The Rise, Fall, and Rise of German Bread
The German bread tradition has been challenged by a lack of interest in the baking profession and rise of mass production, but it’s rising once again.
Brötchen von Wiedemann. Fotos von der Autorin.
"You can't get proper bread in the States," a homesick Bertolt Brecht wrote in his diary while in exile in the United States in 1941. "I love eating bread."
More than 70 years later, Germany's love affair with bread is hardly wearing off. Other than beer, punctuality, and organization, there are few things that are regarded as quintessentially German as bread. On average, every German eats 87 kilos (192 pounds) of the stuff anually. Because Germany boasts such an incredible number of bread varieties—with more than 300 types—it's also been one of the country's most notable cultural exports. German bread is appreciated and valued so much that UNESCO added it to its list of intangible cultural heritage earlier this year.
Despite that, Germany has recently seen significant transformations in the industry, resulting in a sharp decline in the number of independent bakeries, as well as in interest from young people who would want to be bakers in the future.
"In 1955, there were 55,000 bakeries in Germany; today there are still 12,500 businesses. Every day, one bakery closes in Germany forever, often after many generations," said Bernd Kütscher, director of the National German Bakers Academy.
Wiedemann, a locally favoured independent baking business in a suburb of North-Rhine Westphalia, might be one of those businesses that close forever when its owners retire.
"It's very difficult to find young people to train as bakers these days," said Petra Wiedemann, who has operated the bakery for more than 30 years.
"Although we are a locally known and profitable business, I guess we'll close it once we retire because there's no one to take the business over," she added.
In Germany, the craft of baking is a tradition that is passed on from generation to generation via apprenticeship programs. Praised by economists around the world, these apprenticeship programs are a fundamental model for not just the traditional craft of baking, but also for fueling Europe's biggest economy.
"Being a baker is physically demanding. It requires a very early wake-up time—usually you have to be at work as early as 1 or 2 AM. So it doesn't accommodate a lifestyle where you can go to disco or do other things that younger people might love," Wiedemann added.
Hence, there has been a fundamental decline in the interest for baking apprenticeships. According to a report published by the Central Association of German Bakers, the number of trainee bakers declined by more than a third from 36,000 in 2008 to 23,000 in 2013.
Kütscher, who is also a master baking trainer, is aware of this issue, although he believes baking is a very rewarding career.
"Indeed, young people know very little about our profession except the 'getting up early in the morning' part," he said.
They have now designed a recruitment program, and even created a Baker's Anthem in the form of a video clip to attract younger generations to this career path. Yet, the baking apprenticeship programs are nowhere near full.
Another big challenge faced by Germany's independent and artisan bakers is mass production, along with the rise of supermarket baking departments.
"I guess I am quite representative of my generation with my shopping habits," Nina Käwel, 28, said.
"I would have loved to shop at local independent bakery. I know it's much nicer. But I just don't have a lot of time, so I tend to buy my bread when I do my general shopping from supermarket."
"Also, I don't know if it's because they put chemicals into the bread or something, but the bread I buy from the supermarkets stay fresh much longer," added Käwel.
Despite the rise of mass-produced bakery products, Wiedemann nevertheless emphasizes that the sales have actually been picking up in the last few years.
"Our usual clientele is quite old. But lately we have a younger and health-conscious type of customer who boosts our sales significantly," she said. "The businesses might shut or change hands. But with this type of demand rising, I don't think the diversity of German bread is under threat." Now, who would have thought that hipsters could save the German artisan baking tradition?
Likewise, despite all the challenges, Kütscher is also optimistic about the industry, and he considers the recent changes just a paradigm shift.
"The numbers might [make it] seem like the death of a craft, but it is nothing else than a market adjustment, which exists in every type of trade. While other bakeries close down, others expand by constantly opening new points of sale. In the end, the number of bakery sites in Germany even grows. There are currently about 46,000," he said.
Germans are unlikely to fall out of love with their bread. And with the UNESCO recognition, Kütscher remains upbeat about the legacy of this profession.
"Artisan bakers in Germany are very proud and confident for the future."