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BERLIN — Karsten Berning goes to bed at 10 every night. Two and a half hours later, he rises again and heads to work. Berning is a baker in Germany, where the profession dates to the Middle Ages and boasts a vast range of products: more than 3,000 types of bread, in addition to pastries, cookies and cakes.
But with supermarkets offering far cheaper bread and baking careers falling out of favor with young people, Germany is quickly losing its bakeries. Now the country’s UNESCO committee has added German bread culture to its list of “intangible cultural heritage.”
“Here in Germany we’re lucky that the grains you need for bread grow here — rye, corn, spelt,” said Berning over breakfast in his bakery, near the Innsbrucker Platz in west Berlin. “Bakers like the challenge of creating something new.” Berning — a fourth-generation owner of the bakery founded by his great-grandfather Johann Mayer a century ago — prides himself on regularly adding new creations to his lineup of loaves, rolls and pastries.
So do many other bakers. The German Bakers Association keeps a running count of the number of bread types created by the country’s bread makers: as of this writing, 3,259. For centuries, the morning excursion to the baker’s well-stocked shelves has been an inexpensive daily ritual for Germans of all stripes. Behind the counter in Berning’s bakery, Mayer S loaves made from coarse rye flour and sunflower seeds sit next to the Kraftkornbrot, produced from wheat, rye and rye malt; and the Schrittmacher Nuß, featuring rye, walnuts and the trendy Kamut grain. Customers can also choose from sourdough bread rolls, spelt bread rolls, the traditional Schweineohren (pig’s ears) pastry, butter apple pocket pastries and dozens of other items.
“The diversity of bread in Germany is considerable, and many people consider it part of their identity,” said Christoph Wulf, a professor of anthropology at the Free University of Berlin. “Thanks to bread, people have everyday exchanges that aid communal life.”
Customers are seemingly more likely to engage in a friendly chat at the bakery than at the self-service supermarket checkout. But today traditional bakers have to compete with chains that offer bread and pastries at about half the price, not to mention supermarkets that feature a small number of bakery items at rock-bottom prices. In the past 10 years, Germany has lost 4,500 bakeries. Just 12,611 survive, though some are chains that operate numerous outlets. “Every day a bakery goes out of business,” said Dirk Steiger. “It’s sad to see an old trade die.”
Steiger, an east Berliner in his early 40s, decided to do something about it. Despite having no experience as a baker, he gave up his job as managing director of an entertainment company and begged a friend for an internship in his bakery. Three years ago, Steiger opened Zeit für Brot (Time for Bread) near Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, the neighborhood where he grew up.
During a recent visit, tourists were competing with locals for seats at Zeit für Brot’s tables, which provide a view of the bakers at work behind a glass panel. Steiger’s eight bakers take turns working around the clock in eight-hour shifts, serving bread and pastries made from organic local grain to the café’s roughly 700 daily customers. They also deliver it to nearby upscale hotels. Though the bakery’s price tags are rather steep — 5 euros ($5.60) or more for a loaf of bread — customers seem ready to pay for the experience.
Indeed, argued Peter Becker, the president of the German Bakers Association, going upscale will help the baker trade. “It’s moving towards gastro,” he reported. A growing number of bakeries now offer Zeit für Brot-style baking in front of customers, turning Germans’ daily bread run into an experience more commonly associated with high-end restaurants. Still, profit margins are shrinking, and last year the bakers association applied for German bread culture to be added to the country’s UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage, which includes traditions and practices passed down from generations.
This spring the bread culture made the cut, securing a spot on the German UNESCO committee’s list of 27 forms of knowledge that are important to preserve. It joins amateur choir singing, Morse telegraphy and the German labor movement. “In Germany there are several hundred ways of making bread, for which you need extensive knowledge that varies according to the region,” said Wulf, a member of the German UNESCO committee. “That knowledge is kept alive by the baker trade, where it’s developed and passed on to future generations.”
UNESCO, which also maintains a World Heritage Convention list of important buildings, created its Intangible Cultural Heritage list 12 years ago after realizing that many cultural traditions are at risk of being forgotten. While inclusion doesn’t guarantee any explicit protections or benefits, it can bring publicity. The list’s most recent additions, from 2014, include askiya, an Uzbek art of wit; Mongolian knuckle-bone shooting; and Burundi’s ritual dance of the royal drum.
German bakers are now lobbying for the country’s UNESCO committee to nominate their bread culture to the international list. But unlike some traditions on that list, German bread baking isn’t exactly in danger of extinction. While bakers complain of high energy costs and low profit margins, they see promise in growing consumer interest in organic and local products.
“Yes, not everyone is able to buy their bread here, but if you come you can find something really special,” said Berning, who uses local organic ingredients. Recently he introduced bread made from whole grain and shredded carrots, an update on Germany’s traditional dark, fiber-rich bread featuring different combinations of grain. At around 4 euros per loaf, Berning’s bread is about twice as expensive as that available in supermarket chains. But on any given day it comes in around two dozen varieties, compared with three or four baked at the supermarket. Berning now owns four bakeries across Berlin, employing a total of 28 people. Like many of their competitors, Berning and his bakers are also certified pastry chefs, and his stores offer a range of seasonally inspired pastries such as plum tarts. (As with other trades, the baker and pastry chef professions require professional certification in Germany.)
But while customers seem to materialize easily, finding bakers is a different matter. “Young people don’t want to become bakers,” Steiger said. Zeit für Brot trains baker apprentices, but in order to expand, Steiger needs more master bakers. According to Becker, the baker shortage presents the biggest challenge to Germany’s bread culture today. Professional trades have long been a respectable choice for German teenagers, but today more students are opting for university education instead. Last year, 50 percent of all apprenticeship positions — which lead to professional certifications such as baker — went unfilled. Other than offering significantly higher pay, it’s unclear what bakeries can do to attract teenagers to a profession they’re not interested in.
To make up for his two and a half hours’ nightly sleep, Berning takes an afternoon nap. Such odd schedules may also be a deterrent, no matter how rewarding the practice of inventing new bread types may be. Perhaps the German baker, too, should be added to UNESCO’s list.