Loading

You're reading

T

The sausage is the archetypal staple of German cuisine – but the traditional art of bratwurst-making may soon be a thing of the past.  

Across Germany, butchers have been shuttering their shops at an alarming rate. The number of butcher’s shops in operation nationwide has nearly halved in the last two decades, from 21,160 in 1998 to just under 12,000 in 2018, according to the German Butchers’ Association (DFV).

The trend is particularly pronounced in Berlin, where only 108 independent butcher’s shops serve the city’s 3.7 million residents. The difference is significant when compared to the central state of Thuringia, which has nearly 400 businesses for its population of 2.15 million, or the southern state of Bavaria, where nearly 3,300 businesses serve 13 million people.

Sales are up, interest is down

The closures do not appear to be related to financial strain. According to the DFV, Germans are still enthusiastic buyers of traditionally prepared meat products. Average annual sales per business increased by more than 60% in the last two decades, surpassing 1.4m euros ($1.57m, £1.26m) in 2018.

But if the demand is there, then why are Germany’s butchers closing down? According to Jörg Litgau, one of Berlin’s remaining master butchers, the answer is simple: the job has simply lost its appeal among the younger generation. “This job is hard work,” he says. “Nobody wants to do it anymore.”

Litgau has been at the helm of his business in Berlin’s Friedrichshain district since 1995. A fifth-generation butcher, he starts his mornings at 04:30 in the production area behind his shop. There, he spends 14 hours or more each day preparing meat products for sale, using family recipes for sausages and seasonings.  

“We make our own seasoning mixes,” he says. “Some of the other shops use pre-made seasonings out of a package. But you won’t find that here.”

In a small storefront on a quiet street, the fruits of his labour are on display: expertly sliced cuts of beef; small pork sausages known as Pfefferbeisser, tinged bright red from the addition of chilli powder; and long cylinders of seasoned brown liverwurst.  

“My parents did this work and my grandparents did this work,” he says. “My grandparents on my mother’s side opened their shop in this location in 1934.”  

But with no relative or apprentice lined up to take over, Litgau doesn’t expect the family tradition to continue after he retires.

“I’ve taken on a lot of trainees over the years,” he says. “But I don’t do it anymore. They’re not prepared for this work – or interested in it. They don’t want to take on jobs that require so much time and physical labour.”

Traineeships on the decline

This generational trend isn’t unique to Germany’s capital. According to recent estimates, two-thirds of the country’s butchers are over 50 – and the staffing to replace them just isn’t there. 

Nationwide, enrolment in butcher trainee programmes – which take place over a three-year period that mixes practical experience with classroom-based technical education – has dropped off significantly. While there were more than 10,000 butcher trainees in 1999, that number fell to just over 3,000 in 2017, according to the DFV.

Enrolment in traineeships for butcher’s shop sales roles, which require a similar three-year training period, have dropped off even more. While there were nearly 14,000 sales trainees in 1999, that number had dropped below 3,700 by 2017.

“We’re not only struggling with a lack of trained butchers, but also to staff the shops,” says Klaus Gerlach, the director of the Berlin Butchers’ Guild.

As with the shop closures, the lack of trainees has hit the capital city particularly hard. In July 2018, the Berlin Butchers’ Guild announced it would be ending its teaching programme for trainees at the city’s only technical butchery college.

“When the technical college opened 24 years ago, we had 1,250 trainees from Berlin and [the surrounding state of] Brandenburg,” Gerlach says. “Last year we had just 145.”

Trainees in both the butchery and sales programmes can continue to work at shops in Berlin during their traineeships, Gerlach says. But for the classroom component – in which they learn to work with modern machinery and other best practices – they’ll have to go 200km (124 miles) southwest, to a technical college in Leipzig.

A new approach

So what can be done to attract more trainees to the field? Gerlach says that better pay and improved working conditions are part of the answer. While trainees in Berlin earn a maximum monthly wage of around 700 euros ($785, £635) – a standard rate set by the local labour union – their counterparts in other parts of the country earn over 1,000 euros ($1,120, £905) per month.

“We need to remember that these aren’t just support workers,” he says. “They are the future of our trade.”

But keeping traditional butcher’s shops afloat may require more than just a cash injection. According to Hendrik Haase, a food activist and the co-founder of Berlin butcher’s shop Kumpel & Keule, the field is sorely in need of a PR overhaul.

“People these days are more knowledgeable,” he says. “They have so many questions about food: Is it OK to eat meat? What effects does it have on climate change? Where do the animals come from?”

Being able to engage in meaningful discussions on these topics, he says, can help keep butchery traditions alive in a society that is increasingly cutting meat from the menu.

There were over 10,000 butcher trainees in 1999 which dropped to just over 3,000 in 2017 (Credit: Getty Images)

Creating room for discussion

Haase, 35, is a communications consultant and designer by trade. Together with master butcher Jörg Förstera, 31, he opened Kumpel & Keule in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district in 2015.

From the beginning, transparency has been at the heart of their business model – not only regarding the origins of their products, but also quite literally: Förstera and other members of the team cut meat and form sausages behind large glass windows, giving customers an inside look at the production side.

“People are fed up with scandals and supermarket meat,” Haase says. “They want to spend their money on good food and look for that farm-to-table connection.”

Going forward, he says, butchers will need to find ways to bring this kind of openness to their businesses. Social media, production workshops and other forms of public outreach not only attract customers, they also generate interest in the field among potential new trainees. But if Germany’s butchers are unable to adapt, centuries-old traditions may be at stake.

“These recipes [for sausages or Leberkäse meatloaf] usually aren’t written down in a book somewhere – they’re in people’s heads,” Haase says. “If they give up, we lose so much of our culinary heritage. We are losing all these traditions the moment they close their doors.”

To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook  page or message us on Twitter.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Around the bbc