Why you should care
You can’t get more German than cars and sausages — together.
While thousands of cars roll off the production lines at the headquarters of Volkswagen each day, a group of German butchers huddles around a table at lunch to carefully inspect, smell and taste test a different product: the day’s freshly produced currywurst sausage.
Currywurst — essentially a grilled bratwurst smothered in a mix of ketchup and curry powder — is one of Germany’s most popular foods, and at Volkswagen canteens in the northern German city of Wolfsburg in the state of Lower Saxony, that holds particularly true. At 70 million square feet, the Wolfsburg plant is the largest factory in the world, with 60,000 employees. So big that an internal butchery churns out 6.7 million Volkswagen-branded currywurst sausages annually.
In fact, the Wolfsburg factory produces eight times more currywurst than cars.
And 40 percent of those sausages — 2.5 million in 2018 — are consumed at German Volkswagen plants alone. At the Wolfsburg factory, the sausages — along with a Volkswagen currywurst sauce — are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner at its more than a dozen restaurants and canteens. But since the company’s internal butchery started to produce the sausage in 1973 using a secret recipe that incorporates pork belly and cheek, bacon and curry spices, the Volkswagen currywurst has become so popular that the vast majority is now sold via a major supermarket chain and consumed by households across the country. A package of five sausages and a bottle of Volkswagen spiced ketchup costs around $10.
The sausages are either around 5 inches or 10 inches long, “and if you string all of them together, you’d have a chain that would stretch from Wolfsburg all the way to Barcelona,” says Volkswagen spokesperson Torsten Cramm.
Unlike his predecessors, Dietmar Schulz, current head of food production at Volkswagen, doesn’t get the meat from a company-owned farm anymore, but it’s still regionally sourced, and he says that he’s proudly responsible for a sausage that is popular even in southern Germany’s Bavaria, famous for its own sausage culture — specifically Weisswurst sausages.
To 55-year-old Schulz, currywurst is an iconic German meal. “It’s really just a sausage, but it is popular throughout all classes of society. Everyone loves it, even high-level managers who would otherwise eat some truffle dish,” he says. A butcher by training, Schulz says that he’s been eating the Volkswagen sausages long before he came to work at the factory seven years ago, pointing to the synergies between the relatively low-fat sausage and the sauce, which has an intense curry flavor with a tinge of spiciness. A vegan currywurst was introduced in 2010.
While currywurst and currywurst soup are daily staples at the more than a dozen restaurants and canteens that serve employees at Volkswagen Wolfsburg, last year the company celebrated the 45th anniversary of its sausage production with special dishes like a currywurst burger and a currywurst pizza. Volkswagen’s museum showcased the history of its currywurst alongside iconic cars like the Volkswagen Beetle and the hippie-era bus. Before that, the Volkswagen currywurst was already featured in Berlin’s currywurst museum, which opened in 2009 but closed down last December.
According to legend, Herta Heuwer, the owner of a food stall in Berlin, invented the currywurst in 1949 out of necessity and lack of other ingredients. British soldiers stationed in the already divided city had given her curry powder; she mixed it with ketchup, creating a sauce that could mask the low-quality ingredients of postwar sausages. In that sense, the currywurst was a trailblazing invention that soon tied into the German Wirtschaftswunder — the rapid development of Germany’s economy after World War 2, says Meike-Marie Thiele, the creator of the currywurst museum.
“It was this idea that we will prevail, and the fact that it’s a dish for ordinary Germans, just like the VW was meant for ordinary people,” she says. “It’s the same mindset, and that’s what makes it such a perfect match.”