Summer Like a Midwesterner With Beer-Cooked Brats

In Wisconsin and the Midwest, grilling season starts with brats.



In Wisconsin, bratwursts are summer on a bun. All summer long, entire neighborhoods are drenched in the humid scent of brats simmering in beer and onions, paired with the crisp char smell of the grills being prepared to receive them. Bratwurst are served at baseball games and block parties, small country fairs and soccer tournaments, church potlucks and birthday parties. They’re fetched with tongs from slow cookers on the back of bars in the Northwoods and honored with festivals of their own in Madison, Sheboygan, and Lake Geneva. These mildly spiced fatty pork sausages are as much a sign of summer as anything growing in the garden.

A perfect Wisconsin summer plate (paper, of course) is centered on a bratwurst on a hoagie bun and topped to your liking, cozied up next to an ear of Wisconsin-grown corn, and perhaps a pasta salad or a few salted slices of ripe tomato. Traditionally, you’d serve bratwurst with good German brown mustard and sauerkraut. (Store-bought sauerkraut should only have salt and cabbage listed as ingredients, maybe caraway. Sometimes water will be listed — sure, fine.) Some people also like to use the onions from the beer bath. But with apologies to bratwurst purists, I still eat my bratwurst how I did as a kid: ketchup, relish, sauerkraut. There’s just something about that sweet-sour combination.

The brilliant thing about the Wisconsin method for cooking and serving bratwurst is that it is built for cook-outs and parties where people won’t necessarily all be eating at the same time, but rather rolling through in waves. First, the sausages are simmered in a light beer like a pilsner or a lager, along with onions and sometimes other seasonings; thyme, bay leaves, caraway seeds, juniper berries, black peppercorns are common. Once cooked through, they can be held at a low temperature (hence those bar crockpots) until someone wants a bratwurst. Then, the sausage gets a quick char on the grill — it’s already cooked through, and warm, so this part doesn’t take long — and, boom, brat. Bonus points for pairing it with the same kind of beer it's cooked in.

I’ve made bratwurst countless times in Texas, where I live now, often to eat while watching Packers games. I fancy myself a good cook. But last summer, I bought a bratwurst in Wisconsin from a festival tent. It cost a dollar and was served in a tissue-thin hot dog bun that immediately disintegrated upon being hit by sauerkraut scooped out of a giant cooler. I don’t know what they did differently from what I do at home, but I immediately felt like a 10-year-old on a perfect Wisconsin summer day. I’ll be chasing that flavor for the rest of my life.

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