HERMANN, MO. — Along the back wall of the back room of the Hermann Wurst Haus stand two gleaming metal smokers.
These are computer-run marvels of industrial ingenuity, each programmed to make many kinds of smoked meat. The computer regulates the humidity inside the smoker, the temperature and even the internal temperature of the sausages. When their temperature hits the precise number they need to be fully cooked, the smoker turns itself off until another batch can be loaded.
Just to the right of these sleek boxes is a cinder block room the size of a large walk-in closet, though with less charm. In the middle of the room sits an old wood stove made out of cast iron. Sausages can be hung from the ceiling.
It’s the new way and the old way of smoking sausages, says owner Mike Sloan. The modern machines can do some things the old smokehouse can’t, and the smokehouse — the room used to be used to mix paint for an auto parts store — can do some things the computerized behemoths cannot.
Cold-smoking, for instance. If you want to smoke meat and keep the temperature under 70 degrees (that is, smoke it without cooking it), you have to use a smokehouse — even if it’s just an old paint-mixing room.
Sloan and his wife, Lynette, opened the Hermann Wurst Haus in 2011 on the Missouri River town’s historic First Street. There, they and their staff of 20 full- and part-time workers make sausages, smoke some of them, cook and serve them in a deli and sell them in endless rows of freezer cases.
They process their own meat there, and the meat of area farmers, hunters, restaurants and wineries. They slaughter the meat, too, at a separate location. They make their own craft wine (three types), craft beer (seven types) and craft soft drinks (five types) at another, different location.
It’s a big operation for a company that began a few years ago as a simple German deli with 18 seats. After a month, Sloan realized he had to expand; the restaurant part of the building now has 90 seats, with more outside on nice days.
“My weekends are crazy. The doors don’t shut,” he says. During the town’s annual WurstFest each March, he is kept so busy he sleeps above the store.
Though success came quickly, it did not come without plenty of experience.
“I’ve been in the meat and sausage business for 54 years. But I don’t like to say 54 years because it sounds old. So I say 49 years,” says Sloan, who is 61.
His family owns the Swiss Meat & Sausage Co. just 12 miles away in the community of Swiss. That is where he got his start, doing everything from taking out the trash to being its president. The company is still run by his four sisters.
“The day I left, it was the best day of my life and it was the worst day of my life,” Sloan says.
Some of the recipes for sausages he uses now he developed at Swiss Meat, including the recipe for German bologna that “I have been making since I was this tall,” he says, holding his hand no more than 3 feet off the ground.
That recipe won a gold medal, meaning it received a perfect score, at this year’s International German Butcher Association Competition. It was one of 16 gold medals his sausages won, to go with two silver medals and one bronze.
Only one of the 20 products he entered did not win a medal. Then again, his sausages have won more than 500 awards over the years, in state, regional, national and international competitions.
His biggest seller, in fact, is called Best of Show Bratwurst, so named because it won a gold medal at the German contest (which is held every three years). It is a basic sausage recipe of pork and seasoning spices, with a hint of onion and garlic.
Other sausages — they make 55 varieties in all — are more exotic: Caramelized Pear and Gorgonzola Cheese Bratwurst is another big seller, and so is Bourbon Pepper Bacon.
The sausage is all made in a back room, next to the room with the smokers. There, pork — sometimes mixed with beef, bison, elk or venison — is fed into a grinder, up to 200 pounds of it at a time. The meat passes through a short tube to a second grinder, where the spices are sprinkled in from above in a precise ratio to ensure consistency.
The ground meat is then fed into a funnel leading to a machine that actually makes the sausages. An employee (on a recent day, it was Sloan’s grandson, Kenny Ball), controls the speed of the machine with a lever by his knee, freeing his hands to help it inject the correct portion into the casing. After the sausages have been formed, the casings are cut by hand.
Hermann Wurst Haus uses both natural casings and collagen casings in its sausages, depending on the variety. Collagen casings are processed from a thin membrane just under the hide of beef. Natural casings are the small intestines of a hog, which are filled with the sausage meat until they are fully expanded, thin and tender.
In the winter, when business is slow, Sloan teaches a class he calls Wurst 101. There, he has the participants hand-crank a manual grinder and fill the natural casings.
“I tell them, ‘when you see the stretch marks on a natural casing, you’re there. If you don’t see the stretch marks, keep going,’” Sloan says.
The other classes he teaches at the store are Bacon 101, Summer Sausage 101 and Whole Hog Butchering 101, as well as wurst-related team-building classes for corporations.
Still, nearly half of the company’s income comes from customers visiting the store and buying the meat and other items. Sloan, who keeps up a lively patter while handing out samples, sees it as his duty to drive the customers to the cash register (“The only thing I like as much as making sausage is selling sausage,” he says).
Just shy of a quarter of the business comes from the restaurant operation, where the specials change depending on which sausages were most recently made. They also serve sandwiches, including the German bologna, a hickory-smoked pulled pork and a beer-marinated brisket with barbecue sauce. One of the side dishes, a deviled egg potato salad, is so popular they often run out.
They also ship their goods across the country through online sales.
That’s a lot of activity for what began just eight years ago in an old, long-empty auto-parts store.
Sloan smiles and says, “I’m not done yet.”