Does Lake Michigan Water Make Sausage Taste Better?

May 6, 2016

A photo from 1899 of the Miller Brewing Company building in downtown Milwaukee.
Credit Milwaukee Public Library

The ready access Milwaukee has to fresh water - lots and lots of fresh water - seems like an obvious reason that so many breweries chose to open up shop here. Of course, the thousands of German immigrants didn't hurt, either.

But listener Randall Sawicki wonders if our water - straight from Lake Michigan - plays a role in how things taste. He wrote in to our Bubbler Talk project, "I have a craft beer making friend that swears Milwaukee’s water makes the beer better. I’d like to know if the same is true with sausage."

It seems like the first part - the beer quality - might make sense. You might have seen those commercials for Leinenkugel's beer - the ones that seek to do for the purity of Wisconsin water what all those Coors commercials have claimed about Rocky Mountain water. But is it true? And sausages?

Matt Howard says there is a little truth in there, insomuch as Milwaukee's water quality is good, and that means food and beverage companies don't need to do as much to treat it. But Howard, who is Director of the Alliance for Water Stewardship - North America, says a lot of the water in our food comes along as part of the supply chain. "Water's already in those primary products [like meat] that go into the final product," he says.

But can you taste Milwaukee's water supply in the final product you get from the meat counter?

William Steinmeyer Company window display of variously processed meats from 1933.
Credit Milwaukee Public Library

Howard says, "Maybe.  If you have very powerful tastebuds." But he says many companies wouldn't want you to taste Milwaukee's water, anyway. "A lot of food and beverage companies these days pre-treat the water before they use it," he says. 

Schlitz Brewing Company beer delivery truck with refrigerated section to keep beer cold. Parked in front of residential home as driver makes delivery.
Credit Milwaukee Public Library

In fact, he says, "I have it on very good authority that a very large brewing company treats all the water at every one of its facilities so that the water actually tastes the same."

But Howard allows that history may have told a different story. "It may have been important in the early development of the food and beverage sector in Milwaukee and in Wisconsin, in terms of the taste of the water.  But in this day and age, it comes down to the quality of the water."

On the other hand, Howard says, when it comes to cooling off after having a sausage on a hot summer day, "nice Milwaukee water - and Lake Michigan water - certainly helps."

The rock band, They Might Be Giants, offers a suggestion for one group of people who might taste Milwaukee's water in Milwaukee's sausages: