dying industry

Berlin’s Last Coalmen

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Berlin’s few remaining coal merchants struggle to survive as traditional, ceramic ovens are replaced by central heating.

  • Facts


    • Since the 1980s, the authorities have tried to reduce coal use in Berlin for environmental reasons.
    • According to the most recent figures, from five years ago, around 30,000 Berlin homes are heated by coal ovens.
    • Lignite, or brown coal, is mined in Germany, although there is pressure to phase out the industry.
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Coal delivery man Henry Schulz carries packages of coal into the basement of a customer in Berlin
Lugging coal is tough work and merchants struggle to find young employees will to do it. Source: Reuters

On a freezing winter morning in Berlin, Dirk Kögler, a towering man nearing 50, steps down from his forklift, grumbling to his workers to get a move on. Behind him, five stocky men, each with a cigarette clamped between his lips, hurriedly load 25 kilo-bundles of Rekords – a brand of coal briquette – on to three trucks, sending dust into the air.

While others look forward to summer, Mr. Kögler wishes these biting cold days would go on forever. At least, he hopes that when the summer comes, “we will still have work.” The Kögler family business is one of around 12 coal traders left in a city that used to be the “capital of briquettes.” In the good old days, the coalmen delivered, rain or shine, all year round, apart from a slight lull in May.

But Mr. Kögler doesn’t know how much longer his business, nearly 50 years old, will be around. Nobody stocks up on coal in summer anymore and, slowly but surely, the beautifully tiled ovens that were once the main source of heating in Berlin apartments, are being replaced with central heating as older customers pass on. “That’s always a sad moment,” Mr. Kögler says.

It is unclear how many coal ovens are still burning in Berlin. The last reliable figures are five years old, when Berlin’s chimney sweeps counted around 30,000 homes with oven heating. Their disappearance is partly driven by convenience. Few people want to lug kilos of coal up five flights of stairs, or spend 30 minutes in the morning lighting a fire when they could just flick a switch instead. But the other reason is environmental.

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