By Leo Sainati
If there’s a coffee maker that could be passed down through generations and hundreds of early morning brews, it’s the Moka Pot. Watching my father make espresso every morning in his caffettiera growing up set the stage for my personal foray into the growing collection of stove top espresso makers available today. The Moka pot isn’t the ideal brewer for a quick cup on your way out the door, but instead underscores coffee as a process and makes the strong rich coffee that finally bubbles out well worth the wait.
My 6-cup Bialetti Moka Express and 3-cup Grosche Milano Moka
The history of the Moka Pot is closely related to the rise of a distinct 20th century coffee culture in Italy. The beginning of the 1900’s saw coffee’s growth as a national beverage in Italy largely due to the rapid spread of espresso bars where Italians drank highly-pressurized coffee brewed through a steam-powered machine. Alfonso Bialetti, upon returning from working in France’s aluminum industry, supposedly observed the laundry techniques of local women, who used a machine that would distribute soapy water on clothes through a central pipe. Bialetti, the story goes, then used this design to create an aluminum coffee maker that could mimic the strong, pressurized coffee from local bars: “in casa un espresso come al bar.” After World War II, Alfonso’s son, Renato, turned the product into a national success, creating its iconic mustached mascot and pushing production to 4 million Moka pots per year.
Misconceptions and Controversies:
Despite its central premise, the Moka pot cannot actually produce a cup of espresso. Modern industrial espresso machines in many coffee shops consistently achieve the required 9 bars of pressure to create espresso. The stove top Moka, however, can only produce 1, maybe 2 bars of pressure. Thus, the resulting coffee is indeed quite strong, but still far from the espresso bar product. Bialetti has introduced the ‘Brikka’ espresso maker, which adds a pressure valve on the spout. This produces more pressure during the brewing process, which adds the crema found in espresso, but still falls below 9 bars.
The Moka Pot has brought about some controversy as its international proliferation and subsequent rise in popularity bred new methods and techniques for brewing. Some seem to find that the Moka brews bitter, stale-tasting coffee or that it takes too long and can easily burn. Many of these objections can *boiled down* to a matter of preference and taste, although some can be fixed with particular strategies and tips.
Another controversy surrounding the Moka pot is whether to use soap to clean off grounds and coffee residue in between brews. The Bialetti people claim that the residue adds additional flavor and depth to future brews, while others claim that this residue contributes to the potential for bitter taste.
In the midst of these disagreements about the Moka pot, I’ve found a recipe that works quite well and consistently produces a flavorful, strong brew. First, I heat up a pot of water to just-under boiling. Many recipes call for adding cold water into the bottom chamber, but I’ve found that this increases brew time and often overheats the coffee grounds prior to extraction. Then, I ground the coffee beans to a medium-fine consistency; finer than drip but coarser espresso. I then fill up the grounds basket slightly below the rim so as to achieve the desired extraction while ensuring the top chamber is able to be fully screwed in. After adding the nearly-boiling water to the bottom chamber right up to the safety valve, I add in the basket and screw on the top with a kitchen towel to protect my hand from the hot bottom chamber.
I then place the Moka pot on medium heat to speed up the brewing process. As soon as the first bubbles of coffee begin to spew out of the valve, I turn the heat down so as to prevent the coffee from boiling and spoiling. As soon as the coffee begins to spew out quickly toward the end, I immediately take the pot off of the heat and let it sit. This prevents over-extraction which can easily make the coffee taste bitter. I then add some steamed milk and enjoy the Moka coffee as a cappuccino.
Student at Northwestern University
Specialty Coffee Barista at Coffee Lab Evanston
Assistant Curriculum Developer at the CL Academy
Writing Intern at Ignitus Digital Evanston