Sausage on tap

by Bruce Aidells
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When sausage makers incorporate popular beer brands as ingredients in products, both companies benefit from marketing opportunities.

 

KANSAS CITY – There are certain food and beverage pairings that many consider to be no brainers, and at the top of that list is sausage and beer. With Germany being the epicenter of both sausage eating and beer drinking, the pairing has become a classic.

In the United States, where a sizable group has ethnic roots in Germany, many have come to embrace the bratwurst as the go-to meal for slapping on the grill. One of the popular ways to prepare bratwurst and other sausages is to braise them first with beer before finishing them over a fire. So, it isn’t much of a leap to not only serve sausage with beer but to also incorporate beer as an ingredient in the sausage.

The idea is not lost on the sausage-making community, and several sausage companies, including Johnsonville Sausage, Saag’s Specialty Meat and Sausages, Hillshire Farm and Farmland Foods, a business unit of Smithfield Foods, have introduced one or more sausages using beer. So, what are the manufacturing challenges of incorporating beer in a sausage recipe, and what are the marketing and branding opportunities?

Hillshire Farm offers several products made with beer, including a Miller High Life branded product and a line of craft beer brats.

 

Formulation challenges

The first challenge when trying to incorporate a liquid ingredient into a sausage formula is getting enough of the liquid to contribute to the flavor while staying within the legal limits of allowable liquid, as well as not compromising texture. No one wants to make a wet and mushy sausage. The challenge is even more difficult when the liquid ingredient, i.e. beer, is fairly subtle in flavor to begin with. In addition, some beers, such as IPA or Pilsner, have a strong, hoppy flavor, which may overcome the sausage with a bitter taste.

There is also the issue of increased costs, as beer costs much more than water and specialty beers will cost even more than mass-market products, such as Miller. According to Mike Brewster, who oversees Hillshire Farm’s production of its co-branded bratwurst using Miller High Life beer, the flavors the beer contributed to the sausage are quite volatile and dissipate over time.

One solution to enhance the beer flavor of the sausage is to add flavors that are associated with the taste of beer, such as yeast, cooked onions, malt and spices such as caraway and mustard. Since beer, sausage and sauerkraut are a much-enjoyed combination, why not cook sauerkraut and onions in beer until the beer is absorbed and then use the mixture as part of the sausage formulation? But even with these challenges, many sausage companies are successfully selling bratwurst and other sausages made with beer. A good reason for this success is the co-branding and marketing opportunities that are provided by associating the beer made sausage with a specific brewery.

 

Marketing and branding

No marketing genius is needed to see the huge potential of combining a branded beer with a branded sausage. Sometimes the arrangement is initiated by the brewery and sometimes by the sausage company. No matter how it originates, the branding potential and marketing success is greatly expanded for both parties.

At Hillshire Farm, it came together to make a co-branded beer bratwurst with Miller High Life beer. Needless to say Miller, a large mainstream national brand, has considerable marketing dollars for promotions and advertising. In addition, Miller sponsors numerous festivals, concerts and special events, as well as having a large presence in the world of sports. Hillshire Farm has a presence at events as well, but does not have near the exposure that the bigger company Miller may have. In addition, Miller and Hillshire Farm, no doubt, share a similar demographic.

Therefore, associating a beer bratwurst with Miller makes a lot of marketing sense for Hillshire Farm, not to mention the opportunity to sample and sell the co-branded sausage at Miller-sponsored festivals, events and sporting venues. Sounds like a win-win all the way around.

Kelly Francis, brand manager at Farmland, said the company recently began selling co-branded sausages made with Boulevard Brewing Co. beer. Boulevard beer, a growing Kansas City specialty brewery with a considerable following in the middle of the country, approached Farmland to produce a co-branded bratwurst with their most popular beer, Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat. The quick success of this led to a bratwurst made with Pale Ale. In addition, a Pilsner-flavored bratwurst is in the pipeline. Boulevard’s logo is prominent on the co-branded label, but Farmland brings a lot of marketing exposure to the table with its association with NASCAR.

Both strong, regional companies share a similar geographic market, similar retail accounts and a similar customer demographic. With this type of synergy, co-branded marketing dollars may be leveraged and spent more efficiently as a winning partnership for both brands. In addition this June, Boulevard Brewing Co. sponsored a music, beer and food festival, Boulevardia, which not only created exposure for the co-branded beer sausage, but also was both a sampling and sales opportunity to an appreciative audience of targeted customers.

Other opportunities for a co-branded beer sausage are in the food service area, especially restaurants and pubs that focus on beer and may already serve the beer used in their sausage. An example is Gordon Biersch, a specialty brewery with several brew pubs around the country, as well as concessions at AT&T Park, the San Francisco Giants’ ballpark, and other sporting venues. These outlets provide a great opportunity to serve the co-branded beer bratwurst, which Saag’s makes with Gordon Biersch beer.

There also is the possibility at these venues and restaurants to promote special events, such as Oktoberfest dinners featuring the beer sausage and recipes using the sausage. Using the sausage as an ingredient provides an opportunity to work with the kitchens to develop recipes using the beer flavored sausages in various dishes from warm salads, bean soups and main courses, such as ragu braised with sausage and beer.

While the marketing advantage of co-branding with a brewery may look skewed in favor of the sausage company, there is great opportunity for the brewery as well, because the association with the sausage company provides a relationship of beer and food. Showing customers ways to enjoy beer with good food may lead to increased sales across the board. It’s a winning combination all the way around.

Bruce Aidells founded Aidells Sausage Co. in 1983. He left the company in 2002 and is a food writer for consumer publications and the author of 12 cookbooks.
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