Barely five years in town, Julius Brantner has baked his way into the hearts of Munich residents with his organic breads, rolls and croissants. A conversation about sourdough trends, the importance of resting the dough and pretzels vs. “Brezn”.
When you stand in front of one of Julius Brantner's transparent organic bakeries in the evening, you might easily mistake it for something other than a bakery. The interior, tastefully decorated with terrazzo, marble and brass, exudes a sleek aesthetic that could rival a design studio or a trendy bar. During the day, such an idea would not even cross your mind: For one thing, because the queues often snake their way to the sidewalk with people scurrying out at short intervals, gently hugging brown bread bags. Mainly, however, because of the enticing smell of freshly baked bread that permeates the entire street. But the fact that his bread would become a city favourite within a short time even surprised Julius Brantner himself.
Mr Brantner, you have been dubbed “Munich's new star baker“, the gourmet magazine Falstaff has voted you the city's most popular baker in 2019 and Google critiques write about “life-changing bread“ or the “love of my life“. Do you often experience people paying almost religious homage to your bread?
Well, even though I may be a little wary of the idea, it does happen. And yet, bread itself is not a new invention. Maybe mine is slightly better ...
You look as if you're surprised by the emotionality.
Completely. I come from a family of bakers; we enjoyed fresh bread every day. Naturally, quality is incredibly important to me. However, I didn't expect so many people to share this feeling.
Do you have an explanation for this?
I believe that bread is deeply rooted in our culture. When I drew up my business plan, I assumed that the older generation would not be among my clientèle. But not only young, conscientious shoppers come – also a considerable number of older people. They use to tell me: The bread tastes like in the good old days. I'm 31 years old, so I can't personally attest to how it was in that era, but I believe that the quality of the bread has deteriorated significantly in recent years and that people long for a good product. And once they taste an artisanal bread again, they are thrilled.
What makes a good bread?
If you have a bad basic raw material, you can forget it. We are completely certified organic; we source our flour from the miller Monika Drax one hour east of Munich. So, we work with high-quality basic ingredients. The rest is an interplay of different factors: the selection and ratio of different flours, the specific sourdough used, the duration of the bread’s resting period. For me, that last point is particularly important: allowing the product the time it needs to develop its full potential.
Why is the resting period so crucial?
It's because baking is a natural process that cannot be arbitrarily shortened. Trying to shorten it leads to inferior bread that lacks digestibility, ages quickly and has little flavour. In recent years, the University Hohenheim has conducted extensive research on the so-called FODMAPs found in bread. These are carbohydrate chains that are suspected of triggering allergic reactions. However, when the dough is left to rest for a sufficiently long time, the FODMAPs are broken down during the baking process and dissipate. I can attest from my own experience that this is impossible in industry. There, you typically start your shift at 4 pm, armed with two Excel spreadsheets and the knowledge that you have to produce 80,000 to 100,000 loaves of bread in the next few hours. In such a process, nature says: without me. Incidentally, this is also the reason why we have a transparent bakery.
What is that?
I've been to many bakeries that claim their bread consists only of flour, water and salt – and I was always the one who had to mix in the baking agents. The big problem is that it's almost impossible for customers to discern these hidden additives, as many ingredients, like added enzymes don't have to be declared. For my own bakery, I therefore asked myself the question: How can I ensure that the customer genuinely trusts me? My solution: I make the baking process visible to everyone, so they can witness exactly what goes into our products and how we bake them.
I can imagine that it is difficult to ensure consistent quality without additives. How do you manage that?
Actually, that is our most demanding daily task. We constantly monitor and regulate dough temperatures to control the fermentation process. Here, external factors like weather and temperature play a significant role. And also, the flour changes from year to year. Depending on how hot or humid the summer was, we have to adapt our recipes accordingly.
Does that mean you start from scratch with each new harvest?
We don't have to completely reinvent our recipes, but we do have to update them. Around June or July, I accompany Monika to the fields and get an idea of what to expect. After the harvest, Monika has the flour analysed in the lab and gives us a technical data sheet from which we can gather information on water absorption and dough development speed etc. Then, we gradually start adding small amounts of new flour to the existing stock every day. This phase requires utmost concentration.
Sourdough starters are quite trendy nowadays and are sometimes treated almost like extended family members, they have a name and some are over 100 years old. In Belgium, there is even a library dedicated to collecting sourdough starters in cold chambers.
Yes, I know this library, and although it is an interesting concept, I ultimately find it a bit nonsensical. Sourdough thrives at room temperature. You can keep it in a cooler place to put it into a sort of dormant state, but that can affect its immune system, and you can taste the difference. In addition, you shouldn't underestimate the impact of change of location either.
In what way?
Well, I've experienced situations where a new bakery was built and it took over a year to get the bread back to its original quality. I could give you our sourdough, our recipes, our flour – but when you bake it at home, the bread will still taste different. That's because our sourdough is constantly exposed to the unique influences of our bakery: the microflora of the room, the ambient air, and the people who work with it.
You opened your second bakery in October 2022.
Yes, that was quite a challenge. Several weeks before moving in, we transported buckets with our sourdough and distributed it in the new bakery. Once everything was ready, we mixed the sourdough with water and painted every tile from floor to ceiling and let it ferment for two days. That was a pretty smelly affair (laughs).
So, you inaugurated your new organic bakery with sourdough?
Well, you could put it that way! For us, it was crucial to take along these valuable bacterial cultures. Sourdough is very sensitive; any changes in its environment can lead to changes in the dough. That's also the reason why we ensure someone is on sourdough-duty every 24 hours, even during Christmas and New Year's Eve.
Has your bakery helped you settle in Munich?
Very much so. The culinary world quickly took notice of us and I met many interesting people.
Nevertheless, you have never strayed from your roots. Why do you expect Munich residents to opt for Swabian pretzels?
Well, because they are better.
Okay, I have to admit that the Bavarian dough is better, because it contains more fat. However, I prefer the Swabian shape, especially the very thin arms resembling salt sticks. That's why our pretzels are Bavarian in the dough, but in the shape, they are and will remain Swabian. The same goes for the name. I speak deep Swabian dialect, so why should I bake Bavarian “Brezn”?
Finally, a quick Q&A session: Your top tip for baking bread?
A cast-iron pot or a Roman stoneware pot for baking. And allow the dough to rise for at least 24 hours.
What is the best way to store bread?
A stoneware pot, open-pored and uncoated, with a wooden lid if possible. To prevent mould, clean out with apple cider vinegar once a week.
The next addition to the Julius Brantner portfolio?
Canelés! Small, guglhupf-like tartlets from Bordeaux. We've been working on them for almost a year, and now I'm finally happy with them. We will start selling them in the next few weeks.