Germans have more bakeries and eat more varieties of bread than most other countries in the world (although we might not go toe-to-toe with France on the bakery count). According to the bread register of the German Institute for Bread (of course there is such a thing), there are now more than 3,200 officially recognized types of bread in the country. And German bread culture was officially added by UNESCO to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2015. A key German term rests upon those hearty loaves: one of the words for work is Broterwerb, literally “gaining one’s bread.” Bread is a staple for most meals in Germany: at breakfast, break-time (sometimes called Pausenbrot, or “break bread”) and dinner or Abendbrot, literally the “bread of the evening.”
“It sells like sliced bread” is a German proverb describing fast-selling items. Bread even stars on TV: a talking loaf named Bernd has become a popular character among German children. The comedy series “Bernd das Brot.” hosted by the titular character, has been airing on the children’s channel KI.KA since 2000. Oh, and the German postal system even has a stamp with a “German bread culture” slogan that went on sale in 2018. So why are Germans so mad about loafs, pretzels and rolls? One of the reasons for this immense variety in bread products is the fragmented history of Germany up until the 19th century. Until then, what is known as Germany now was a cluster of hundreds of small duchies or kingdoms, all with their own distinct culture and dialect, and with their own bread. Thrown into this mix in the Middle Ages were another cluster of successful and growing merchant cities, also trying to attract trade and new emigrants — some with outstanding baked goods.
Germany doesn’t have the same amount of sunshine as southern France or Italy, and many areas are not conducive to wheat production, so grains such as rye and spelt tended to thrive better here and produced breads still consumed today. The wheat-based breads remained in the southern cities like Munich and Stuttgart. The main driver for the bounty of bread: farmers, merchants and dukes alike needed something nourishing against the often cold and rainy days. So Germans to this day tend to eat sourdough bread made with rye, spelt and wheat flours and packed with grains and seeds. German bread is heavy and has substance; it (literally) outweighs fluffy focaccia or ciabatta. That hefty tradition never caught on in the rest of Europe. In 1792, Johann-Wolfgang von Goethe recorded that while on a military campaign in France, he offered some of his dark rye bread to two captured Frenchmen, and they promptly fled back to their own lines. Today, while food trucks in other countries serve up tacos and burgers for lunch, Germany sticks to standard bakeries, which all stock “belegte Brötchen,” rolls with a various fillings — the real German fast food.
The variety of baked goods can be a little perplexing when encountered for the first time: there’s farmers bread, mixed bread, stone oven bread, sunflower bread, pumpkin bread, five seed bread and so on. But don’t let all these loaves overwhelm you. Just visit a local bakery, or Bäckerei and have a look for yourself. All of it is good. And if you have a sweet tooth, most bakeries also have a confectioner (or Konditor) attached — so there’s cake and pastry aplenty. Germans were baking nutritious whole-grain bread long before the organic health food renaissance. While some supermarket chains have started baking their own goods in-store, most Germans swear by their local corner bakery and most German supermarkets actually come with their own little local bakery attached.
Becoming a baker continues to be a highly regarded trade, and German bakers complete high-level, creative training that most other countries do not have. There are German standards for bread quality and sizes, and each year the German Institute for Bread announces its “bread of the year.” In 2018, it’s Dinkel-Vollkornbrot, spelt whole grain bread. Eaten at most meals, bread still forms a cornerstone of the German diet and culture — even though some of the established larger bakeries have had problems recruiting new bakers in recent years, as fewer and fewer young people have an interest in learning the strenuous trade. That doesn’t mean that there are no artisan bakers trying to create new types of bread for a global audience in hip cities like Hamburg, Berlin or Munich. Bakeries such as Zeit für Brot, Soluna Brot und Öl or Springer are basing their products on natural and local ingredients to create new, delicious products — while still strongly rooted in the tradition of German craftsmanship.