A ubiquitous fixture on most Italian and Italian-American stovetops, a Moka Pot, also sometimes called a Moka Express, acts as a constant — dispersing hot, fresh espresso (please don't pronounce it "expresso") with the knowledge that it will practically always be on the stove. There's a comfort there over and above the sharp jolts of caffeine (and health benefits), especially in knowing that that tool is at your disposal at practically any time. There's never a need to pilfer through your cabinets, to be knocked over in a cascade of plastic storage containers à la those decades old infomercials, or to haphazardly use a cumbersome espresso maker. Moka Pots are a durable, consistent product, steeped in years or usage and tradition in "the old world," and now just as functional here in the states.
Deemed by Blue Bottle Coffee as a "compact Italian-made eight sided wonder," the Moka (pronounced like "mocha") Pot's ingenuity is in its operation, its diminutive size, especially compared to modern espresso machine behemoths, and its relatively paltry price point. There's a clear European sensibility to the process, yielding nothing but a pure, smooth shot that is sharp, strong and precisely what espresso is supposed to taste like. To put its iconic statue into context, The New York Times notes that "9 in 10 Italian households own a Moka Espress," and it's even been shown as an exhibit at various art museums.
The history of the Moka Pot
Bialetti — the company which originally produced and still owns Moka — proudly describes its product as something that "represents our country's joy, audacity, creative, and of course, its convivial way of living." Bella!
The product was introduced by Alfonso Bialetti back in 1933 during an especially challenging economic time for Italy. For some, coffee (and espresso) was strictly something to partake in while out-and-about or when meeting friends, but the invention of the Moka Pot and the new financial restrictions helped coffee became an at-home enjoyment.
Blue Bottle Coffee continues, noting that the "elegant three-chambered pot relies on pressure generated by simple stovetop steam, which builds up in the lower chamber and pushes up through the coffee grounds." Bialetti's inspiration for this novel idea was from none other than his "primitive" household laundry apparatus, which at that time, used a practically synonymous system (except with detergent and soap suds instead of coffee grounds, but both embracing the power of the chambers of the vessel, along with boiling water and steam.) Bialetti worked with steel and metal, and opted to use the lighter weight aluminum in the construction of the Moka Pot prototype. The official Bialetti website notes that the name hails from "the city of Mokha in Yemen, one of the leading and most famous production area of coffee worldwide."
The New York Times reports that 20 years later, as the product grew in popularity, Bialetti worked with an Italian artist to help create a l'omino coi baffi (mustachioed little man) who was printed on the side of the machine, further helping to mark the Bialetti family's ownership on the cherished product. (While many assumed the man was in Bialetti's likeness, it's said that the mustachioed man may actually represent his son, Renato). This archived article from Disegno Daily — written by Bialetti's grandchild — actually notes that it was Renato who helped turn the household staple into a mass-produced product in the 50s ... and as they say, the rest is history.
While Bialetti has continued to grow and release amazing espresso products as the years have gone on, the simplicity of their original Moka Pot continues to hold a space in the cultural discourse — as well as on many, many stovetops.
How to properly use the Moka Pot
While sourcing and grinding the beans can be a bit challenging for some, the ease of the Moka Pot itself helps produce consistent, rich and strong espresso shots that have been energizing users for almost a century, both throughout Italy and the world. The device has a certain ease and practicality that has become cherished throughout Italy and worldwide. The Moka Pot itself should have boiling water in the bottom chamber, followed by ground espresso beans in the funnel, and then the lid should be secured tightly. Let the Moka Pot do its magic over medium-low heat, essentially keeping the range of heat about as wide as the pot itself. You don't want to put the heat super high, which might then render it impossible to touch the handle.
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In addition to its nostalgic relevance, the Moka Pot is also sustainably sound, as long as the coffee grounds are recycled or composted. Furthermore, there's no need for any soap or detergents, as noted by the Bialetti website: "simply rinse your Moka with hot water after use, there's no need for dish soap." Lastly, the site also notes that it's "crafted to last a lifetime" due to its 100% recyclable aluminum. Clearly, the Moka is much more than just an old-timey comfort; it's also completely in-line with today's sustainability efforts and — at its core — still produces incredible espresso. There really is no down side to using the vessel. If there were, some espresso aficionados might not love that Moka Pot espresso shots do not have the requisite "crema" that acts as a sheath atop the darker espresso, but it's a minor drawback, if you can even call it that.
In closing, it should also be noted (in somewhat macabre, but clearly reverential fashion) that the aforementioned son of the originator of the Moka Pot — Renato Bialatti — actually opted to have his ashes "interred" in a replica of a Moka Pot. He passed at the age of 93 in 2016 and the story went viral, with images of a gigantic Moka Pot at the front of a funereal church service. Stranger than fiction, but oddly sweet?
In an Fast Company article about a 2019 Moka Pot redesign, British architect David Chipperfield speaks about the significance of the Moka Pot to him: "the noise of screwing and unscrewing it, the rumbling sound it makes when the coffee's ready, these everyday occurrences become ingrained in your memories ... I wanted to preserve its most important qualities: the material, the sound, the essential shape of its corners." That about sums it up, hm? So much more than just coffee, the Moka Pot is a symbol for the enduring, the reliable, and the everyday, not just for Italians but for anyone who's ever had the pleasure of using the ingenious device.
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