Jesse Brookstein | Madison, WI
I have these fond memories of being so excited when he’d show up at the camp with this paper bag full of sausage sticks. I didn’t even know the name of it then. It was just this coveted treat we’d all share. Over time, this became a family tradition that still takes place over the holidays or anytime we’re able to see one another.
When I was still living in Upstate New York, I did an internship at Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown. I was 24 years old, and while I appreciated craft beer, I still drank beer with a party mindset. Then I tasted several sour beers that just blew my mind, and I became interested in learning the recipes and other nuances that brought these flavors to life. I continued working in the beer industry, got my bachelor’s degree from SUNY Oswego, and moved to Boulder, Colorado to join some friends who’d already landed out there. They said, ‘Hey, Jesse, there’s this state called Colorado where it’s sunny all the time.’ Being from Upstate New York I said, ‘No way. That’s impossible.’
Sure enough, it was incredible out there. I loved it. Between 2007 and 2015, I worked at a couple of different breweries before co-founding Call to Arms Brewery with two colleagues of mine. When my fiancé had an opportunity to pursue her postdoc at UW-Madison, I sold my shares in the business and we moved to Madison in 2018.
After moving to Wisconsin, I noticed the many similarities in culture and landscape that Upstate New York and Wisconsin shared. And when I went to the legendary The Old Fashioned restaurant in Madison or popped into stores down in Green County, I found display after display of different landjaeger. It felt familiar, and it instantly piqued my interest. The more I dove in, the more I realized the similarities and differences of each brand, and I simply needed to learn more.
I’m the kind of person who likes to understand the history of things: where they came from and why they’re culturally significant. I continued trying all the landjaeger I could find, and in my free time, I’d search different areas of Wisconsin on the map to see if landjaeger showed up in the area. This was very similar to my early days as a beer geek, and it’s fascinating what you find when you start asking even the simplest of questions.
When I started researching Wisconsin landjaeger, I really couldn’t find much information about it online. I decided that I was going to conduct some research and write a book about the history of landjaeger in Wisconsin, and it quickly became my passion project.
I first reached out to Chris Hessling, a gentleman I’d gotten to know at Ruef’s Meat Market in New Glarus. It became quite clear that a lot of these old-school meat processors keep their recipes close to their chest, so I was nervous that they’d think I was coming to steal their ideas. But Chris gave me a thorough take on landjaeger and that gave me the confidence I needed to start interviewing other meat producers in the area.
My first vision for the book saw me covering all the landjaeger producers throughout the entire state, and I was naive enough to think that there were only eight or 10 of them scattered about. And of course, the more I started meeting people and hearing their stories, the more I realized there were more like 30 to 40 Wisconsin shops producing landjaeger.
At the same time, as I started visiting shop after shop around the state, the more I began to realize that Green County has the most concentrated grouping of what I’d call traditional landjaeger producers. So I decided to refocus my book project to dial in on Green County.
I think about landjaeger as time capsules. For example, at Hoesly’s, a well-known shop in New Glarus, the gentleman who runs that place has decades of experience under his belt. And his dad also crafted landjaeger in New Glarus at a now-closed shop called Strickler’s. When Dennis Hoesly opened up Hoesly’s Meats in 1983, his dad was passing along knowledge he’d gleaned from his years at Strickler’s. So even though we’re tasting a Hoesly product now, we’re also tasting a recipe that’s a direct descendant of the Strickler’s product that came decades before—and which itself may have been passed down from another shop or producer, possibly from Switzerland at that point in New Glarus’ history.
After I published ‘A Perfect Pair: The History of Landjaeger in Green County, Wisconsin,’ I went back home and saw my uncle for the first time in a long time. Oddly enough, I never actually made it to Rolf’s Pork Store myself, which felt altogether sacrilegious. As we walked in, my uncle was really proud to introduce me to the family who owned the shop. He told them about the book and I gave them a copy to keep. They passed along some Upstate New York thoughts on landjaeger and were kind enough to comp the items we bought. It was a pretty special moment hanging with my uncle in the shop that started this crazy trip down Landjaeger Lane.
That seems to have carried into my adult life, and I started writing poetry books and self-publishing them as gifts for friends. I also had a couple of children’s book ideas that I’d been stewing on for a while, and in 2020 I was lucky enough to find an artist who could bring those to life after years on the backburner.
After putting the children’s books up for sale, I realized folks were willing to pay for my work and that gave me the confidence I needed to finally research and publish ‘A Perfect Pair: The History of Landjaeger in Green County, Wisconsin.’
Writing ‘A Perfect Pair’ took about three years of discussion and two years of planning, travel, interviews, and taste testing. I was also very lucky to have Wisconsin-native, Zach Nichols, use his design skills to craft a “church cookbook” aesthetic. I took an anecdotal approach with the narration, as if two buddies were hanging out at a bar and someone asks, ‘Why do you love Landjaeger so much?’ I wanted it to be casual and welcoming while also being scientific and thoroughly researched.
And let me tell you, people in Wisconsin certainly love their landjaeger! I talked with 90-year-old ladies who have been eating landjaeger since they were two years old. Perhaps the greatest compliment I received was from an older Green County resident who told me the book was “A gift to Green County.” When you’re dealing with businesses that people care about so deeply, you’re touching on sacred ground. So needless to say, that was a very touching and validating thing to hear.
I’m often asked ‘what’s so special about landjaeger?’ Or ‘how is it different from beef jerky?’ I always preface my answer by saying that I am not an expert and I’ve only been studying landjaeger for the last three years. But from all my research and conversations with landjaeger makers, I believe there are five factors that constitute a ‘traditional’ landjaeger:
- Come as a joined pair
- Is hickory smoked
- Is flattened
- Is comprised of pork, beef, or a combination of the two meats
- Is shelf-stable, meaning it can be safely stored without refrigeration
Landjaeger has its roots in Austria, France, Germany, and Switzerland, and its legacy has been kept alive by meat shops throughout Wisconsin. The basic landjaeger making process starts with producers combining the meat mixture with spices, cures, sugars, and a lactic acid starter culture (the last of which is used to kick off fermentation). They then stuff the ‘batter’ into pork casings and place the sausages into molds which are specialized plates that give the landjaeger its iconic flattened, rectangle-like shape. The casings are stacked and left to ferment. From there, the paired links are hung in a smoker to develop the desirable hickory flavor while also cooking off any spoilage or pathogenic bacteria. The landjaeger is then air dried until the water level is low enough to pass inspection. And then, only once the product has met all its regulatory requirements can landjaeger be vacuum sealed or put on a display case. It is a multi-step, multi-day process that requires a ton of handwork, but every shop owner I’ve talked with says it’s hands down their most popular product and well worth the time and patience it takes to bring landjaeger to the masses.
It’s been incredible hearing from the landjaeger producers themselves, all of whom have some wild and heartfelt stories to tell. Judy at Bavaria Sausage is the daughter of the founder and she’s very proud that they ship a bunch of their landjaeger to the world-renowned bodybuilders due to the high-protein and lean-beef content (including a number of Mr. Universe champions). One really has to wonder how many pairs of landjaeger one of those champions can eat.
I had a touching visit with Jim Zuber, who founded Zuber’s Sausage Kitchen in 1991 to specifically make landjaeger. Most Wisconsin meat shops made a wide array of products, but Jim saw the fanfare surrounding landjaeger and went all in. If you’ve ever seen an acrylic landjaeger display at a Wisconsin gas station, chances are it’s one of four styles of landjaeger that Zuber’s produces.
Jim suffered a stroke in 2014, but his wife, Kalyn, still runs the show and welcomed me into Jim’s nursing home. Jim still had so much enthusiasm when it came to landjaeger and the business he’d started so many years prior, and I’m honored to have met the two of them and hear their different takes on landjaeger.
Having the chance to meet these hardworking producers and their families, I truly feel an obligation to tell their story and promote the fact that they’re all living, breathing parts of Green County’s history. Without them keeping these traditions alive, we’d not only be losing out on the deliciousness that landjaeger has to offer, but also the cultural significance of a product that made its way over to Wisconsin from the Old World.
Ever since I was a kid, when my uncle showed up at a family camping trip holding a bag of landjaeger, I knew there was something special about those meat snacks. And the last few years have really proven how much food speaks to culture and the history of people and place. I’m continually inspired by this unique opportunity to combine my love of landjaeger and my interest in history and I’m excited to see what else we can uncover as the landjaeger research continues.