It was the best of times, it was the wurst of times.
Testing $300 worth of supermarket sausage – 36 varieties from the four major outlets – was always going to be a challenge for our testers' stomachs.
So why do it in the first place?
Ask people for their opinions about what makes a great sausage and they either pull a face (Why would you want to taste test sausages? What's the point?), or they'll say: The best ones are outside Bunnings.
The best ones are not outside Bunnings.
On the whole, those are budget-level slurry tubes. Because they are served hot, charred, covered in sauce, mustard and onions, and we are hungry when we buy one, they're fine. As long as we don't think about it too much.
But in the supermarket you'll find dozens of varieties, from those sausage sizzle bulk packs to such exotica as Jamie Oliver's "Italian-style veal and pork sausages with fennel and red wine" ($8.50).
You do need to engage with the sausage. Maybe not with how it's been made, but at least at the level of which will taste best.
Which raises questions.
Can you buy a decent sausage from a bog-standard supermarket? Which has the best ones? Is it worth spending more on the "gourmet" varieties?
We put those questions to the taste test, and the results were quite surprising.
Aldi was the winning supermarket with four of their five own-brand sausages making the top 10.
Coles was next with three varieties in the top 10, Woolworths scored one, with two IGA supermarkets (All Natural Sausage Company and Outback Spirit) podium winners in first and third place, and a Jamie Oliver sausage at number two.
For our experiment, we visited a typical suburban Coles supermarket, a Woolworths, an Aldi and two local IGAs. We bought every sausage variety we could find – a total of 36.
We can't say with certainty we sampled every sausage on offer in every supermarket across the land, but it was a representative sample, taking in cheapo barbecue-fillers, oddities like "Chicago-style cheesy brats", pricey organics from Cherry Tree and Macro, own-brand premium lines such as "Coles' Finest", high-end lines like King Island and Beak, and celebrity-endorsed recipes from Heston Blumenthal (Coles) and Jamie Oliver (Woolworths).
A gun team of restaurant critics, editors, and food and drink writers put their palates on the line.
They were Peter Barrett, food writer; Gemima Cody, Good Food restaurant critic; Richard Cornish, Good Food columnist; Jessica Dale, editorial assistant; Roslyn Grundy, editor, The Age Good Food Guide; Michael Harry, producer, Executive Style; Matt Holden, food writer; Fred Siggins, drinks writer and consultant; and Mark Stehle, German-born sausage-meister.
And to keep our reviewers on their toes, we threw in a couple of vegetarian varieties and a pack of "Kanga Bangers" made with roo and bush tomato.
This is how we conducted the test:
1. We gathered together nine tasters, who were directed to try every sausage "blind" (each sample was assigned a number and plated identically), without bread or condiments, and to score out of 10 for appearance, aroma, casing, texture, meat-fat balance and overall flavour.
2. For the elimination round, we cooked the sausages in the oven. This was controversial as it doesn't brown them well, but it left them juicy, consistently cooked and uncontaminated by competing flavours.
3. We split our testers into two groups, one sampling and rating 18 sausages, the other testing 19. The top five sausages from each group went into the final round.
4. We cooked the top 10 sausages on a Weber barbecue for maximum appeal.
5. Each taster rated each sausage individually, without conferring, and we ranked the winners.
The findings? A very mixed bag.
From the elimination round, our tasters' appearance, aroma and flavour feedback ranged from "Found a vein!!" (Coles Pork, Honey, and Rosemary) to "unwashed person" (a heady combo of chicken, rocket and parmesan).
Positive feedback included "good casing" (Peppercorn Extra Lean Beef) and "tastes like childhood" (Coles beef, herb and garlic).
Three sausages scored zero in the first round.
They were Gourmet Game Bush Tomato Kangaroo ("absolute horror"), the Vegie Delights Thai, Chilli and Lime Chicken-style ("all filler, no meat") and chicken parmesan. Surprises were Jamie's Classic Cumberland Pork Sausages bombing out ("smells like armpit"), even though its stablemate ended up in second spot.
Despite Heston's promise that his $8 pork and sage sausages were "sensational", our tasters didn't agree. King Island's beef sausages with onion and parsley were also a surprising omission from the final round.
You don't always get a better sausage when you pay more: some of the "gourmet" varieties were plain weird. Kudos to Woolworths for using free-range chicken in your chicken and camembert snags but you needn't have bothered.
A big name doesn't guarantee a good sausage: Jamie's were good, but Heston's Pork and Sage (for Coles) didn't make the top 10.
We tried to slip a couple of vegetarian sausages into the mix. They didn't compete successfully.
Neither did the kangaroo snags. But chicken sausages can be OK (as long as they don't have camembert in them).
We were disappointed with the $9.47 beef sausages from Cherry Tree Organics.
Aldi is good value: four of the top 10 were from Aldi.
It's possible to eat a maximum of three sausages without feeling sick – unless you employ a sausage spittoon, but the less we say about that the better.
And, as we said, at least nobody vomited.
The top 10
1. The All Natural Sausage Company (Available at Coles)
Italian Sausage $7 (44.7 points)
The packaging prominently displays the ingredients: lean pork, red wine, ground rice, parsley, garlic, salt, herbs and spices, chilli. And our reviewers responded. "Clearly a sausage made from real, life-food," Gemima wrote. "I'm a fan of chilli and it packed just enough punch," wrote Peter. Matt scored it down, finding it "very porky and garlicky", but Richard conceded: "Yeah, give me some sangiovese and some crusty bread and I'll be happy." (Also highly recommended is the All Natural Sausage Company's traditional chicken sausage, $7).
2. Created With Jamie (made exclusively for Woolworths)
Italian-Style Veal and Pork Sausages with Fennel and Red Wine $7.99 (41.8)
Our tasters were of one mind about its appearance: "More real than some of the others", "looks like it's made of real food", "like a real sausage rather than an industrial sausage". And it delivered in flavour, too, with the fennel, herbs and garlic quite obvious. A couple noted a "slightly artificial" aftertaste, but overall the verdict was positive. "Would go back," said one reviewer, which, in this contest, was high praise.
3. Outback Spirit (Available at Coles)
Pork Sausages with Kakadu Plum and Lemon Aspen $5 (41)
It didn't grill up perfectly (Roslyn wondered if it was chicken; Richard likened it to "Geoffrey Edelsten's neck") but most were impressed with its well-balanced texture, low-ish grease content and "pleasant" flavour, generally coming away with positive feelings about it despite its appearance.
4. Brannan's Butchery (Aldi-owned brand)
Pork and Apple Cider Gourmet Sausages (gluten-free) $6.49 (38.3)
Very middle-of-the-road, this one: no great highs, nor much criticism either. Nobody picked up the cider in the blind tasting, but several noted it tasted fruity, or of cinnamon or red wine. Our reviewers found it "generally appealing" in appearance, while disagreeing on whether it was juicy or too "fatty", and, overall, were a bit underwhelmed, calling it "pleasing", "not badly made", "underwhelming" and "innocuous".
5. Brannan's Butchery (Aldi-owned brand)
Lamb and Rosemary Gourmet Sausages (gluten free) $6.49 (38.18)
None of our reviewers picked this was lamb, but they liked the herby flavour, with one noting "nothing artificial or weird" and another suggesting it "could come across as a high-end butcher's sausage". Yet it didn't quite rouse passions. "Juicy, fatty, vibrant, nice flavour," wrote one tester, "yet I am unmoved."
6. Coles Finest (Coles-owned brand)
RSPCA Approved Chicken $7 (37)
A historic moment for a chicken sausage, making it into a top-10 snag list against porky competition. "Nice and bland," gushed one taster. "I feel like this is the most refreshing sausage," wrote another. The key to its success was probably the visible herbs, which livened up an otherwise "mushy" looking interior and added much-needed flavour. But there was no getting away from its origins: "Aren't chicken sausages a bit weird?" wrote one reviewer. "A little weird," agreed another.
7. Coles Finest (Coles-owned brand)
Australian Angus Beef with Garlic and Parsley (gluten free) $7 (36.8)
Easy on the eye, this looked "just like a banger should", with "lovely colour". Our tasters also picked up the advertised garlic and herbs, and some liked its "meaty" texture. But several found it too fatty or greasy. "It's disappointing when something looks better than it tastes."
8. Coles Sausages (Coles-owned brand)
Beef, Herb and Garlic $4.50 (34.5)
"A basic, totally acceptable, Bunnings sizzle option," said one taster, which summed up the group. It browned up well, looked tasty … and yet the flavour was slightly disappointing, one taster summarising it as "bland, salty and not much else going on". "Not bad, not great," said another.
9. Brannan's Butchery (Aldi-owned brand)
Thin sausages (gluten free) $3.69 (32.9)
Aldi's basic barbecue fodder divided our tasters, with some disliking its simple construction – "cheap and nasty", "industrial", "hot dog" – but others applauding its honesty: "no weird bits", "sausage sizzle snag", "classic sausage". The verdict: inoffensive "but not awesome".
10. Brannan's Butchery (Aldi-owned brand)
Juicy Pork Sausages $3.69 (32.2)
Damned by faint praise: our testers declared it "very processed, in a good way", as seen at "a thousand fundraisers". Several commented on how salty it tasted, and on its finely textured meat, which some found "mushy", but others didn't mind. "A well-made industrial sausage," concluded Richard.
Here's the list of all the sausages we tried:
■ Peppercorn Food Company Extra Lean Beef Sausages, $7.99
■ Peppercorn Food Company Extra Lean Pork Sausages with Ginger and Shallots, $7.99
■ The All Natural Sausage Company Italian Sausage, $7
■ Bert's Steakhouse Butcher's Sausages, $6.86
■ Farm Foods Chicago Style Cheesy Brats, $7
■ Coles Finest RSPCA Approved Chicken, $7
■ Coles Sausages Pork, Honey and Rosemary, $5.50
■ Coles Sausages Thin BBQ Beef, $4.50
■ Coles Sausages with Chicken with Parsley, $5.50
■ Coles Sausages Beef, Herb and Garlic, $5.50
■ Coles Sausages Thick BBQ Beef, $4.50
■ Coles Finest Traditional Recipe Chorizo, $7
■ Coles Finest Angus Beef with Garlic and Parsley, $7
■ Gourmet Game Kangaroo and Bush Tomato, $5.49
■ Outback Spirit Pork with Kakadu Plum and Lemon Aspen, $5
■ Heston For Coles Pork and Sage, $8
■ Cherry Tree Organics Traditional Beef, $9.47
■ King Island Beef Sausages with Onion and Parsley, $6.25
■ Vegie Delights Meat Free BBQ Sausages, $7.98
■ Vegie Delights Thai Chilli and Lime, $7.49
■ Beak and Sons Traditional Beef, $7
■ Beak and Sons Tuscan Pork, $7
■ Beak and Sons smoky chorizo, $7
■ Created with Jamie Classic Cumberland Pork, $8.50
■ Created with Jamie Italian-style Veal and Pork with fennel; and red wine, $8.50
■ Macro Organic Lamb, Mint and Rosemary, $7.50
■ Brannan's Butchery (Aldi) Thin, $3.49
■ Brannan's Butchery (Aldi) Juicy Pork, $3.49
■ Brannan's Butchery (Aldi) Pork and Apple Cider, $6.49
■ Brannan's Butchery (Aldi) Lamb and Rosemary, $6.49
■ Brannan's Butchery (Aldi) Angus Beef, Garlic and Parsley, $6.49
■ Woolworth's Gold Succulent Lamb with Mint, Rosemary and Australian Honey, $7.99
■ Woolworth's Gold Free Range Chicken with Camembert and Sauteed Onion, $7.99
■ Woolworth's Gold Chicken with Rocket and Parmesan, $8.50
■ Woolworths Select Aussie Beef, $6
■ Woolworths Chicken Sausages, $6.29