Pumpernickel Is Just One of Germany’s 3,240 Breads

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Weichardt-Brot)

Germany’s baking heritage is a big deal. In 2014, the Central Association of German Bakers petitioned UNESCO to add German baking to the list of “intangible cultural heritages.” In 2015, three Saxon bakers were added to the list.

It makes sense: After all, a traditional German meal plan stars bread at least two meals a day, typically Frühstück (or breakfast) and Abendbrot, which translates as “evening bread.” And an afternoon coffee and cake break is practically a national pastime.

For Kaffee und Kuchen, a standard choice would be a sheet cake, Blechkuchen —basically the grandfather and platonic ideal of American coffee cake — with toppings like rhubarb streusel or sliced plums. But more elaborate, multi-layered confections are sometimes too tempting and, even eating a slice of cake a day, it would take quite a long time to sample any Konditerei‘s offerings.

There’s Sahnekuchen, sponge cake with a layer of whipped cream in the middle; Mohnkuchen, which has a pleasantly gritty ground-poppyseed filling; or the barely-msweet, Quark-based cheese cake with sour cherries — you get the idea.

You might think that bread would be simpler, but you’d be wrong.

(Image credit: Weichardt-Brot)

The Diversity of German Bread

There are over 3,000 varieties of bread alone. And no, I’m not making this up. There’s actually an organization, “Bread Culture,” where guild-licensed German bakers can certify their creations. The number right now is at 3,240. Which means German bread isn’t just remarkably delicious — it’s also remarkably diverse.

Many of these breads are sourdough (using no commercial yeast) and feature just three ingredients: flour, water, and salt. And while you might imagine these breads as the heavy, all-rye seeded pumpernickel loaves most people think of when they imagine German bread, “mixed breads,” with various proportions of rye flour to wheat, are the backbone of German baking.

Furthermore, while German soil is particularly great for growing rye and wheat, oats, spelt, and barley are also major crops. It’s not uncommon, for example, to see a spelt loaf next to one that’s 100 percent rye next to a seed-and-nut bread held together with the smallest amount of wheat flour. There’s so much variety at even the tiniest bakery that Germany is, it turns out, a surprising paradise for the wheat- and gluten-intolerant.

So, why are German baked goods so ridiculously diverse? One reason, according to the director of the Museum for Bread Culture in Ulm, is the strength of German regionalism. Due to the relatively late unification of Germany, states distinguished themselves not only by language differences, but also by distinctions in their food and bread culture.

The Future of German Bread

Despite this diversity, there is still some concern about decreasing bread sales in Germany. More urgently, that there are fewer and fewer bakers seeking the strenuous “Meisterbäcker” certification each year.

While old-school stalwarts, like Dresdner Feinbäckerei, are keeping the doors open by making the same exceptional bread they’ve made for over a century, many small bakeries struggle to find replacements when their lead baker retires. They have been squeezed by competition from supermarket and mass-market bakery chains at the same time that fewer and fewer students want to join a trade, opting instead to go to university.

Is this centuries-old tradition actually endangered? Not if the new crop of bakers on the scene has anything to say about it. The new wave has a contemporary sensibility, but decidedly old-school techniques — like wood-burning ovens and flour milled in house.

And I, for one, am betting that German bread is here to stay — because there’s nothing else like it. If you need convincing, ask Germans abroad: I’m sure they’ll tell you that nobody has quite mastered rolls with a crispy outside and cushiony inside like at home.