By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1996 Gourmet Magazine
“My dears, everything we make is charcoaled except the BLTs and the egg salad,” a waitress informs us when we ask about specialties at the CHARCOAL INN, a luncheonette on the south side of Sheboygan (with a branch on the north side, too). She points to a grill behind the counter, where flames are licking up above the grate and sputtering Sheboygan “brats” are sending their pork-sausage sweetness into the air. (“Brat,” short for bratwurst, rhymes with “hot.”)
To a Wisconsin sausage connoisseur, the very name Charcoal Inn will pique appetite, for charcoal cooking is an especially good way to cook a brat. In Sheboygan, which is famous for its brats, it is the only way. Drive through town any clear summer evening, and you see haze from backyard cookouts wafting up into the blue sky above Lake Michigan. Open grills are so prevalent that pork chops, hamburgers, and steaks cooked over coals are known along the lake’s western shore as Sheboygan-style foods.
Sheboygan brats are brightly spiced link sausages, four to six inches long, made of pork or a combination of beef and pork. In recent years, moreover, several of the town’s butchers have developed chicken brats and turkey brats as light alternatives to the succulent originals, and during deer season a venison version is popular in hunters’ homes. Some Sheboygan brats are immersed in beer: There are bratmeisters who boil the sausages in a brew of Pilsner and onions and finish them over hot coals; others steep them cold, then cook them on the grill. According to Chuck Miesfeld, a third-generation sausage maker and Grand Champion for two years now in the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors’ bratwurst judging, the sausages should be grilled over coals with no marinade. He says beer is what you drink with them, not what you cook them in.
Despite differing ingredients and diverse recipes, all Sheboygan brats are served in a similar manner—it is impossible to think of one presented in any way other than as the heart of a hard-roll sandwich. In fact, it is almost impossible to think of one presented in any way, for the vast majority of brats are eaten in tandem, two to a sandwich. “Double brat with the works” is the Sheboyganite’s call to glory.
The waitress at the Charcoal Inn offers her observations about what exactly “the works” means: “People in Sheboygan like everything they eat with pickles, mustard, and onions and butter oozing out on every side.” Brat enthusiasts may add ketchup to the mix or delete the pickles or choose fried onions over raw ones, but every Sheboygan hot meat sandwich—brat, burger, or butterflied pork chop—drips butter. At a cinder block diner named SCHULZ’S, where the char-cooked brats are patties rather than links, the waitress concluded we were alien weirdos when we asked for a double with nothing on it so we could study the texture of the patties. “Not even butter?” she asked, wide-eyed.
A Charcoal Inn double brat is brought to the table without a plate. It is wrapped in sandwich paper, which you unfold and use as a drop cloth to catch dripping condiments. Each of the brats is slit and flattened before being grilled, which makes for an easy-to-stack sandwich. The restaurant’s brats are from Henry Poth, an esteemed butcher shop just down Eighth Street, and they are deeply perfumed with spices that burst into blossom when they sizzle over a smoky charcoal fire. Thick and resilient but thoroughly tooth-tender, they are as luscious as sausage can be, oozing a delectable blend of meat juice and pure melted butter.
The roll on which a brat is served is as meaningful as the sausage itself. Sheboygan bakeries specialize in both brat rolls and hard rolls. The former resemble hot dog buns and are designed to hold a single brat; the latter are moderate-sized round buns, suited to the more popular double-wide stacked sandwich. Both types of roll are tender inside so they can sop up large amounts of butter. Their tan surface is never brittle or crusty but is substantial enough so that the bun can be used as a kind of mitt for holding onto all it is filled with.
At noon at the Charcoal Inn, we watch husky regulars ordering two double brats with the works, accompanied by malted milk shakes (strawberry and chocolate are the preferred flavors). There is a triple-wand mixing machine behind the counter with a keg of malt powder alongside, and the shakes are wickedly thick.
For dessert after a brat, you need a torte. Tortes are a passion in the dairy state: the best way to get the maximum amount of cream flavor into a single piece of food. At the back of its little dining room, the Charcoal Inn has a glass refrigerator case in which the day’s selection is kept along with cartons of chocolate and regular milk. The lemonade torte is a square about four by four inches wide and two inches high. It is white and smooth, sitting on a pallet of graham cracker crumbs, and there are other sweet crumbs on top, too; in this dessert, however, the crumbs aren’t even a distraction. The thick band of faintly lemon-flavored torte is overwhelming. It is similar in texture to a cheesecake, with tremendous gravity, as if a pint of cream had been reduced, thickened, and sweetened.
For an entirely different brat experience, but one that is pure Wisconsin, try TINY’S. In this corner tavern, you perch on a stool at a bar that has a shaggy rug like a bumper to cushion your knees; you drink Pabst Blue Ribbon from the tap and admire the big softball trophy on display; and you eat superb double brats. (The posted menu doesn’t even list singles.) The brats are massive Miesfeld beauties a good six inches long. They are blushing pink with crackling crisp casings that fairly burst apart at first bite. The matched pair stick out from both sides of a fresh hard roll. “The works” here means pickles, mustard, ketchup, and a big raw onion slice—fried onions are ten cents extra. Presented in paper held around the sandwich by a single toothpick, Tiny’s double brat is one of the best packages in town, an impeccable combination of sausage and roll, with the added attraction of being served in an exemplary taproom ambiance.
At GOSSE’S DRIVE THRU, a brat stop on the north end of Sheboygan, bratophiles needn’t leave their car. As at a franchise, they sit behind the wheel and holler into a microphone, then drive forward, pay, and pick up the order. A handful of picnic tables clustered outside the shack hardly bigger than an ATM booth provide a view of an adjacent parking lot. Gosse’s brats are patties, bathed in butter and adorned with pickle slices, raw onion, and mustard. The light and fluffy rolls are made at City Bakery, where they are steamed as they bake in the brick-floored hearth so they develop the distinctive durable exterior that makes them tough enough to hold a brat and the works. (It is also worth noting that perch is always on the menu at Gosse’s. Nearly every restaurant around here serves it, but most do so only as part of the ritual Friday fish fry. The fish—sweet and delicate, sheathed in a chewy golden crust—is remarkable for a fast-food type of operation.)
Sheboygan brats are not unique to downscale eateries. You can enjoy good ones at RANDALL’S RIVERFRONT, a breezy modern sports bar overlooking the river, as well as at RUFF’S and HOFFBRAU, two downtown fine-dining restaurants known for plush steaks (butter-basted, of course!) and authentic sauerbraten. The local sausages are made into a handsome meal at THE HORSE AND PLOW, a restaurant at the American Club resort in nearby Kohler, where plump, thin-skinned brats are served in high style on an actual plate with all the other sandwich components and a jar of Grey Poupon mustard on the side.
Brats are Sheboygan’s passion. Fanciers can spot the difference between a Henry Poth brat and a Miesfeld brat at twenty paces. At Tiny’s bar one afternoon we listened to an exquisite colloquy about the virtues of City Bakery hard rolls compared with those made by Johnston’s Bakery. (Debaters considered brat rolls, for single sausages, unworthy of discussion.) The mania goes public in early August when the Jaycees sponsor Bratwurst Day, which last year included exhibitions by the West Bend Tumbling Troupe and unicyclist Frank Birdsall, a brat-eating contest, and a parade featuring a truck hauling sausage maker Johnsonville Foods’ sixteen ton Big Taste Grill, the world’s largest mobile cooker. In the months before Brat Day, there was much talk around town about establishing a brat museum in an old building that had been the Heinecke Meat Market from the 1880s until 1980. “Here in Sheboygan we have raised the lowly sausage to a level of prominence,” one museum booster told The Sheboygan Press, which reported that exhibition being considered were “Weber Grills I Have Known,” “The First Sheboygan Brat,” and “From CaveMan to Present—Outdoor Cooking.” So far, the brat museum is only a hope and a dream… as are plans for a sister museum devoted to the Sheboygan hard roll.
Hoffbrau (new name – 8th St. Ale Haus)
The Horse and Plow American Club
Randall’s Riverfront (permanently closed)
539 Riverfront Drive
Tiny’s (permanently closed)
1034 Michigan Avenue