MADISON — Students and visitors passing through the Discovery Building on the UW-Madison campus early last week were in for a delicious surprise as dozens of different types of sausages and hams were being judged by master butchers visiting from Germany as part of the IFFA Quality Competition, a large international meat judging event held every three years in Frankfurt, Germany. Judges offered samples to those walking by, answering questions posed by the curious about the competition and the meats displayed on long tables in the judging area.

This was the second time the German Butchers’ Association, American Association of Meat Processors and UW-Madison’s Extension meat science program have worked together to hold this off-site competition in conjunction with the main competition in Frankfurt. With product entries into the contest from all over the world, it was important to organize a satellite contest in the U.S. to alleviate roadblocks processors can hit when mailing entries overseas.

“It has been getting difficult to get samples in from the U.S. and other non-European Union countries,” said Gero Jentzsch, a spokesperson for the German Butchers’ Association. “It can be especially difficult for small and medium entrants who need to complete a lot of paperwork and comply with food safety regulations.”

There was significantly more participation in this year’s competition than in 2015, Jentzsch added. Three years ago, there were 320 entries; this year, there are over 450 entries, with eight Wisconsin businesses entering about 75 products into the 2019 competition.

This was the second time Rick Reams of RJ’s Meats in Hudson and Louis Muench of Louie’s Finer Meats in Cumberland entered products into the meat competition. In 2015, they both received awards for their products, adding that they enjoy stopping by the satellite contest to talk with the judges and watch them complete their work during the three-day quality competition.

“The judges are approachable and fun to watch,” Reams said. “It’s also interesting to see that Germans are opening up to new flavors, like we are in the U.S., and are open to flavor innovation.”

Preparations for their entries started a year ahead of the competition, giving careful consideration to which products to enter and how long it takes to produce them. Reams entered 39 products this year, and now the men will wait anxiously for about a month for the results to be posted on the American Association of Meat Processors website.

For Gunther Kuhle, a German butcher and IFFA Quality judge, it’s relatively easy to spot entries from Wisconsin as many are made with cheese and cranberries — other commonly found products from the state. As a Master Butcher under the German Butchers’ Association, Kuhle has also seen a trend in more local meats, similar to how craft breweries have gained popularity.

“Having this trend of more local gives little companies a chance against big companies and allows for them to grow, explore new tastes and have their niche,” he said.

Kuhle and the four judges tasted a variety of meats, including traditional American meats like jerky and snack meats, traditional German meats like bologna, and others like Italian salami, braunschweiger, cooked ham, pastrami and more. And it should come as no surprise that many of the entries from the U.S. came from classic states with German, Swiss and Polish backgrounds.

“Wisconsin has a great tradition here and there are a lot of meat producers with heritage back to Germany,” said Chris Young, secretary of the American Association of Meat Processors. “We have a strong meat presence here, with one of the largest groups of small craft butchers in the country.”

Young serves as a liaison for the competition, helping to organize the scattering of entries as they arrived via mail or were driven to the UW-Madison campus. He, along with Jeff Sindelar, Extension meat specialist and associate professor in the department of animal sciences, stored the entries in a cooler in the university’s meat lab and provided the judges with a variety of meat to critique over the course of the three-day event.

Young was also available during the competition if the judges had questions on entries as some American tastes may be foreign to the German judges. He used the example of a Wisconsin summer sausage, which can taste differently than summer sausages produced in other parts of the country.

Having experts like Young and Sindelar on hand has proved helpful, and the setting of the university with its meat lab and other facilities has made it an ideal partner for the competition, commented Jentzsch. However, organizers have ambitions to move the satellite competition around the U.S. in the future, which means it may not be held at UW-Madison in three years.

But for those who had the opportunity to witness the competition, Sindelar said, “it was a great chance for people to learn how an international meat product judging competition works and learn about the quality meat products made across the country, especially here in Wisconsin.”