“It’s good food, cheap beer and a good time,” said Nick Scheer, the town’s fire chief. “People enjoy it. It pulls in people from all across the county.”
Most festivals in coastal communities celebrate bounty from the Gulf, like shrimp or gumbo. But Saturday, an estimated 30,000-40,000 people will descend on this tiny Baldwin County community of fewer than 1,500 on U.S. Highway 98 west of Foley for German sausage that’s heavy on the garlic and served with real sauerkraut. And for those who want a bit more of the Fatherland, there are other Teutonic delicacies, too.
If the weather is good, the festival can raise as much as $40,000-$45,000, Scheer said.
The Sausage Festival pays homage to Elberta’s German heritage. A group of German businessmen in Chicago formed the Baldwin County Colonization Company and in 1904 founded the community of Elberta on a 55,000-acre tract purchased from a Florida timber company. The land company sought to bring German families to the coast in hopes of turning cut-over timberland into productive farmland.
Descendants with names like Krauss, Kaiser, Mueller, Hagendorfer, Keppler and Woerner still live in the area. And while their numbers are fading, some customs and traditions still linger.
The town is named for a peach variety popular with Germans. The families who bought 40-acre tracts from the company farmed fruit and brought their language, customs and food with them. Freezes and hurricanes destroyed the orchards, and some of the families left. Other stayed and turned to more conventional farming.
“There was always a rivalry among the German families about who could make the best sausage,” said Don Koontz, whose German-speaking family immigrated to the area.
Many of the families made sausage and sauerkraut. But merchants in town also made it. The recipe that is used for the Sausage Festival came from Alfred “Pop” Stucki, who owned the Elberta Meat Locker. And it’s still a bit of a secret.
“To be honest, there’s not a whole lot of people around here who know the recipe,” Scheer said.
The Elberta Meat Locker was a processing plant with meat sold in a retail shop and lockers rented to people to refrigerate large quantities of meat or vegetables. After it closed, the sausage-making task fell to Farm Fresh Meats, a custom butcher shop and wild game processor in Robertsdale.
“I make them a really good product,” Farm Fresh owner Chuck Childress said. “We use all shoulder meat, no trimmings.”
The festival, which benefits the Elberta Volunteer Fire Department, began in 1979 with a modest 300 pounds of sausage hitting the grill. This year, Scheer placed an order for 6,500 pounds.
“It steadily grew every year,” Childress said.
The sausage is a blend of beef and pork in a natural casing. All anybody will reveal about the seasonings is that there’s a lot of garlic. Originally, even Childress didn’t have the recipe. Sausage festival organizers brought him premixed seasonings that he added to the meat. Eventually he was entrusted with the recipe.
“I have the secret recipe between my ears,” Childress said with a laugh. “We use this secret recipe just for the festival.
“It’s a really, really good product made out of pork shoulder and beef chuck. And it’s so flavorful. We don’t cut corners. This is first class.”
In addition to the sausage that’s cooked at the festival, Farm Fresh makes a limited amount to be sold uncooked to festivalgoers who don’t want to wait in line for grilled sausage or just want to cook the sausage at home.
A big operation
Getting that much sausage ready for the big day is a lot of work.
“We’ll start on it Wednesday and go Wednesday and Thursday,” Childress said. “We’ll package it and they’ll pick it up on Friday.”
It’s not just a matter of grinding up meat, stuffing it in casings and selling it.
“We have to temper it,” Childress said. “We have to get it right at freezing, but you can’t let it freeze and you can’t let it get warm. It’s a pretty tedious process.”
Elberta’s German settlers cured sausage in smokehouses so that it would not spoil throughout the year. The sausage served at the festival is fresh sausage that’s grilled. The chore of cooking it falls to Scheer’s firefighters, their supporters and other volunteers. And cooking 6,500 pounds of sausage is quite an operation.
The festival is held twice a year, in October and April. Throughout most of the year, the seven-member festival committee meets monthly and then steps up the meeting to weekly as the festival approaches.
“It takes a lot of planning,” Scheer said.
The festival is focused on the park in the center of town that features a dedicated sausage booth, constructed just for sales. There’s a “beer garten,” vendors, music and other activities. But most folks come for the sausage.
When the sausage is delivered to the festival site, it goes into a refrigerated truck parked next to the sausage booth. The sausages come in long sections of connected links that must be cut apart. The sausage is passed from the truck through a window into the cut room.
Once the sausages are cut apart, they are loaded onto racks that can be placed on a long grill. The racks have handles that allow the people manning the grill to turn them. The racks are turned several times until they reach the end of the grill.
Once the grill is loaded, each time the racks are turned, one rack comes off the fire and another rack is placed on the grill. An internal temperature check determines if the sausages are done.
When removed from the racks, the sausages are placed into a tub and then moved to a warmer. Volunteers take the sausages as needed from the warmer to the windows where they are sold.
The operation requires two people working in the truck and four in the cutting room. Four people stack sausages in the racks and eight people work the grill. Three people take sausages off the grill.
The sausage booth has 12 windows and there are three people per window. In addition, six people make up bulk sausage orders and three people work to heat big pots of sauerkraut.
“It’s a big operation,” Scheer said. “We’ll have 150 people in and out of that building in various shifts.”
Koontz remembers that the sausage festival started out as more of an event to bring the townspeople together to enjoy their German heritage and rural lifestyle. Both are beginning to fade as modern life assimilates and homogenizes the people who live there. He mourns the passing of the people and their lifestyle.
“The families are dying out,” he said. “The younger generation doesn’t have the same values.”
But on Sausage Festival weekends, Elberta still remembers “Das Gute Leben.”