A fire in a small Baltimore County meatpacker's attic has sounded an alarm throughout the Baltimore-Washington German culinary community. As Oktoberfest gatherings loom on the fall calendar, no more fresh sausages, wursts, frankfurters and other smoked delicacies - at least for now.
"People don't always realize that we serve the German, Swiss and Austrian embassies in Washington," said Sonya Weber, the daughter of Egon Binkert, who founded Binkert's in 1964 to sell authentic meat products to those who want certain traditional Middle European foods made in a time-honored way.
Moments before the Monday morning fire broke out, head sausage maker Lothar Weber, son-in-law of the firm's founder, heard a strange noise as he blended chopped meat in an industrial food processor. He felt a sensation like a burst of wind was coming through the roof in his Golden Ring-area shop on Philadelphia Road.
Soon he, his wife and a handful of employees watched as flames worked their way through the roof and attic of the Binkert family meat products kitchen housed in a one-story brick building in a roadside shopping strip.
The shop also carries lunch meat, German-style breads from Canada, mustard and imported sauerkraut - and serves a large Washington customer base, including German-born hotel chefs with a demanding palate.
Throughout yesterday, customers - among them a ship chandler who wanted to feed a German crew on a local freighter - arrived at the shop's parking lot and talked over the situation. The owners sat under a small tent and put on a brave face.
"The fire will have an impact on us," said Steve Frazier, an owner and brewery manager of the Brewers Art, a Mount Vernon restaurant-bar.
"For the past 10 years, the [Binkert's] sausage platter has been a staple and a customer favorite. And we're out of sauerkraut, too," Frazier said. "The sausages were made traditionally, and they were always very fresh. They worked particularly well for what we are doing."
He said that while his restaurant-bar goes through nearly 20 pounds of the sausage a week, he also keeps 10 pounds of the Nurnburger bratwurst in his home freezer.
"Binkert's impresses me because it's a local, family-run business," Frazier said. "The fire has to be bad for Lothar. He keeps the place so clean and is always tending the outside garden."
By the time Baltimore County firemen had extinguished Monday's fire, soggy ceiling tiles and insulation had dropped over the salesroom and meatpacking operation.
"I was making frankfurters," Weber said as he walked through what would have been a spotlessly clean work area.
A day after the fire, he pointed to the ruined pureed meat that still sat in a stainless steel bin. On a better day, these frankfurters would have left the store and be resting on a grill. Weber, 52, was born in a small village near Baden-Baden, Germany. He and his wife, the former Sonya Binkert, met while they were students at Freiburg University. He was once a high school teacher of biology and geography but changed professions to enter the Binkert family sausage business in 1987. He and his wife assumed ownership in 2000 when the elder Binkert retired.
"The contents label of our sausages has maybe four items. The label on most commercial sausage is so long with additives you can't read it," Weber said yesterday as he led an informal tour of his damaged kitchen. "We smoke our meats with burning sawdust instead of using liquid smoke the way so many other places do."
He spoke of his German clientele who did not want meats containing hormones and other additives.
Weber also pointed to a new piece of meatpacking equipment he recently imported from Germany. He said it had cost him $100,000 - but he was heartened that the heat was not great enough to damage it significantly.
"I get my meats from Hatfield - a slaughterhouse that buys from Pennsylvania Dutch farmers," Weber said. "We buy our meat deboned in 50-pound boxes. If the animals are stressed when they are being transported, the meat will be full of moisture and the sausages will turn out soggy. We do not use that type of meat."
Word of the fire spread throughout Baltimore's German community yesterday.
"I heard the news this morning," said 84-year-old Alfred Zeller, who lives on Mary Avenue in Hamilton. "I thought, 'Oh no!' Binkert's made very good sausage. Maybe now I'll be forced to order from Milwaukee or New York."