You often can’t see the world-class food in your own backyard because it’s ubiquitous to the point of being invisible. Think of noodles in Japan, or bread in France, or spiced lentils in India—it’s daily fare that seems simple until you try to make it and realize there’s a world of knowledge that goes into every perfectly balanced bite.
In Wisconsin, cheese isn’t invisible—it’s on billboards, in books, held in the hands of giant highway-adjacent mouse statues, and even stamped onto the state quarter. The worth-flying-out-for food that gets overlooked is the meat—the jerky, the snack sticks, the bacon, the summer sausage, and (most of all) the bratwurst.
Master Meat Crafter (it’s a real title, more on that later) Rick Reams of RJ’s Meats in Hudson hopes to change that, and he wants to do it by centering the conversation on quality. Once the tape starts rolling, the first 11 words Reams speaks are: “We hand trim every piece of pork that goes into everything.”
Much of this sausage-smith’s story returns to one core idea: keeping the hands and eyes of deeply knowledgeable people as close to the product as possible, from hand trimming through sausage stuffing through smoking through packaging and retailing.
The work done at RJ’s has resulted in an ongoing tidal wave of more than 300 different awards for excellence and a product that is as good as anything as we’ve tasted in the proudly sausage-proficient Upper Midwest. The bacon, snack sticks, bratwurst, specialty sausage, and other Wisconsin-made meat products that line the shop’s tidy shelves are the result of more than 30 years of work on the part of Reams and his team, which includes his wife Anne, their three sons, his nephew Cody Reams (who is also a Master Meat Crafter) and a niece, and other employees (such as veteran sausage maker Eric Carlson and butcher Justin VeVang) who have stuck with the company for years or decades.
Wisconsin and Germany: Real Recognize Real
For Reams, the process of making serious sausage begins with trimming locally sourced meat and processing it with the right tools.
“You see how coarse that is, it’s a German-made grinder,” says Reams, pointing to the ropey output of a machine that his son (and fellow Master Meat Crafter) Anthony Reams is feeding pork into. “It’s got two sets of knives and two plates,” says Rick. “It goes through a really coarse plate and goes through a slightly finer plate and is cut again. We hardly get any temperature rise. It’s really gentle on the meat, and it’s really improved the texture on the product.”
The German machine, says Reams, “will keep the integrity of the muscle structure.” This way, he notes, “it’s continually being cut as it goes. It’s a nice gentle process—we end up with better fat structure, and you don’t get any schmearing.”
The result is sausage like the bratwurst, breakfast sausage, andouille, and others that we’ve tried from RJ’s Meats—tender, juicy, delicate, and full-flavored without being overseasoned. “The first thing I learned [from traveling to Germany] is that we as Americans tend to overseason everything,” says Reams. “And what I learned in Germany is that meat is the star. Everything else we’re adding to it is the co-star, to bring out the best in the meat.”
That mentality drives the way Reams sources meat—he works with farms in Minnesota and Iowa to source heritage-breed Berkshire pork and Revier Cattle Company in Olivia, Minnesota, to source his beef.
“I built this shop on wanting repeat business,” says Reams. “So all my suppliers know, ‘don’t call Rick with any closeout specials,’ because I won’t buy closeouts. I want people to be able to come in and know they’ll get the same thing time after time after time. The same brat we’ve been making for decades, where they know what the flavor is going to be.”
He was an early graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Master Meat Crafter certification program, which helps train, certify, and celebrate the state’s top meat artisans. Reams’ expertise is the reason he’s won awards like Grand Champion for fresh bratwurst at the Wisconsin Cured Meats Championships (2016 and 2017) and been elected to the American Association of Meat Processors Hall of Fame.
And it’s reflected in some of his cross-Atlantic ties—when Reams is feeling stumped by sausage, he’ll often call on some of his colleagues in Germany.
And Germans—widely hailed as the world’s best sausage-makers—will call on Reams for help, too. That can mean a guest stint for Reams judging the prestigious IFFA meat contest (as he did for two days in 2019). And it can mean consulting with Reams on how to craft American specialties, like jerky and the stunningly good beef snack sticks that RJ’s Meats churns out by the thousand for retail in Hudson and at K’nack.
“Our businesses are geographically so far apart, yet so similar,” says Gunther Kühle, via a phone interview conducted in German. Kühle is a 6th-generation butcher and the proprietor of Platzmetzger Kühle, a 175-year-old shop in Weißenhorn, Germany that makes more than 95% of its sausage in-house (“which is rare these days”).
“We all have the same issues,” says Kühle, who met Reams at an American Association of Meat Processors competition in Wisconsin. “Rick and other presenters in the AAMP workshops would get on stage and talk very openly about their problems and solutions. I also learned a lot from Rick—for example, he taught me how to make beef and pork jerky, which have become very successful products for us.”
A K’nack for New Opportunities
In 2018, the Reams family decided to expand their business beyond the footprint of their Coulee Road shop in Hudson, opening K’nack in the newly opened Keg and Case food hall in St. Paul. Rather than opening a purely retail operation, Reams and his sons built the shop around a robust sandwich and deli component.
Between the constant exploration of new products and the expansion into K’nack, RJ’s Meats is a traditional business with its eyes constantly scanning the horizon for new opportunities. None of it—retaining employees, exploring new products, keeping quality high—would work without his enthusiasm, and the commitment of his employees, says Reams.
“It’s all about the passion we have here, it’s what makes a difference,” says Reams. “That’s what makes a difference in a lot of the smaller shops in the area. You’ve got Greg’s Meats down in Hampton [Minnesota], Louie’s down in Cumberland [Wisconsin], Sailer’s in Elmwood [Wisconsin], McDonald’s up in Clear Lake [Minnesota], the king of summer sausage—Schmidt’s in Nicollet [Minnesota], they all have that same passion, and I’m really happy to say they’re all close friends of mine, too. They have an issue with something? They’ll call me. I have an issue with something? I’ll call them. It’s a really cool network.”
Karsten Steinhaeuser contributed to the reporting of this story.
Recipe for Jambalaya with Andouille, Chicken, and Shrimp
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1½ pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs
1½ pounds RJ’s andouille sausage cut into ¼” slices
1 large onion
2 celery ribs
½ green bell pepper, diced
½ red bell pepper, diced
½ teaspoon dried thyme
¼ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
¼ teaspoon sweet paprika
½ teaspoon salt
Pinch of smoked paprika
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 (14-ounce) can of diced tomatoes
1½ cups long grain rice
2 cups chicken broth
8 ounces medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
3 green onions, finely chopped
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium high heat.
Brown the sausage in the hot oil; remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the remaining oil to the pot and saute chicken until lightly browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Saute the onion, bell pepper, and celery until the onion is soft and translucent. Add thyme, oregano, sweet paprika, salt, smoked paprika, and cayenne. Cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Stir in tomatoes and chicken.
Add in the rice and chicken broth, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a low-medium. Cover and let simmer for about 20–25 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed and rice is cooked, stirring occasionally.
Gently stir in the shrimp and sausage and cover with a lid. Allow to simmer gently for about 5–6 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Garnish with chopped green onions and parsley. Serve.