Remember five years ago, when you couldn't go to a restaurant without ordering bacon in some form? Chefs were braising it, spinning it into ice cream, and crumbling it into salads; they whipped bacon lattes, made bacon-infused vodka, and rendered other meats in its fat. The public gobbled it up, washed it down with craft cocktails, and paid homage to the crispy-fatty cut with one pig tattoo after another. Food culture was saturated with bacon, and it might be fair to say, we overdosed. After bacon lethargy kicked in (presumably when people got their cholesterol screening results), pigs received but a brief reprieve from our pork fanaticism before the next delicious iteration of the "other white meat" began, in oblong form, to take over the East Bay.
The sausage renaissance is hard to miss: Rosamunde Sausage Grill, a San Francisco sausage-and-craft-beer restaurant, opened an East Bay version (911 Washington St., Oakland, 510-338-3108, RosamundeSausageGrill.com) in Swan's Market last summer. Telegraph beer garden (2318 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-444-8353, TelegraphOakland.com) also opened last year, and on the menu: burgers and a selection of house-made sausages, beer's two favorite companions. A few months ago, Brotzeit Lokal (1000 Embarcadero, Oakland, 510-645-1905, BrotzeitBiergarten.com), a German beer garden, with, you guessed it, house-made sausages, popped up on Oakland's Embarcadero. Even an all-vegan sausage menu had a moment (albeit a relatively brief one) at The Olde Depot (468 3rd St., Oakland, OldeDepot.com), which opened this spring (the owners are currently changing its menu to appeal to carnivores, too). Boccalone (Boccalone.com) sells craft sausages and cured meats for customers to slice, cook, and eat at home. And there seems to be room for even more sausage-centric places: Hog's Apothecary (375 40th St., Oakland, HogsApothecary.com) opened last week and Lost & Found Beer Garden (2040 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, LostandFound510.com) is in the works. Add a couple old favorites to the list, like Taylor's Sausages (907 Washington St., Oakland, 510-832-6448), Top Dog (multiple locations, topdoghotdogs.com), and La Bedaine (1585 Solano Ave., Berkeley, 510-559-8201, LaBedaine.com), and — whew — you get the idea. Sausage is the new bacon.
The current sausage trend did not evolve in a vacuum, but rather emerged in tandem with its most apt counterpart: beer. California has come to epitomize the craft beer movement, with more than 270 microbreweries statewide. We are now the largest producer of craft beer in the country, and the trend doesn't appear to be slowing: According to the California Craft Brewers Association, last year the Golden State produced 400,000 more gallons of craft beer than the year before. That's a lot of beer to drink on an empty stomach.
Whether the consumer is aware of it or not, the growing Cult of the Über-Artisanal — the small-scale production, use of traditional techniques, and local sourcing, to which many new restaurants and food purveyors now adhere — is a partial return to the past. For thousands of years, sausages were made as a necessary preservation technique, a way that individual homesteads could store and consume every bit of an animal.
Traditionally, the sausage grind was made from salted meat scraps, fat cuttings, and blood — all the natural remnants of butchery — and the casing was made from cleaned intestinal lining. As far back as ancient Greece, authors mentioned sausages in their writings: In 424 BC, the famous comedy playwright Aristophanes even made a sausage-seller the hero of his play The Knight.
Similarly, beer used to be made on a homestead level, with farms using some of the harvest of wheat and barley to make their own lagers. In the cold winter months, when all the fresh food had been eaten, beer, sausages, and cured meats kept people warm and full until spring.
Now, we city-dwellers can get a version of this historic pairing year round, and with a range of prices and practices.
For the value-conscious, there's Rosamunde Sausage Grill and Telegraph beer garden, which offer artisanal sausages in the $10 range. Rosamunde has eleven sausages on the menu, none of which are made on-site, but are rather sourced from other local purveyors. Customers can choose a classic, like the hot Italian, or try something different, like chicken habañero. The sausages cost $6 with two toppings (options include grilled onions and sweet peppers), and during happy hour, customers can guzzle a pint of Racer 5 IPA for $3. "We're at the nexus of fast and casual, but foodie-friendly," said manager Mieko Diener. So far, the locals are responding with enthusiasm. Diener said that some regulars come for a beer and a sausage plate almost every day.
Other new sausage-centric restaurants are trying to stand out from the deluge of value sausage joints by using butchery techniques firmly planted in tradition. They buy whole animals at a time to handcraft their sausages, or simply use the scraps after butchering as a way to remain sustainable. These restaurants are attempting to take sausages slightly more high-end, to the $15 range.
John Streit, the chef and co-owner of Hog's Apothecary in Oakland, hopes to find staying power with his focus of whole-animal butchery and house-made sausages. "I think there are a lot of these places that are opening up that are trying to catch on the coattails of a trend, and there's room in the market right now, but eventually the weeds will be separated from the wheat," he said. "When I was setting up the menu, I realized ... if we're going to set ourselves apart, we really have to be different from everybody else. And given my culinary pedigree, I have connections with all of these farms and have the ability to break down a whole animal, and so I can do something a little different. I approach sausage as a plate. I want it to be an experience."
It would seem that customers are becoming increasingly interested in the sausage experience itself, which includes the process of sausage-making. This is another new trend: For decades, sausage-making — like legislative politics — was considered unsavory at best.
Mark Pastore, co-chef and owner of Incanto in San Francisco — a restaurant that specializes in whole-animal butchery — said that he and his partner, Chris Cosentino, noticed a growing fascination with the sausage-making process when they opened Boccalone, which makes its cured meats and sausage in Oakland and sells them online, at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, and at the Grand Lake Farmers' Market in Oakland on Saturdays. "There's this old saying, 'Everyone loves sausages but no one wants to see them being made,'" he said. "But people want to see it being made now."
Pastore said that sausage-making is deceptively easy when compared to other cured meats. There's an artistry to the fineness of the blend and the amount of spices used, he said, so while it's not hard to make a sausage, it's hard to make it well. Both he and Alain Delangle, the owner and chef of La Bedaine, agree that keeping things simple is key. They eschew an overly seasoned sausage in favor of simple, high-quality ingredients blended well. Delangle, who only has sausages for sale when he has enough scraps from other main dishes, said that he uses just three elements in his most popular smoked sausage. "I use very little ingredients. My smoked sausage is one hundred percent pure pork, with garlic and shallots. That's it," he said.
Whether you like them simple or extra spicy; made of turkey, vegan ingredients, chicken, or beer; all-pork or a blend; there's a sausage waiting for you, probably within walking distance. Despite the overwhelming number of options and price points, fortunately there's still a limit to sausage love. Unlike the bacon-makes-everything-better mania of years past, sausages remain primarily part of the principal dish, at least so far. "Let's just hope that sausage ice cream is not forthcoming," quipped Pastore.