
Grab a brat and bun.
European Homemade Sausage
1985 S. Muskego Ave.
A sausage-maker his entire life, Frank Jakubczak’s experience is outweighed only by his genuine kindness, both of which have won him customers for more than 40 years. Well, that and his renowned Polish, Hungarian and liver sausages. Seasoned with coriander, marjoram and garlic, the Polish is a winner, but Jakubczak offers far more.
“I grew up in Poland, but I make more than just Polish sausages,” Jakubczak says. “Here in America, there are people from all over the world, so I need to make different kinds.”
At 73, Jakubczak tried to retire last year, but a combination of customer demand and a love for his work brought him back to the grinding table three days a week. “I missed it, to be honest,” he says. “I had just worked here for so long. Some people can’t wait to retire, but I was not rushing.”
Glorioso’s Italian Market
1011 E. Brady St.
The Italian sausage made here graces menus at restaurants all over town. It’s addictive stuff: List a Glorioso’s sausage among the entrées, and you may see order after order flying out of the kitchen. They’re also quite popular – and a bargain – at Glorioso’s Italian Market. They grill a housemade sausage, slide it into a Sciortino’s sesame bun and serve it steaming hot for just $2.75. This is the rare shop where you can taste-test their specialty before you bring it home to cook on your own grill.
Glorioso’s now has an expanded and wonderfully atmospheric store, but it remains redolent with tradition: For nearly 65 years, family recipes have been passed down, yielding a juicy Italian with the traditional fennel seasoning and hints of sweetness.
Italian with a side of housemade giardiniera.
G. Groppi’s Food Market
1441 E. Russell Ave.
Until new construction began to add 1,800 square feet to this long-diminutive shop, Groppi’s hadn’t changed much since it opened a century ago, still occupying the same corner in Bay View. Current owners John Nehring and Anne Finch-Nehring have modernized it, but photos above the meat and cheese counter attest to the store’s long-loyal customers.
Traditional sausage-making is a big part of the appeal. Bill Kreitmeir learned his craft in Munich, Germany, where at the age of 14, he worked in his father’s sausage shop. After 37 years at Grasch Foods in Brookfield, Kreitmeir joined Groppi’s.
“I believe the Groppis started making sausages in 1944,” Kreitmeir says. “We still follow the same recipes. Of course, we’ve added a few extra sausages, but the Groppi recipes are all still in existence.”
Recently, Kreitmeir added chicken and turkey sausages in a variety of flavors. But the shop’s specialty is his cayenne- and paprika-sprinkled Saltisa breakfast sausage. Kreitmeir says the sausage, a longtime tradition in France, Switzerland and Germany, is “slightly sweet and a flavor like no other.”
Saltisa breakfast sausage.
Held’s Meat Market
480 Kettle Moraine Dr. N., Slinger
For travelers, truckers and commuters, the red block letter signage of Held’s, easily seen from Highway 41 in Slinger, can be difficult to resist, conjuring the smell of wood smoke and savory bacon.
Held’s owners, father-and-son duo Calvin and Mike Held, continue where their grandfathers left off, holding to tradition with secret sausage recipes and house-cured bacon. But their secret weapon, you might say, is beef jerky. They dry nearly 1,000 pounds a week, a mix of the basic original recipe and its spicy version (more black pepper added) over a raging open fire, producing jerky with a blast of smoky flavor, crispy snap and fiery zip.
“We don’t use any of the new machines that recycle smoke, so we get real flavor every time. It’s like you’re stepping back into 1940,” Calvin says. “The original jerky is our best-seller.”
Adds Mike: “People are going back to the basics and eating the way their ancestors did. They’re looking for food that’s a higher quality, and so we stoke a fire with wood and sawdust five or six feet below our drying meats.”
Original beef jerky or the Honduras hot jerky.
House of Home Made Sausage
N112 W14934 Mequon Rd., Germantown
The Wysocki brothers, Sam and Vince, are the family’s fourth generation of sausage-makers.
Their great-grandparents emigrated from Austria and opened the first shop in 1939 on the corner of 25th and Center streets. Their grandparents followed and ran a sausage house on 35th Street and Villard Avenue, and their parents continued the tradition. So it was natural for Sam and Vince to take over for their parents and run the House of Home Made Sausage.
“We use a really traditional technique. We use natural casings, grinding the meats and doing the whole process from beginning to end,” Sam says.
The Wysocki brothers are still inundated with requests for Austrian, Hungarian and German sausages. And they gladly oblige. They firmly stick to their grandparents’ technique but also introduce new concoctions like jalapeño and cheddar sausage or spicy Italian.
“Unlike larger companies, our sausages don’t have the preservatives. Everything is really fresh; either you eat right away or you freeze it,” Sam says.
Old-fashioned summer sausage.
Koppa’s Fulbeli Deli
1940 N. Farwell Ave.
The Polish pride at Koppa’s is omnipresent, with the store’s falcon logo (taken from the Polish flag) adhered to anything that sits still, Koppa’s stickers aplenty, and, of course, the store’s homemade Polish sausage. But it’s actually just one of many varieties sausage-maker Pete Schmidt has been concocting and perfecting behind the counter for the last 10 years.
“Before I worked at Koppa’s, I worked at Koppa’s,” Schmidt jokes. “This is pretty much what I’ve always done.” Schmidt honed his skills thanks to lengthy sausage-making sessions with store founder Ken Koppa. Selecting the leanest portions of pork butt, Schmidt pumps out styles like Italian, Hot Italian and the beloved Bohemian.
The spicy Bohemian can’t be beat.
Ray’s Butcher Shoppe
4640 W. Loomis Rd., Greenfield
Many workers dream of opening their own business. Ray Konkol worked for National Meats for years before opening this shop in 1978. Perry Podd worked the first half of his career at Sentry Foods before joining Konkol as a partner, marrying Podd’s knowledge of the grocery industry with Konkol’s sausage-making skills.
“Ray worked in the meat industry for years before he started on his own, and they’re all his own recipes,” Podd says. “I loved the idea of being a part of a small business.”
What’s changed since the original Ray’s opened in 1978? Not too much. Fresh Polish sausage is still the top seller, and brats go fast on hot summer days.
“Really, the only difference is a trend toward hotter sausages and maybe those made with turkey or chicken,” Podd says. “Smoked andouille, jalapeño and cheddar brats – those are things we just didn’t see 20 years ago.”
In the summer, try the Cajun or beer and onion brats.
The Sausage Haus
523 N. Oakwood Ave., Oconomowoc
There’s nothing temporary or transitory about this place. Al Jerabek has been in business for 26 years in a building that’s been a store for at least a century. It’s an Oconomowoc landmark and an all-family operation: Al’s son works in the kitchen, and his daughter drives a sausage lunch truck to local factories.
Jerabek mixes classic standards and a few new creations (cheese and pepper brats are by far the most popular). “Some people think it’s a crime to grill after Labor Day,” he says, “but I grill year-round. Even if it’s 100 degrees or a 100 below, I wouldn’t dare cook a piece of meat indoors. People like it, so we don’t change much of what we do.”
Classic simplicity with a brat or Italian.
Schwai’s Meat and Sausage
W62 N601 Washington Ave., Cedarburg, (also in Fredonia and Jackson)
Tom Schwai’s father Joe first began making and selling bratwurst at his butcher shop/tavern in Cedar Creek, Wis., in the 1940s. Relying on his dad’s recipes, Tom and Kathey began their own business in Fredonia and later opened shops in Jackson and Cedarburg. The latter shop, in a century-old building in Historic Downtown Cedarburg that was the headquarters for Hoffmann’s Meat Market for 91 years, would have surely pleased Tom’s father.
Tom insists on the old-fashioned way of making sausage. “I still smoke with hickory wood. We don’t use a tin box, we don’t add MSG or gluten,” Schwai says. “If you put spices with meat, you don’t need any of those things. And, well, I think that’s big.”
The variety of meats at Schwai’s is matched by the variety of styles: coarse- or fine-ground, fresh or cured, original or seasoned. As you stand at the meat case, you might spot Schwai, behind the counter, stuffing his famous chicken, Italian and original brats.
Schwai’s favorite, Polish sausage.
This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
For more photos, click here for our gallery of photos from the magazine (plus more!).