The man identifies himself as the "Bratmeister," and his self-proclaimed expertise is why I'm in Wisconsin. The way a bratwurst absorbs the beer in which it simmers, I hope to absorb the Bratmeister's knowledge in the ways of beer brats.
This can be risky territory, especially around members of that Midwestern tribe whose holy land is Sheboygan, Wisconsin, home of the Bratwurst Hall of Fame. Wisconsinites presume the right to hold forth on brats the way Memphians claim the right to lecture on barbecue. Bratwurst and beer are two things you don't want to argue about with a Wisconsinite, especially as they relate to each other.
Wait, vegetarians, come back! This applies to you at least as much as to the meat-eaters. The technique described below will actually make tofu sausages edible.
Unlike hot dogs and many other cylindrical presentations of ground meat, bratwurst is a fresh sausage, which means it must be thoroughly cooked before serving. The time they spend in beer means less time for the brats on the grill.
"Simmer" is a strong word for the amount of heat the Bratmeister uses. Little bubbles form on the bottom of the pot, occasionally letting go and rising. Meanwhile, the volume of beer in the pan drops noticeably as it is absorbed by the swelling sausage.
"Since it's already cooked when you take the brats from the beer," explains the Bratmeister, "you could just serve it as-is and skip the grill altogether. But that would be gross."
The grill's job is to add flavor and browning to the already cooked bratwurst. On the grill, the brats lose their gray pall and come back to life with a juicy vengeance.
Some people speak of "parboiling the brats," but this, I'm told, has never been done in Wisconsin. Such business can cause the brats to split, which is the ultimate no-no in bratology. A bratwurst is ready to serve when it's cooked to the bursting point, swollen with juices but with the casing still intact. Never poke a brat, they say, to test for doneness. A gentle squeeze with the fingertips is all it takes. After grilling to the bursting point, most beer-brat chefs will place the brat in a fresh pot of hot beer and onions, often with butter, and hold it there until serving time.
Serving the brat on a hot dog bun can get you exiled from Wisconsin. A "hard roll," crusty on the outside, soft and moist on the inside, is required. If you want to order real hard rolls, go to www.bratwurst.net. To order the current champion bratwurst of Wisconsin, go to www.miesfeldsmarket.com.
For dressing, don't even think about yellow mustard. Only Dijon-style, please. As for the type of beer ... well, these people are set in their curious ways.
"I like to use a high-end Budweiser," says the Bratmeister. "You know, like an Old Milwaukee or a Miller Genuine Draft."
My inner gourmet, however, rebels against the use of lesser beer in such an elegant preparation, so I bring an empty growler to my local brew pub and hand it to the bartender. When I tell him what it's for, he hands my growler back, still empty.
"You need Old Milwaukee," he says.
Only when I promise to run a side-by-side comparison with Old Milwaukee does he agree to fill my growler with the closest thing to a local equivalent, a light pilsner.
After lightly simmering my brats in separate pans of Old Milwaukee and microbrew pilsner along with black pepper, garlic, and onions (considered the holy trinity when cooking brats), I put my dueling bratwursts on the grill.
The Old Milwaukee brats have an appealing flavor that I could see getting attached to. I might need to join the Bratwurst Witness Protection Program for saying this, but the microbrew pilsner brats are richer, more complex, and a completely viable option as well.
I did not stop there. For many days, I simmer different brands of bratwurst in different brands of beer, always with the holy trinity. After this research, I feel confident in saying that different kinds of bratwurst will behave differently in different types of beer, and it's definitely worth experimenting. Simmering in a dark, sweet porter, for example, might seem like sacrilege to someone from Wisconsin. But those of us not bound by tradition are free to play around with the options. Just be careful who you tell.