You smell that, kids? The arresting aroma of meats sizzling over a hot grill?
That is the sweet smell of summer, and come Memorial Day weekend, the beginning of the summer cookout season.
Now that the school year is over or close to ending (hang tight, quarter system people), it's time to celebrate with one of the greatest meats you can ever slap on the grill – the beer-soaked bratwurst. Oh man, just writing the words "beer-soaked bratwurst" makes my mouth water, and I have a stomach stuffed with four of them as I write this. But even better than a beer-soaked bratwurst is eating a beer-soaked bratwurst that came at a bargain.
Johnsonville brats are some superb sausage, no doubt. But was there a chance that the cheaper store brand varieties could be just as good, if not better? Store Brand Scorecard tried out three private label varieties – one each from a big box store, a grocery store and a mini market – to find out. All products were purchased at Chicago-area stores on May 22, 2010. Prices are subject to change.
Brand Name: Johnsonville Beer 'N Bratwurst
Cost: $3.49 at Target; on sale for $4.99 at a Chicago-area grocery store (typical price $5.49)
Size: 16 oz.
Nutritional Facts (per grilled link): 270 calories (200 from fat), 22 grams of fat (34% recommended daily value), 60 milligrams of cholesterol (20% recommended daily value), 810 milligrams of sodium (34% recommended daily value).
Taste: Like biting into a juicy, meaty apple – crisp on the outside, succulent on the inside, with the perfect balance between brat and beer flavoring. Pretty close to perfect.
The Big Box Store: Super Target
Brand Name: Archer Farms Beer Bratwurst
Size: 16 oz.
Nutritional Facts (per grilled link): 240 calories (170 from fat), 19 grams of fat (29% recommended daily value), 50 milligrams of cholesterol (16% recommended daily value), 740 milligrams of sodium (31% recommended daily value).
Taste: The sausage flavor is very distinguished (it's almost like an overgrown breakfast sausage link). But I was missing that beer taste, and ultimately, that "bratness."
The Grocery Store: Jewel-Osco (owned and operated by SuperValu Inc., number 47 on the Fortune 500 list. SuperValu is also the parent company for such grocery retailers as Albertsons and Shaw's)
Brand Name: Jewel Beer Bratwurst
Cost: On sale for $3.49 per pound/16 ounces (typical price $4.49 per pound)
Size: 24 oz.
Nutritional Facts (per grilled link): 320 calories (240 from fat), 26 grams of fat (40% recommended daily value), 75 milligrams of cholesterol (24% recommended daily value), 870 milligrams of sodium (36% recommended daily value).
Taste: Like Johnsonville, this one's nearly the perfect brat. Savory and scrumptious, a fine flavor of pork, and then when I though it couldn't get more exciting, that intoxicating beer flavor shows up for the finish.
The Mini Market: Trader Joe's
Brand Name: Trader Joe's Hofbrau Brats
Size: 16 oz.
Nutritional Facts (per grilled link): 290 calories (230 from fat), 25 grams of fat (39% recommended daily value), 45 milligrams of cholesterol (16% recommended daily value), 510 milligrams of sodium (21% recommended daily value).
Taste: This brand tastes most similar to the brats I've had in Germany – namely, the beer flavor is unmistakable. It wasn't overpowering, but it came close.
Greatest Value: Trader Joe's and Target brats were the least satisfying, but they were still plenty good, and the prices are great. Given Target's lower price, it gets the edge here. On a value scale of 0 to 10, I give Trader Joe's a score of 7 and Target a score of 8.
Johnsonville and Jewel are the finest brats here – succulent, savory, the very embodiment of a fine summer meal. When it comes to price, we hit a little problem. Jewel brats are $1 less than Johnsonville brats at Jewel, while Johnsonville brats at Target are a dollar less than the Jewel brand. For that reason – and because they're tied in the taste department – I've got to give both brands a value score of 9, meaning they're both the winners of this challenge.
Piet Levy's Store Brand Scorecard tests a major label food product and three private-label equivalents to see which brand offers the best value for the price. It appears every Monday on WalletPop's Money College page. Send suggestions, including items you want Piet to try, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Best beer bratwurst? We rank the house brands