In 2002, Gerhard Riautschnig had been in America for nearly 10 years. In that time, he had
discovered the joys of stacked avocado burgers, midday Indian lunch buffets and counter-service sushi bars. But there was one thing missing from his culinary life-the home-cured meats of his childhood in rural Austria. He isn’t sure whether he shared these pinings with his father when he came for a visit that summer, or if their absence was just visibly noticeable. What he does know is he left for work one day, and while he was gone his father built him a smoker in the backyard, bought meat and casings, and corrected the deficiency. Gerhard came home to 20 pounds of freshly made bratwurst in his fridge.
“I put the first one in my mouth and I almost started crying,” said Gerhard. “It was my grandmother’s brat.”
Gerhard grew up in southern Austria, in a house down the road from his grandmother’s, nestled into the eastern end of the Alps. All the vegetables he ate came from a backyard garden, all the fruit came from trees that had been on the property for decades; his family churned their own butter and made their own cheese. The only thing they bought was bread. And all the meat came from his grandmother’s farm.
Once a year, the family would gather there, aunts and uncles and cousins, for the slaughter of her pigs. It would take all day and everyone had a job; the men would do the bulk of the butchering, the youngest children would stir the blood for the blood sausage to keep it from coagulating, older kids kept the smokers burning and helped where they were needed. The women would take the intestines down to the creek to wash them and prepare them for becoming sausage casings. In the afternoon, everyone took a break to sit in the shade and eat the fresh brats they had made.
It had been a long time since Gerhard had partaken in this family ritual. His father’s visit brought back all those memories. And a desire to share them with his wife and children. “These brats were just pork, salt, pepper and garlic,” said Gerhard. “I couldn’t find anything like them in the stores in America. So I asked my dad for the family recipe, and I started making them for my family.”
But like most good things, they proved difficult to keep a secret. Family became friends, became friends of friends, and pretty soon people were saying to him, “you should make this a business.” One of those people was Rob Lee. He met Gerhard in 2010, on a Boundary Waters trip with mutual friends, and couldn’t get the memory of those brats out of his head. He came home and told his wife Song, then a cheesemonger at France 44, about the energetic Austrian and his memorable smoked meats. With her encouragement, Rob approached Gerhard about finding a wider audience for his grandmother’s brats, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Not that it was easy. In order to remain true to the spirit of the family recipe, Gerhard and his new business partners were adamant about keeping things local and ingredients of the highest quality. Finding the right producers took some time, but the people he works with-the Gary Lynch family raises free-ranging antibiotic-free pork in Hospers, Iowa, which Big Steer Meats, a third-generation family-owned butcher shop in St. Paul turns into brats-are what gives his products their authenticity.
Gerhard’s brats have just four ingredients-no wheat, no sugar, no fillers, and one-third the sodium of conventionally made bratwurst. Of his claims, some people are often incredulous, being used to processed meats that can be up to 50% fat (in accordance with USDA limits for fresh pork sausages), and masked with salt and artificial flavorings. “We were naïve at first,” said Gerhard. “We didn’t say these things on the label because it seemed obvious. This isn’t an engineered product. We’re making something completely different than what’s out there.”
A lot of people, it turned out, were ready for the change. Gerhard’s brats are now available in 30 locations around Minnesota, more than triple the shelf presence they had only two years ago. Local caterers and restaurants are featuring the brats, and requests have been pouring in from out of state. In April of this year, their butcher received USDA certification, so they will soon start filling those orders outside of Minnesota. The goal, some day, would be to take their brats to Portland, L.A., and the East Coast-places without “good brat culture,” says Gerhard. But for now, he’s happy to let it grow at a natural pace, using quality local meats prepared in small batches.
He still fondly remembers the day he showed up unannounced at the Wedge with a few packages. “I shopped them around the co-ops first,” he said. “Aaron and Andrew said, ‘Okay, we’ll try them.’ To this day, we’re still grateful for the support from the local co-ops. They really give the little guys a chance. Nobody else does that.”
You can find Gerhard’s Brats (in original, smoked and käsewurst) in the Wedge’s Prepared Meats cooler. And stay tuned for Gerhard’s sauerkraut, which is in the final stages of packaging and label testing. He’s hopeful it will be available to the co-ops later this summer.
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